Peter Doig's menacing works used to sell for around £8,000. Then Saatchi sold one for almost £6m. As the Scot warms up for his big homecoming show, he talks about life in Trinidad, his hero Munch'and the pressure of mind-boggling prices.
One day the British painters Peter Doig and Chris Ofili were on a remote Trinidadian beach when they saw something strange at sea. A man wrestling a pelican. Doig thought the man was rescuing the bird; in fact, he was trying to drown it. He dragged the bird from the sea, and walked along the beach wringing its neck, glaring at the stunned artists.
"That startled me," says Doig, between mouthfuls of pasta at an Italian deli in London. He is having a break from finishing the paintings for his new show. "It was also so exciting." He and Ofili, who have both lived and worked in Trinidad for the past 10 years, were at the time just visiting. "Now that I've been living there a while, I think, 'So what?'" says Doig. "OK, you're not meant to kill pelicans. I think that's why he was glaring. But he's actually gathering his dinner. It could have been a fish. I love Trinidad and I love living there, but it's quite harsh."
Did the scene suggest itself as a subject for a painting? "Not really. It wasn't until I saw a postcard of a man dragging a net on a beach in Kerala, which I found in a London junk shop, that I thought of it again. When I painted it, I just changed the net into the bird."
Doig often works this way: one image rekindling the potency of another after months or years. He hoards images until these are catalysed by some other image, be it a snapshot, a scene from a film, another painting. This makes it hard to work out how long he spends on a piece. "With, say, a Lucian Freud painting you could calculate the hours involved from the way he applied the paint. Not with me."
Doig made two paintings of that scene: Pelican and Pelican Stag. Like so much of his work, they problematise the gaze: both the glaring man in the picture and our own. When Doig settled in Trinidad with his wife in 2002, and raised five children there, he problematised his own gaze: that of a white painter born in Scotland. Some have'rather unfairly'compared him to Paul Gauguin, a white painter who left the chilly north for a sunny tropical island.
Doig baulks at this. "If you look at my paintings from that period [when he moved to Trinidad], I think you can see they are very much questioning why I'm there: what am I looking at, what right do I have to look? They were very critical of myself. I think if I was Trinidadian, I would latch more on to the myths and romanticise the place more. I don't think it's my place to do that'they're not really mine. I'm an outsider." Does he like that? "I don't mind it. I've always been an outsider. Even in London. If I returned to Scotland, I'd feel a complete foreigner."
Doig was born in Edinburgh in 1959; he lived in Trinidad from the age of two to seven, and then in Canada until he was 19 (his father was a peripatetic shipping company accountant). He studied painting at St Martin's in London and, aged 31, did the MA painting course at Chelsea College of Art.
Two decades on, Doig is preparing work for a small show in Mayfair. It is his first London exhibition since the 2008 Tate retrospective that sealed his reputation as one of Britain's leading artists. He was also, albeit briefly, Europe's most expensive living painter, after his painting White Canoe sold at Sotheby's for £5.7m in 2007. "That changed when Lucian Freud sold a painting before he died," says Doig. "Freud gazumped me. Deservedly so. Then [Gerhard] Richter overtook him."
He says he was nauseated White Canoe sold for so much, and not because he didn't see any of the money (the painting belonged to Charles Saatchi). To him, it seemed a symptom of an art market gone nuts. Up to that point, his paintings had been selling for around £8,000. "I was absolutely shocked that someone would pay so much, but I was also struck by the pressure it put me under. To go into a studio and think you're going to make a painting that's going to make a million dollars or a hundred thousand. I had this idea I should make works of art people don't want to buy. [His gallerist] Michael Werner said, 'You can't escape it. You have to just carry on.' Which is what I've done."
Why does his work sell for so much? "I can't say why." Others have tried for him. Sotheby's senior director Francis Outred has said of him: "He has been the flagbearer for painting when it came back into fashion. His works are very commercial objects, very traditional, very romantic and also incredibly complex." Doig doesn't demur when I put this to him, but adds: "I don't think people were quoting the kind of painting and imagery that I was, certain kinds of film and literature. I'm not being big-headed'I'm trying to work out what happened. I had a strange epiphany at Chelsea [College] and that changed my painting."
What happened? "I started making paintings influenced by artists I'd always admired but never really dared encroach on. People like [Edward] Hopper or [Edvard] Munch. I started to use the material in a much more free way. Some would say I'm lazy."
One of Doig's most famous paintings, Echo Lake (2000), draws on Munch's painting Ashes, of a woman with red hair, her hands over her head. "I looked at the colouration and the expression. Also I felt, she's looking out on to a lake. In my painting, a policeman looks out across the lake towards the viewer, the screamer. I took that directly from Munch."
Canoes regularly appear in his work, freighted symbols of Canada. His 1997 painting Canoe-Lake was inspired by the 1981 slasher film Friday the 13th. "People thought it was about the horror in the film. It was never about that. It was more about the mood'an image of a woman in a boat. Why is the woman in the boat? Why is her hand dangling in the water? It's almost as if she's fallen asleep and is in the process of waking up."
When Guardian critic Adrian Searle (who taught Doig at St Martin's) reviewed his Tate retrospective, he saw something darker in the canoe motif: "Figures in canoes and boats drift through Doig's show, as though'a disconcerting thought, this'biding their time, waiting to ferry us to the underworld." But Doig argues that boats have long had this resonance, and makes a more formal point: "Using a boat immediately creates depth because you think of floating. There's a lot more below." This could be a description of his work: emotionally charged, strange, sometimes menacing.
His Tate curator Judith Nesbitt once said she would love to go inside her favourite Doig painting, Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, as if to solve a mystery. It's an understandable impulse: Doig always invites deeper engagement.
A few days after lunch, I visit Doig in his north London studio. He is an inveterate deadline surfer ("I always paint up to the last minute, often making radical changes"). This means that the five large canvases I see may look very different by the time they reach the gallery, in a fortnight. This show, of pictures recently begun in Trinidad, will be a taster for a huge homecoming exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh next year.
Four canvases are propped against walls in various states of unreadiness; one has tracing paper taped over it. A cut-out of pink legs is falling into a painted sea. A fifth lies on the floor, depicting a huge Trinidadian sound system stack, flanked on the right by a nude woman. Another picture depicts a perhaps Trinidadian girl bowling a cricket ball at a scrawny, possibly nude, Christ figure, who is going to have to adjust his stance to avoid groinal injury. Old motifs reassert themselves: a rollerskater girl he first painted nearly 20 years ago. There are no canoes.
None has a title yet. Doig says he may give them names before they leave. He seems unwilling to let them go. Is he a perfectionist? "It's not about perfection. What's a perfect painting? What's interesting about a perfect painting?" His hero Munch never strove for perfection. "In his paintings, every step of the way is there. It's corny to say it but each painting is like a diary. Another painting could have been leaning against it and marked it, and that mark would still be there."
The elegant alto of Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott swings from a wall of speakers, a track from an Indo-jazz fusion album. It is hard not to imagine Doig enjoying himself painting to this, filling the canvases with bright acid tones. The colours of Trinidad have invaded grey London. "In many ways, it's about getting a living thing from the studio to the gallery, something that has an energy. I think that's what we find exciting about looking at other people's paintings, something that's living ' not inert or complete or perfect. That's what I like, anyway."