My favourite work of art by a Scottish artist? My mind immediately went to David Wilkie’s Distraining for Rent (1815). It’s the painting I’m drawn to visit whenever I’m near the Scottish National Gallery. It’s like an old friend, I suspect we all have our own version of that. Despite its unhappy subject, I find it comforting, cosy even. And that was the problem - familiarity doesn't really excite.
The painting I finally settled on truly surprised me the first time I saw it. I remember it was at the end of a long day touring galleries around London, after miles and miles of walking, looking and thinking. I was done in, but this painting immediately turned all my dials up. I was in Tate Britain and I was looking at Ski Jacket, painted by Peter Doig in 1994.
The first thing that hit me was the sheer scale of it. It is one of those paintings that forces you to keep reappraising what you are looking at. I remember a need to get up very close, then being lost in that universe of mark making; the pouring and sticking, wet brushes dragged here and there, yellows and pinks bleeding into one another and yet other areas left quite barren and dry. To a painter, the stuff of the surface itself is so fascinating. And then stepping back, seeing the whole, the immensity of it - suddenly everything is far away on this beautiful confectionary mountain laid out for us across two, quite awkwardly spaced canvases, anchored in the centre by a thick black mass of trees, a sublime hymn to landscape and struggle.
That ‘awkwardness’ seems so vital to the painting’s success - the tiny figures struggling, apparently learning to ski across this landscape of pinks, yellows and whites. One of Doig’s great influences is Edvard Munch and I remember reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s book on the Norwegian artist’s work ‘So Much Longing in So Little Space.’ In it he speaks of what he calls a ‘conscious de-skilling’ in Munch’s work: he was originally quite a draughtsman who abandoned the restrictions of academic approach in favour of a purely expressive mark. I feel there is something of that in Doig’s painting which adds so much to the expressive power of what the painting is about. We understand that the view we are seeing is being filtered through human sensation, it is a shared thing.
And in all of this I found a nagging familiarity in Doig’s painting; that landscape so big, the figures so small. The tilted-up feel of the space, almost like a map with areas plotted out as your eye is drawn vertically towards those beautifully realised peaks. I feel it can be seen as a reworking of another of Doig’s great influences and in my opinion, one of the finest paintings ever made - Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.
So perhaps familiarity can be exciting after all.
Barry McGlashan (b. 1974) was born in Aberdeen, spending his early years there before continuing to study at Gray’s School of Art, graduating in 1996. He returned to his home in the Northeast coastal city in 1998 to teach in the painting and drawing department of Gray’s until 2005. In 2001 McGlashan was awarded The Alastair Salvesen Scholarship through the Royal Scottish Academy, enabling him to travel in the United States for several months, from which many bodies of work were inspired. His knowledge of literature and art history also informs his painting practice.
Examples of McGlashan’s work are held in the Aberdeen Art Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy. In London he is represented by the John Martin Gallery. His current exhibition, ‘Between the Dream and Waking’, is on at the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, from 28th October until 27th November, about which he writes: ‘In recent times, my usual practices of working simply haven’t been possible. An absence of travel for sources of information have given way to journeys of the imagination…I am trying to evoke a feeling in the viewer which is their own rather than making a statement for them to follow. I think we find a deeper, shared truth that way.’
Peter Doig (b. 1959) is a Scottish born painter, who spent his childhood first in Trinidad and then Canada. He moved to London in 1979 to study at Wimbledon School of Art, later receiving an MA from Chelsea College of Art and Design. He returned to Trinidad for an artist residency in 2002 and has since been based there.
Doig is celebrated as one of the most established painters working today. A painting by Doig was sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for what was then an auction record for a living European artist. His paintings explore both landscapes and people, inspired by cultural references and personal experiences, blending distinct details with abstraction. Doig’s works are held in the collections of the Tate, the Art Institute of Chicago and the British Art Collection.
Other artworks in the series 'My Favourite Scottish Work of Art' have been selected by Melanie Reid, Helen Nisbet, Victoria Crowe, Sir Mark Jones, David Eustace, Bill Paterson, Barbara Rae, Prof. Murdo Macdonald, Neal Ascherson, Brandon Logan, Jock McFadyen, Sam Ainsley (twice), Andrew O'Hagan, Denise Mina, Caroline Walker, John Byrne, Sir James MacMillan, Joyce W Cairns, Sir Tim Rice, Alison Watt, Ian Rankin, Joanna Lumley, Neil MacGregor, Kirsty Wark, Michael Portillo and James Naughtie.