Peter Doig is an artist who seems perpetually en route elsewhere. When we meet in London he has just flown in from New York, where he was working until late the night before finishing a series of paintings inspired by Trinidad, where he has lived since 2002. Next he’s off to Edinburgh, the city where he was born in 1959 – and where he has a major exhibition opening at the Scottish National Gallery – but which he left at the age of one, for an earlier sojourn in Trinidad. He spent his formative years in Canada, but claims that he feels most at home in London.
“I’m just one of those people who don’t feel they’re from anywhere,” he says with a smile. Yet a sense of place and the issue of where the individual is from, or – more importantly – where they think they’re from, are he admits, “definitely questions in my work”.
Moseying into a Mayfair gallery in T-shirt and jogging bottoms, tall, tanned and muscular with a layer of stubble, 54-year-old Doig could pass for an off-duty builder. It feels an appropriate impression for a painter who has made himself one of the most expensive living artists while appearing little interested in glitzy openings and media schmoozing, and whose sumptuously textured paintings are often not what they seem.
Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1994, Doig came to global prominence in the mid-2000s when his mysterious, richly layered, figurative paintings, with their multifarious references to art history and popular culture, began to command astounding prices. The White Canoe sold for £5.73 million in 2007, then a record for a living European artist, while The Architect’s Home in the Ravine sold for £7.7million earlier this year.
At a time when painting appeared increasingly irrelevant to the mainstream of contemporary art, here was an artist whose enigmatic images of abandoned houses, frozen forests and lone figures in canoes seemed to champion traditional painterly values – colour, texture, space – while bringing to them a sense of unease that feels very much of our time.
Indeed, looking at a quintessential Doig work, such as The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, with its lattice of foliage breaking up the surface of the painting, you feel unsure whether what you’re looking at is figurative or ultimately abstract.
“You try to create scenarios and atmospheres in your paintings,” Doig says, referring to himself in a self-deprecating second person. “I don’t set out to be deliberately sinister, but I always wanted to make paintings that told stories and suggested things.”
Quietly spoken, Doig appears at once shy and commanding, speaking in flurries of words and ideas, punctuated by hesitant pauses, apologizing frequently for taking the conversation off at tangents, while exuding a sense of inner sureness about the value of what he does.
Doig’s Edinburgh exhibition comprises all the paintings he has completed during 11 years in Trinidad, images defined by lush vegetation and rich tropical colour, referring to the island’s colonial past and diverse spiritual traditions and imbued with an obscure sense of threat. One of the most memorable, Dark Child, is inspired by Doig’s four-year-old daughter’s brief disappearance in the Trinidadian jungle – “the most terrifying 45 minutes of my life,” he says.
Having gone to the island on a residency in 2000, he returned in 2002, setting up home with his wife and five children, and is now very much embedded in the local cultural scene, participating in the local passion for cricket and running a popular film club. With its many ethnic populations – African, Asian, indigenous Indian and European – the island is a place where, Doig says, “issues about who you are and where you come from are everywhere”. While he claims he is still very much a visitor, the six years he spent on the island as a child are continually in his mind. “That’s always going to be part of me,” he says.
But the place – and Doig is nothing if not an artist of place – that really makes itself felt through his deceptively mild-mannered persona is Canada, where he lived for the critical years from seven to 19, returning for three years in the Eighties. Partly it’s the soft, but still very evident accent, and a certain faraway frontiersman’s look in those pale eyes – though he says his experience of the country was distinctly urban. But more it’s a sense of expansiveness in his whole approach to painting, a sense of wide spaces outside the frame of the individual work, despite the fact that most of his career as an artist has been conducted in London. The images that established him were all rooted in an obliquely perceived Canadian experience. Yet he came to them via a highly circuitous route.
Son of an accountant for a shipping company, Doig had a laid-back and rather druggy adolescence in Toronto, a period that appeared to come back and haunt him earlier this year when a worker at an Ontario youth correctional facility offered a painting for sale he claimed Doig had painted while serving time for LSD possession. (Doig denied that he had done the painting or even visited the place where it was allegedly created.)
At 17 he dropped out of school to work on oil rigs in the prairies, a chastening experience during which he began drawing seriously for the first time. He decided to go to art school, and chose London, home of his favourite punk bands, moving there in 1979.
After a foundation course at Wimbledon School of Art, he did a painting degree at St Martin’s, where he reacted against the prevailing lyrical abstraction, thinking of himself as a Pop Art-inspired urban narrative artist. Yet he didn’t immediately find his creative path.
“The idea that I might one day exhibit in a commercial gallery didn’t cross my mind,” he says. “Art wasn’t the new rock-and-roll, as it later became. It was more like the new poetry – it seemed as uncommercial an enterprise as that. Art schools didn’t feed the market the way they do now. But you had these incredibly rich traditions to explore – the whole past of art – and the fact that there seemed to be no commercial possibilities gave you a kind of freedom.”
Wanting to strike out on his own, he moved back to Canada in the mid-Eighties, settling in Montreal. But he soon found he was drifting away from painting, and yearned to return to London. “In Canada I was working on film sets to pay the rent. But in London at that time you could live incredibly cheaply. Everyone I knew there was ducking and diving, signing on, doing bits of work here and there, so they could follow their creative interests. I’d been living in a housing association flat in King’s Cross for £4 a week. It was unbelievably rough, but you could survive like that.”
He decided the best way to get back into the thick of London life was to take up a postgraduate place he’d been offered at Chelsea School of Art. “But when I got back here,” he says, “I didn’t know what to paint.”
Looking back through his paintings from the Eighties, he found a small canvas – “crudely painted”, he says – inspired by the 1980 horror film Friday the 13th, of a girl floating in a canoe with her hair trailing in the water. “She was floating away from a scene of carnage,” says Doig. “But what struck me was it looked like an image by Munch. I started painting right away.”
Having thought of himself as an urban painter, he now saw potential in the landscapes that had surrounded him for much of his life, but which he had never even considered as subject matter for painting. “I began going to Canada House in Trafalgar Square, and looking at tourist leaflets about fishing trips in remote areas of Canada, images of people in canoes at dusk, which had probably been influenced by paintings in the first place, kitsch, but also romantic. I started to make paintings from them.”
Success, however, didn’t come quickly. Subsisting on the fringes of bohemian London, working as a barman in nightclubs and as a dresser at the English National Opera, he held exhibitions in pubs and other unofficial spaces. When the slightly younger YBA generation began to emerge in the Nineties with a more conceptual approach, typified by Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, Doig observed many of his friends moving into a similar vein. “It became a lot to do with packaging, who actually made the work didn’t matter. I went the other way, making my work look even more handmade.”
Charles Saatchi would occasionally come to look, but never bought anything. A break came when he won the John Moores Prize in 1993. He was shortlisted for the Turner Prize the following year. Prices steadily built, but nothing prepared him for the day in 2007 when The White Canoe, given an estimate of under £1million, sold for £5.7million at Sotheby’s to an anonymous Russian collector.
“When you’ve never made any money from your work, and someone buys a painting for £1,000, that feels like an incredible amount of money. But the whole thing of attaching value to paintings, I haven’t really come to terms with that. When I’m working I never think about how much the things will eventually be worth. That would be a disaster.”
Taking initial inspiration from photographs – sometimes his own, but more often found images that intrigue him – or from drawings, but never working directly from life, Doig works slowly. An initial burst of enthusiasm gives way to doubt, with the image endlessly revised, the thinned-down oil paint scraped off and reapplied, resulting in intriguing, often beautiful textures and surfaces, which are only resolved when a deadline is looming.
Doig started out wanting to be an urban Pop Artist, and while his art refers continually to landscape, its appeal is that it is an art of ideas, a conceptual art almost, that takes the tangible sensual form of oil painting. At a time when art seems almost to have given up on visual enjoyment, Doig draws on modern masters who celebrated the beauty of the everyday world – Munch, Monet, Bonnard, Matisse – while referring to his own experience of real places.
Reading between the lines of our conversation, it feels as though Doig has arrived at a kind of crossroads. He’s just been working in New York, and he still maintains his London studio. Does he, I wonder, feel he’s exhausted Trinidad as a subject? “I sometimes think that. But I don’t think my paintings are about Trinidad or Canada. They’re about my idea of what that place is. The place is a kind of portal to possibilities in painting. The painting is what it becomes, and when I start I don’t know what that will be. That’s what makes the process so fascinating.”
'Peter Doig – No Foreign Lands’ is at the Scottish National Gallery from Aug 3 to Nov 3 (tickets: 0131 624 6200; nationalgalleries.org)