Under a colorless sky on a rainy spring day in Manhattan, the traffic lights in Chinatown sway in the gusty wind. Inside a rented storefront studio, its window shuttered to passers-by, Peter Doig is holed up alone, intent on finishing a group of paintings in time for next Saturday’s opening of his survey show at the Scottish National Galleries in Edinburgh. In the back, Mr. Doig has jury-rigged some bedsheets — he has slept there on occasion — to catch the rain leaking through a skylight broken by a would-be intruder.
It seems a scruffy setting for an artist whose highly prized paintings, often haunting renderings of lone figures in landscapes or boats adrift, command millions at auction. But a little rain doesn’t bother Mr. Doig. In Trinidad, his primary residence for the past 11 years, he built a studio with windows that don’t close, and he is accustomed to arriving in the morning to find paintings blown over.
The 54-year-old Mr. Doig, Scottish by birth, Trinidadian and Canadian by upbringing, is a restless sort. Last winter he quietly slipped into New York and, save for trips to visit his family and to teach in Düsseldorf, Germany, has been painting there since. He brought with him several large, half-finished canvases, rolled up.
“Starting absolutely from scratch is a kind of nightmare for me — terrifying,” Mr. Doig said, his sinuses perpetually congested from their proximity to paint thinners. “It’s rare that I have a fluid start-to-finish experience with a painting, sadly. I accept the lolls, even though they’re frustrating. And I don’t worry too much about paintings looking really awful.”
The paintings take Trinidad as their ostensible subject, but Mr. Doig says the distance has been a help, not a hindrance, in part because his work is about “joining bits of memory together” and not strictly re-creating a scene. “If just outside your door you’re seeing what you’re painting, maybe there’s too much information,” he said. On one wall, a towering, hazy seascape features the small figure of a boy — based on a photograph, now lost, of Mr. Doig’s 6-year-old son, the youngest of his five children — standing in a boat, nearly overwhelmed by nature. Another canvas borrows the two winsome Scotties from the logo of Black & White Scotch whisky. “I might finish this, but it’s not going to look anything like this,” he said. “I think I made them too big.”
His method relies heavily on removing paint, as well as on chance and experimentation. “Sometimes you get so frustrated, you end up washing off or scraping off what you spent hours or days applying,” he said. “By going backward, you see something you could have never achieved by going forward.”
A Doig can feel like a single frame of a movie or the fragment of a dream remembered upon waking. Like recurring dreams, Mr. Doig returns to motifs again and again. “There’s only so much that’s relevant to me,” he said, rubbing his short, reddish-gray beard.
Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate in London and a longtime admirer, compares his works to short stories. “There is always a rather elusive mystery,” Mr. Serota said. “Nothing is quite as it seems to be.” Or as the British artist David Harrison, a friend since art school, put it: “There is always a narrative, and the fact there is a narrative is good enough. You don’t have to know what the narrative is.”
In a third, nearly 10-foot-tall work, a sheet of tracing paper bearing a sketch of a man wearing a wet suit and holding a fishing spear is pinned to the canvas. “The placement of the figure has to be very strong within the composition,” Mr. Doig said, pointing out the many thumbtack holes. “The figure becomes a magnet to draw the viewer into the painting and hold you, or it becomes a cipher. It draws you in, and then you forget about it.”
Though Mr. Doig uses photographs as source material — he shoots incessantly with his cellphone — his paintings tend to veer dramatically from the original. In this case, Mr. Doig was kayaking when he came across two men in a fishing boat. “One had a spear gun and a huge fish, so we paddled over,” he said. “It seemed quite ancient.” In subsequent studies, Mr. Doig referred to a 1950s image he found on the Internet of a man on a rock and transformed the traditional Trinidadian pirogue into a more generic green craft. He also turned the second, seated figure vaguely into a woman.
Mr. Doig’s canvases are unabashedly beautiful, a trait often viewed with suspicion in the contemporary art world but for which he makes no apologies. Keith Hartley, chief curator and deputy director of the Scottish National Galleries, said: “Even though they’re beautiful, they’re still full of ideas. What is wrong with being enamored of the beauty around you?”
The surfaces of late are flat, fashioned of oils melted into wispy-thin layers of color. “Amazing the opposition I had to thinner paint,” Mr. Doig said. “People really love thick paint. But what does that mean? Maybe buying thin painting makes them think they’re being ripped off?”
His self-deprecation aside, sales are not a problem for Mr. Doig. His “White Canoe” sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for $11.3 million, at the time an auction record for a living European artist (now held by Gerhard Richter). In February, “The Architect’s Home in the Ravine,” a dense web of leafless branches obscuring a house from above, went for about $12 million at Christie’s. His new paintings sell for $300,000 to $3 million.
The Edinburgh survey, focusing on the past decade, is Mr. Doig’s first major show in the country of his birth, and he admitted to being “intrigued to see what Scots make of my Scottishness.” As a child, he was sneered at as a “limey” in Canada, only to be called a “yank” when he was living in London. Fittingly, the survey will travel to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in his other homeland.
Wanderlust may be encoded in his DNA. His middle name is Marryat, after an ancestor, the adventure writer Captain Frederick Marryat, whose well-to-do family permitted him to join the Royal Navy only after several foiled attempts to run away to sea. Mr. Doig’s grandfather left Scotland to seek his fortune in Sri Lanka, and his father uprooted his wife and infant son from Wales, where he worked as an accountant, upon seeing an ad for a job in Trinidad. Later, the family moved to Canada.
“If it’s in your blood, it’s impossible not to think the grass is maybe greener elsewhere,” Mr. Doig said. “Everything seems temporal. I went to nine different schools and never lived in a house for more than three years growing up.”
An indifferent student, he lit out at 17 for Western Canada, where he worked as a roughneck on gas rigs and slept in barns and on abandoned farms, settings that would figure in his early work. The grueling labor reshaped his body into the powerful build he has today and also taught him he didn’t want to work on rigs for the rest of his life. During his downtime, he drew.
It’s a period in his life that has recently come under scrutiny. A man named Robert Fletcher is suing him for refusing to authenticate a painting Mr. Fletcher insists he bought from a teenage Mr. Doig for $100. Mr. Fletcher claims to have been Mr. Doig’s parole officer after the artist served time for drug possession.
Mr. Doig laughingly called the suit “spurious” and denied not only having been incarcerated and painting the landscape in question but also making any paintings on canvas before art school. Even if the picture were his, he dismissed it as a “schoolboy painting,” not worth more than $10,000 — and that only as a “curiosity.” Not long after returning home, Mr. Doig left again in 1979 for Saint Martins School of Art in London. He quickly made a mark as a pure painter in an age when painting was grossly out of style.
With influences ranging from Post-Impressionists and Symbolists to the Chicago Imagists and modern cinema, “he has shown it’s possible to make very powerful paintings at the beginning of the 21st century,” Mr. Serota said.
Though the ’90s brought Mr. Doig acclaim, including a Turner Prize nomination, in 2002 he moved to Trinidad. He said he needed to escape the art world’s intensity and wanted to give his children a taste of life elsewhere. “I didn’t anticipate staying as long as I have,” he admitted.
Mr. Serota said the self-exile has been critical both to Mr. Doig’s state of mind and his art. “Trinidad’s warmth, its luxuriant vegetation, heat and color have all burned their way into his paintings,” he said. Mr. Hartley pointed to Mr. Doig’s compositions growing less “claustrophobic — screens of trees, falling snow,” and more open.
In the studio, Mr. Doig was growing antsy. Paint dries slowly in the New York air, compared with the tropics, and he was running out of time. “Back to the task at hand,” he said, brushing his hand along a canvas’s bluish-purple surface. “What I hate the most and also what I like best.”07/28/