Harry Hill vs David Shrigley: The Comedy of Art
You may know him for his outsized collars and madcap comedy, but Harry Hill has spent the last couple of decades quietly pursuing a less high-profile career as a painter. This August, as well as performing a run of his stand-up at The Stand, he's delving into the world of the Edinburgh Art Festival with an exhibition of his paintings popping up above White Stuff on George Street. The show's curator, Cedar Lewisohn, took the opportunity of a trip to Hill's south west London home to record a discussion between the man himself and beloved Glasgow visual artist David Shrigley on painting and creative practice. Here are the exclusive results.
David Shrigley: When did you start painting?
Harry Hill: Probably in the early 90s. I had a set of oil paints that was given to me by a girlfriend. I did still lifes, like paintings of fruit, oranges. I wanted to make pictures but couldn’t get the hang of the oil painting, mainly because the paint took so long to dry and I was very impatient – it tended to get all smeared and end up as one colour. I never had any tuition… and it was quite difficult to find out how to actually do it. What I worked out was – with watercolours where you’d paint, then you’d wash the brush, do another colour – that if I did that, and was using brown and did a red… well everything ended up sort of browny. Must use different brushes!
That’s what I do. I have a red brush, green brush…
Then the breakthrough was doing a Frank Skinner chat show. Instead of getting paid you used to get a present, and the present was some quick-drying oil paints.ir
Where do you paint?
I do it in front of the TV. That’s why most of them are quite small. There’ll be a piece of wood that I’ve got, you know, if we’ve done a bit of work on the house and there’s an offcut. I’ll have it on the coffee table in front of the TV. Although the thing is I don’t watch much TV since it’s become work, so I listen to the radio. I might have two [paintings] on the go.
Howard Hodgkin style.
Well the thing with me is, I’m quite tight with the paints. If I’ve got the red… you see, the problem with the Alkyd (oil paint) thing is you've then got to let them dry until the morning. If I’ve got a bit of red on my brush, and then I think I don’t want any more red on that painting, I’ll get the other painting and do the red on that one.
Economising on time and paint. I do that as well. Three paintings at the same time. You know Howard Hodgkin apparently has all these paintings – years he apparently took to do them, from like 1984 to 1988. You think, god that took four years to make that painting? À la Frank Auerbach, who generally does take a long long time to make a painting. What he does is, he has hundreds, literally hundreds, in his studio and does a little bit on each everyday. So it’s a bit of a mix.
Peter Blake’s notorious like that, isn’t he? He’s got paintings that he started in the 60s and still hasn’t finished.
I get the impression that Peter Blake probably doesn’t do it for sales reasons, whereas Howard Hodgkin is a little more canny.
Well, we don’t want to turn this into an attack on other artists.
I think Howard Hodgkin is unlikely to read this.
He’s dead, isn’t he?
Cedar Lewisohn: No… he just did the Olympics poster this year, didn’t he?
I suppose, in a way, if we’re going to talk about what genre these would fit into, it would be folk art. By definition, as you’ve had no training – I mean, you started from the point of view of a complete novice. It’s authentic folk art in that respect. Whereas what I do has no relationship to outsider art. It’s sort of faux outsider art.
Why do you say that?
Because I went to art school. I was taught how to stretch canvases at Leicester Polytechnic in 1987.
I see. It seems to me very difficult. Magda [Harry’s wife], didn’t do fine art, but she went to art school for seven years. She doesn’t know how to paint, she doesn’t know how to stretch canvases. If you don’t know how to do it, it’s very difficult to find someone who can actually tell you.
I bought some canvas last year. I buy these as I’m slightly obsessive compulsive. I’m obsessed by archival things, so I buy these aluminium stretchers and then I sometimes paint, and if I don’t like the painting I take the canvas off and re-stretch them. I bought the canvas from the art store and the guy said ‘Ooh, hang on a minute mate. This is how to stretch’ and he gave me a little leaflet on how to stretch a canvas! I felt slightly patronised. I gave him my Scottish Artists Union card and I said, ‘I’ve got a 25% discount on that.’ But he still was like, ‘Any problems, come back and I’ll show you how to do it.’
I wonder if people don’t want to tell you because they don’t want you to do it.
They want you to buy the pre-stretched canvases because they’re really expensive.
When you ask painters… for instance, one thing I like about Peter Blake’s painting is that the paintings are so flat. At one time I did want to paint that flat way, and I said to him ‘How do you get it so flat?’ and he laughed and shrugged, like it’s a trade secret.
I was disappointed... [laughs]
Maybe he misunderstood the question, maybe he didn’t think you genuinely wanted to know.
I don’t think it’s like, I don’t know – what’s the recipe for Coca Cola.
I think he gets it really runny – puts a lot of turps in it, layers and layers. It took me ages to find out how to do that, as when I painted them they had a matt finish, then I would go to exhibitions and they’d be all glossy. So, to start with, I used to varnish them. Then I discovered linseed oil.
What’s really nice about this collection is it’s just a record of quite a lot of your time.
My theory is this. At school, everything is formalised so you go to your art lesson and do art for an hour. Then you produce all these pictures or pots or whatever it is. Then you leave and you never do it again, even though for most people, certainly for me, it was one of the fun lessons that everyone enjoys. I think if everyone painted, then we’d all have this record, just as we’ve a record of photographs taken, or holidays we’ve been on. Then there’s this big embarrassment about doing it if you’re not an artist. If I say to my mum, ‘Go on, draw a picture’ she’ll say ‘Oh I can’t draw.’
It might actually be quite good! It kind of contextualises somebody’s life in a different way, a really personal, charming way. Most people, as you say, feel they can’t possibly make any art, as if they’re not allowed to. I think that’s a terrible shame. Not just for the reasons you’ve described, as it being a record, a diary, but also because a lot of people are very creative and they like to make things and it makes them happy. And sometimes they come up with unexpectedly good pictures.
There are a lot of other things that people do in the world that are actually pointless. They’re just a means to an end, and the end is usually just to have a house and a car, and make a living and get a pension, and to send their kids to school or whatever. People don’t very often do things just because they really want to do it, except to get drunk or play golf or watch telly. I suppose a hobby like making artwork… well, it’s a shame that people feel that way about it.
Or it’s the opposite and you get the other extreme – artists doing it for money…
I suppose that sucks the joy out of it after a certain point as well.
That Henry Darger thing, y’know, when he’s up in his little flat drawing away.
Drawing school girls.
Yep, drawing schoolgirls, at war. No one ever saw it. To me, it’s really interesting, kind of a folk art thing isn’t it.