Peter Doig: A good innings
Sarah Greenberg
1 July 2013

Like most of Peter Doig's work, his Cricket Painting (Paragrand), right, a highlight of his solo show in Edinburgh this August, asks more questions than it answers. The solid form of the bowler in the foreground leads our eye to a sketchy batsman and a wicket keeper who seems to be vanishing into thin air. Is this scene real or imagined, night or day, hallucination or memory?

‘I’d been playing beach cricket and taking photographs with no intention of making a painting,’ says the artist. ‘But when I looked at the photo later, I liked the way there was one big figure in the foreground like a huge silhouette, and I liked the figures in space. I didn't want it to be real – it’s more about using figures as a suggestion.’

Doig (b. 1959) has always used photographs as a source, going back to them later to find moments and moods that somehow filter into his painting. ‘I’m interested in the nuances of landscape. You get ideas from looking at the real world, and then you turn them into devices and patterns in the painting. That type of invention is something I'm attracted to in other people’s paintings – how reality is interpreted in paint, and how it’s turned into shape and colour.’

The vivid palette veers between extremes of orange and black. ‘The colours came from looking at other paintings, not from natural light. I was looking at a Francis Bacon cricket painting. He used vibrant orange and I was inspired by that.’ Doig (a Friend of the RA) is especially interested in painting from the past 100 years: ‘I refer to it, kick against it. I like all the inventions, how rapidly movements went from one to the other and how artists were leaving a lot of ground uncovered. I think there's still a lot to discover. For instance, I’m interested in looking at when artists like Degas began to use photography as a tool.’ RA shows he has particularly enjoyed include ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ in 1981, ‘Goya: The Small Paintings’ in 1994 and ‘Edvard Munch: By Himself’ in 2005.

Born in Scotland, he grew up in Trinidad and Canada, before studying painting at St Martin’s, then Chelsea School of Art in the 1980s. Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1994, he returned to Trinidad in 2000 and the Edinburgh show focuses on work informed by his life there. What does he find so inspiring about this Caribbean island? ‘It can be seen in my work. Suddenly, I came to a place where the themes that developed in my work were more immediate. My previous painting was more studiobased, more mediated. Now I have a more direct reaction to where I am and I try to decipher that in my paintings.’ His paint also seems to flow more directly: whereas his paintings from the 1990s are often built up in layers, the paint in many recent works seeps into unprimed canvas, creating a velvety, amorphous effect – ideal for rendering the fluid border between land and sea in Cricket Painting.

Doig’s paintings seem to have a tidal pull towards abstraction; everyday scenes turn into dreamlike visions. But the artist insists he is not interested in pure abstraction: ‘I can't imagine making an abstract painting. What I like about Matisse’s work, for example, is that it is empty and open – there is a sense of things that caught him by surprise – I like those moments of ambiguity in artists’ work. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll have those moments in my work.’

No Foreign Lands: Peter Doig Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh Art Festival, 0131 624 6200, 3 Aug-3 Nov