This was an OCA organised visit, accompanied by tutors, Emma and Olivia, at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.
I was particularly keen to see Doig’s work for a number of reasons- for the inclusion of ‘landscape’ within his work, for his use of materials, in particular his use of very fluid, dilute paints and because he is a successful contemporary painter.
The visit began with a guided walk through the exhibition which highlighted some of the features and themes in his work. It is clear very early on that there are many art historical references within his work, Gauguin and Matisse in particular, but Munch, Hopper, Daumier, Manet, Bonnard were others. His work is very expressive, often with an element of ambiguity. It is well know that he uses photography in the development of his work and there are examples of how he uses geometry to underpin his work, particularly his earlier works. Something our guide said repeatedly was how Doig wasn’t frightened of the paint, not frightened to experiment or frightened to be expressive, he used the paint in a very free way and ‘let the paint work for him’. This often resulting in work that showed the struggle, but this is what makes it interesting. Much of Doig’s work is oil on canvas, but there were some later works where he had used Distemper on linen. Our guide described how Doig uses turpentine to make washes of paint and uses linen specifically with the purpose that it should soak in- this is particularly evident in his work, ‘Man dressed as a Bat’ 2007, which also has accidental water marks that he has chosen to leave to become part of the work. It gives the work an evanescence and transparency, where the successive layers barely mask those beneath. It was interesting to see the extremes in his work, from these works where the linen is still visible through the very thin paint, ‘Sea Moss’2004 being another example, to works with very strong colour in which he has used complementary colours to create some visual excitement. Another element of this exhibition that was of real interest, especially as a student, was the inclusion of studies and other materials used in his works development. It made it easier to see how he brings different elements together to make a painting. You got an impression of what he struggled with- the hand of the table tennis player painted multiple times for example. The ‘Man with the pink umberella’ was painted numerous times and it was clear he was exploring composition, perspective, lighting, colour, scale and his materials. He would also make related prints- the gallery text suggests that the making and technical constraints of the printing process could be helpful to Doig being able to clarify many formal and thematic issues in the work. Despite this preparation there was still repetition in his larger works, as if he still had something to resolve. A reminder of the work required.
After lunch I returned to try and consider some of the paintings more closely. What is very apparent is how he uses layers and layers of paint to build up the surface. Often the dribbles of paint are clearly visible, like veils, revealing the colours beneath. Even in works that appear to have very little colour, there are still these multiple layers. His painting ‘Driftwood’2001-2 really caught my attention- essentially a scene of a couple on a beach. There is a sense of a hot day, the scene is mostly bleached of colour, but as I looked more closely into this pale area I could see pinks, yellows, blues, greens and orange. There were marks that looked like they could be charcoal. It reminded me of the many layers, marks and subtle, sensitive colour in work by Cy Twombley. It was also evident in many of the works where reservations had been made, but often this added rather than distracted. I was looking closely at his various portrayals of water and reflections, in relation to ideas I have for my major project. It is quite interesting to see his ‘Red Boat (Imaginary Boys)’2004 next to ‘Figures in a red boat’ 2005-7. Essentially the same composition, the first has lots of bold colour, the water described in bold greens, browns and blues with patches of white and hints of other colours, whilst in the revised work he has used very faint washes of pinks, blues and purple, the shadow of the boat on the water merges downward as if dragging the boat down, and there is no obvious horizon line, just a suggestion.
I really enjoyed seeing Doigs work, most of them very large. Our guide described how many people on seeing his work feel inspired to rush home and paint. I think his work does give a sense of many possibilities. Although much is very free, he does use a mix of painting styles, so you will also find areas of tight work too.