Phil Ashcroft’s practice explores ideas of narrative and the spectacle within landscape. Referencing the site-specific, his work considers our present-day visions, a climate ever more pertaining to aspiration and speculation within our modern sense of reality. Here he takes an in depth look at how his work has developed over the years and answers our questions
My painting process has shifted between fluid and hard-edge graphics and back again over the years, for a number of reasons – the influence of the computer in my work and the search to find a method of painting that best works for me. Now I’m finding that I’m loosening my painting method again, allowing the brush-marks to become more relaxed.
For a while (2001-06) I composed and finalised my work in illustrator and translated this directly to the canvas as closely as possible. I wanted the quality of painting but the decision-making I could reach on-screen. This was because I lost a lot of time re-painting and over-painting, never being able to decide when a work was complete. This was a way of trying to discipline myself in decision-making, I couldn’t deviate from my digital composition – however I found the work lost spontaneity, I could never equal the crispness achieved on-screen and although I preferred the physical final quality of the painting it wasn’t as enjoyable a process to paint. Its good practice I feel to have an element of chance, risk and potential failure involved.
I usually begin with very loose small compositional thumbnails, I might use selected reference from google images, then I paint on the canvas, preparing the background first and then building up the separate elements, documenting as I go. I make sketchbook amendments to print-outs at stages until I feel the work is complete.
all sketchbook photos: Joe Plommer
Final painting: Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 121 x 91cm, 2012 (photo: Joe Plommer)
Without getting too involved in the minefield of the nature/nurture debate – where do you think your interest in art came from? Was it encouraged at home/school or did it develop in spite of those environments? Were your parents creative?
My grandparents on my mother’s side were both amateur artists. My grandfather James Greef used to enjoy giving me lessons in how to draw still lifes, such as a pencil study of an apple, he did spend a lot of it completing the drawing himself though! So it was always encouraged at home, my mum is also an amateur artist, my dad isn’t artistic at all but has always been supportive. I was the one at school drawing The Incredible Hulk on the blackboard.
Who were the first artists that inspired you and made you want find more of their work? How old were you?
When I was 21 studying for my degree in Harrow I was given the opportunity to meet painter Albert Irvin at his studio (he is 90 this year!) I spent a couple of hours with him at his studio in Stepney Green, East London and came away buzzing – that was the most inspirational moment for me – I’ll always remember that. Painters I currently follow include Stuart Cumberland, Luke Gottelier and Neil Rumming from the UK, and US painters such as Josh Smith and Joe Bradley.
Your early association with the scrawl collective was interesting in that I understand that you were the only member from a non graffiti/skate background. What influences would you say you took from the other artists in the collective? How would you say you influenced them?
Will and Duncan were very helpful in understanding what worked on a large scale in a live painting public environment, something I hadn’t done until I met up with them, they seemed like seasoned pros when I first painted live in Osaka 2002. I don’t think I’ve influenced them, they know what they’re doing. I’m just positive and supportive about their work.
When you were working with the collective you seemed to focus on developing a recurring character, in this case the yeti. It was very successful for you but is quite a “street art” approach. Did you feel limited by that or enjoy that fact you created a popular character which appeared on poster, T-shirts and even the scrawl collective business cards?
I first did a Yeti painting in 1998 for a solo show at Bedford Hill Gallery, London SE1 (long defunct, but Yinka Shonibare exhibited there way back). After that the yeti characters were featured in ‘Scrawl Too: More Dirt’ (2001, Booth-Clibborn Editions), a more character-based approach. I was always painting my other work alongside it – and it’s a character that I’ve enjoyed developing and experimenting with over time, either in paint or other media. I don’t feel restricted by it as I do other things. I do limit what I do with it. And I enjoy returning to it to see what else I can do. I also like the absurdness of painting the yeti character in a serious manner.
Quite a lot of your current art is very large. Is it simply a case that the scale suits the ominous themes in your work at the moment or have you always been interested in painting at that scale?
A lot of the painting that inspires me are the ambitious, large-scale works by American artists such as the Abstract Expressionists (Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline), post- Abstract Expressionists such as Richard Diebenkorn and UK artists from the 1960s onwards inspired by them such as Patrick Heron, Albert Irvin and Basil Beattie. The scale does certainly suit the theme but I have always enjoying painting large scale where I can.
Do you have any specific shows at the moment that you are working towards? What sort of price does your current work sell for?
Right now I’m painting some new yeti works on paper for Nelly Duff’s Zoo room at Pick Me Up 3, Somerset House. These will be fairly affordable for original works, around the £250 mark. Editioned prints are priced at £25-£100. Small original works on canvas sell from £800, up to £5-10K for medium to large-scale works.
Your move away from finalising the composition of you work on computer seems like a recurring trend I am seeing when talking to artists. Although no-one has explicitly said it yet, my feeling is that they have been using the computer as a kind of crutch and as they grow in technical ability and/or confidence they are moving away from that. Is that how it was for you or do you think it was simply a case your style changing?
Using the computer is a good decision-making and time-saving device when deciding upon a works composition, scale and palette. It allows focus when you then approach the canvas. However its good to take it as a guide only when you are painting. Many factors change when painting and I find its important to allow for chance and error to play a part.
In looking at the development of the piece you showed the sketches for, it’s interesting to see that you do a lot of off-canvas adjustments to the composition after you have started the actual painting. Do you ever do an initial sketch and then just go at a canvas from start to finish?
I used to do this when I’d completed the whole composition on-screen to duplicate on canvas. I don’t do this now so no. Its good to think about and look afresh at the work the next day.
Do you work in silence or listen to music? If music – What type?
Usually I do listen to music – yesterday it was Carl Craig’s Landcruising and Sessions, today its been Freddie Hubbard’s Anthology. Recently I’ve been listening to early Simple Minds, Heaven 17, The The, early Chicago House music (Marshall Jefferson, Ten City), mid-80s Prince and Minneapolis-related acts (such as The Family, Jill Jones, Vanity 6), Radiohead, Britney Spears ‘BlackOut’, Lindstrom, New Order, Kelis, Pharcyde, Photek.
Are you an organised worker? Do you give yourself set times that you will work in? Do you have a set place you work in?
I paint in my studio, and usually paint within a 3-hour period and then have a break.