Peter Doig Paintings: A Journey Through Memory, Context, and Materiality

Peter Doig Paintings | Pond Life (1993)
Pond Life (1993)

Peter Doig’s vision lies in his adeptness at navigating memory, context, and materiality. Peter Doig paintings transcend mere depictions of landscapes; they serve as gateways to explore the labyrinth of human memory. Through his work, the artist invites viewers to rekindle their own memories and emotions associated with places and experiences.

Doig’s deliberate use of context enhances his artwork’s depth and complexity. He does not merely replicate scenes but layers them with historical, cultural, and personal contexts. This deepens the connection between his art and the viewer, evoking powerful emotions and resonating on a universal level. He often draws from his extensive repertoire of photographs, advertisements, and film stills, transforming them into vivid, dreamlike images.

Peter Doig Paintings | High Horses (1982)
Get Off Your High Horse, Roy Rogers (1982). Source: Michael Werner Gallery

Peter Doig's Early Life and Diverse Influences

Peter Doig, born in 1959 in Scotland, is a contemporary painter celebrated for his distinctive artistic approach. His early years were shaped by a diverse upbringing, spanning Trinidad and Canada, before returning to the UK at the age of 20 to pursue art studies at the Wimbledon School of Art and later at Saint Martin’s School of Arts. His extraordinary show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery brought him national attention at the beginning of the 1990s.

Large-scale paintings by Doig that have an unusual color scheme ranging from pinks to oranges and dark blues are indicative of his artistic style. His compositions evoke influences from German Romantics, Edward Munch, Symbolism, and Edward Hopper. In these engaging works, individuals often appear dwarfed by untamed nature, expressing Doig’s exploration of contemporary man’s isolation in the face of the sublime.

Peter Doig Paintings | 100 Years Ago (Carrera) (2001)
100 Years Ago (Carrera) (2001). Source: Vittoria Miro Gallery London

Peter Doig's Recurring Motifs and Universal Appeal

Peter Doig paintings are deeply personal. His choice of motifs, such as canoes, forests, and figures, carries universal appeal, serving as a bridge between the artist’s unique memories and the shared experiences of viewers.

For instance, canoes symbolize the idea of dual life, where the reflection in water represents a third dimension, intertwining the ordinary with the mystical. One of his most iconic paintings, “Canoe” (1997), masterfully captures the serenity of a tranquil lake. The precise depiction of gentle ripples and the warm embrace of a summer night resonates with the memories and longings of those who gaze upon it.

The figures that occasionally appear in Doig’s paintings, like the snowboarder in a wintry landscape, convey a sense of displacement. They appear out of place, superimposed on impressionistic skies and curves. Doig’s technique creates a sense of the fourth dimension, a stifling calm juxtaposed with the humid texture of rippling snow. His work does not simply recall memories but transforms them into something more profound and desirable for the viewer.

Peter Doig Paintings | Bather (Night Wave) (2019)
Bather (Night Wave) (2019). Source: Michael Werner Gallery

Peter Doig's Transitions and Displacement

After he moved back to Trinidad in 2002, Doig established his studio within the Fernandez compound, situated in an old rum factory. The expansive compound housed numerous warehouse buildings, each with a history of steelwork shipped from Scotland and blockwork crafted locally in Trinidad. 

His studio, occupying a vast space of around 5,000 square feet, proved to be larger than necessary but served a dual purpose, allowing him not only to create his paintings but also to host his film club. The environment, characterized by constant smells from the nearby town dump and the noise of city traffic, influenced the atmosphere of his work. 

The studio’s openings, more like large openings with bars than traditional windows, provided views of the surrounding hillsides, offering a unique perspective depending on the time of year. The weather played a role in shaping his paintings, with the occasional rain affecting the canvas and introducing unexpected interventions that Doig embraced in his artistic process. The paintings created during this period were notably influenced by the cityscape of Port of Spain and the changing landscapes visible from his studio.

Peter Doig Paintings | Ski Jacket (1994)
Ski Jacket (1994). Source: Tate

Meanwhile, in a unique context, Doig’s work was exhibited in Tokyo, featuring over thirty paintings spanning from 1986 to 2019. The cultural backdrop of Japan, with its emphasis on memory and temporality, provided a fitting stage for his art. His paintings, like “Ski Jacket” (1994), encapsulate specific moments, imbuing them with context, history, and materiality. This repositioning of time and place captures the essence of memory, emphasizing its elusiveness and ability to transcend mere nostalgia.

In 2021, Peter Doig made a significant transition by moving from Trinidad, his long-time base, to London. This move marked a new chapter in his life and art. 

Now back in London, Doig reflects on how the references for his art have shifted, relying on memory and photographs rather than the direct observations he experienced in Trinidad. Despite the challenges posed by the environment, such as the constant dust and weather-related interventions, Doig found a certain charm and inspiration in the unique qualities of Trinidad’s atmosphere, influencing his artistic approach.

Peter Doig Paintings | Canal (2023)
Canal (2023). Source: The Courtauld, London

Peter Doig's London Chronicles

His exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in early 2023 showcased the evolution of his work, reflecting the impact of his change in surroundings. His artwork was displayed alongside works of art by Van Gogh, Manet, and other great artists as a tribute to the enduring influence of location, memory, and context on his creations.

His most recent paintings, such as “Canal” (2023), which focuses on the city of London, show the transition from the lush landscapes of Trinidad to the urban setting of London. Because they skillfully negotiate the nuanced interaction between individual memories and the larger cultural and historical context, these works have a deeper emotional impact on viewers.

Peter Doig Paintings | Alpinist (2022)
Alpinist (2022). Source: The Courtauld, London

The Perpetual 'What's Next?'

Peter Doig’s mastery of the interplay between memory, context, and materiality underscores his position as a leading contemporary artist. His ability to rework the “presentness” of a moment allows his art to transcend mere depiction, encouraging viewers to contemplate the endless possibilities of ‘what’s next?’ in their own lives.

Doig’s artwork is a constant in a world of flux and change, giving viewers a chance to relive their experiences, feelings, and memories. This is an evidence of the art form’s enduring ability to bridge our gap with the past, present, and uncertain future.

Peter Doig Paintings | Orange Sunshine
Orange Sunshine (1996). Source: Sotheby’s

Beyond the Horizon

With its vivid color scheme, magical realism, and exploration of memory, Peter Doig paintings take viewers on a profound journey through the mental landscapes. His works transcend time and space by reaching beyond the canvas and resonating with the viewer’s own memories and feelings.

Peter Doig paintings serve as a testament to the enduring power of art to capture the essence of place and memory in all their vivid and elusive forms in a world of impermanence.


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