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Peter Doig Photo

Peter Doig

Scottish Painter

Born: April 17, 1959 - Edinburgh, Scotland
Movements and Styles:
Magic Realism
"I'm an outsider. I've always been an outsider. Even in London. If I returned to Scotland, I'd feel a complete foreigner."
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Peter Doig Signature
"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."
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Peter Doig Signature
"I knew what I didn't want to be, which was a lyrical painter. I started exploring paint as material and that somehow freed my imagination."
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"It's a hard thing to do, painting. Especially finishing a painting. The years I have spent in my studio, days and days, and hours and hours. You get into some sort of state, for sure, a kind of altered state where your own memories and observations come up unedited. It's not logical. Its not intellectual."
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Peter Doig Signature
"People often say that my paintings remind them of particular scenes from films or certain passages from books, but I think it's a different thing altogether. There is something more primal about painting. In terms of my own paintings, there is something quite basic about them, which inevitably is to do with their materiality. They are totally non-linguistic. There is no textual support to what you are seeing."
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"I am trying to create something that is questionable, something that is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words."
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Summary of Peter Doig

Peter Doig went from being an artist whose peers were too embarrassed to show alongside him, to possibly the most internationally loved painter of our time. He is a leading figure in contemporary art's 'return to painting' and is particularly responsible for re-inserting magic, narrative, and lyricism into painting today.

Doig is a meticulous colorist, who often uses uneasy, disquieting color combinations to create simultaneously charming and foreboding landscape paintings. Doig similarly combines seemingly incongruous, disparate reference points in his work often, inserting images from his own lived experience, film, art, and literary histories together in one composition.


  • Doig's paintings almost always contain human figures, although they are often partly obscured, hidden, or dwarfed by their environment. He rejects the split between figurative and abstract painting, however, and uses recognizable tropes of abstract painting - such as the dot or splatter - in the service of representation or suggestion - as in his snowscapes.
  • Doig uses color chaotically and extremely effectively. His palettes can be subdued, cool, warm, or bright, but he is unparalleled in his understanding of how to (un)balance a composition via color. Complementary colors, sickly greens, sentimental pastels, and uncompromising reds all feature heavily, demonstrating a boldness with color that is unique in his generation.
  • Magical Realism refers to a genre of literature and art in which everyday situations are interrupted, or mixed with, supernatural, spiritual, or other unlikely and uncanny events, environments, and characters. Doig has developed a magical realist painting style, which has some resonances with Surrealism, however is particular in its suggestion of narrative, character, and conflicting worlds. Doig combines imagery from multiple sources - film, art, and literary references as well as his own memories - to create these part realist, part magical scenes in his paintings.

Biography of Peter Doig

Peter Doig Photo

Peter Doig was born in Edinburgh in 1959 to Mary and David Doig. At the age of two, his family moved to Trinidad where his siblings Andrew and Sophie were born. When he was seven, the family moved to Montreal, Canada, due to his father's job as a shipping merchant. He was sent to a Scottish boarding school from the age of 12 thanks to money left by a great-aunt, but after three years of unhappiness, his parents let him come home. His mother had been worried he'd be expelled; he was "an adventurous, free spirit" in her words. The family moved to Toronto where Doig struggled at school. He was not an academic child and preferred to spend time with friends, listening to music, smoking weed or taking LSD.

Important Art by Peter Doig

Progression of Art

Milky Way

In this mesmerizing canvas, pinpoint stars share a black and blue skyscape featuring a cloudy Milky Way. From the horizon a stretch of trees grows, glowing alien and coral-like, waving into the air as if in water. They are reflected beneath on a still black lake in which floats a lone girl in a canoe, her tiny body enhancing the painting's sense of scale.

The dreamlike work references Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night, produced a century before as an hallucinogenic, emotive, portrayal of van Gogh's view from the window of his room at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole lunatic asylum. The piece also references a number of 21st Century elements, with its echoes of current literature and film combined with the artist's own experience and imagination, as is his signature style. Doig said: "The tree line is a mixture of what I could see from my working space in my parent's barn and other sketches I made of northern-looking pines and dying trees. The idea was the trees were illuminated by city light or artificial light from afar - I had just read Don Delillo's White Noise (1985) that influenced the light in these paintings as well." The girl slumped in the canoe references the final scene of Sean S. Cunningham's 1980 horror movie Friday the 13th in which an exhausted young female protagonist boards and then falls asleep in a canoe on an otherwise huge empty lake. The eery canoe in this would mark the entrance of a motif that would appear again and again throughout his work.

This mode of combining reality, memories, fictions, and images from film and photography became Doig's trademark style and marks a bold integration of postmodern pastiche and collage sensibilities with traditional painting and historical reference points.

Oil paint on canvas - Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art


Charley's Space

On a snow-capped hill sits a large wooden house. Its roof is dusted with snow and there are dark forests in the background. On the right of the canvas a figure, which is cut off in the middle by the painting's edge. The bottom two thirds of the canvas are filled with a snowy, sometimes colorful, landscape. This work is rich in colors, textures and full of visual interest, but it is also obscure and hard to read. Much of the composition is overlaid with a large, floating orb.

This piece was begun during Doig's final year at Chelsea School of Art and would come to represent the beginning of the snow scene motif that would dominate much of his art.

Katharine Arnold of London auction house, Christie's, said: "In taking up archetypal images of Canada's landscape, Doig sought to distance himself from its specifics. These were not paintings of Canada in a literal sense, but rather explorations of the process of memory. For Doig, snow was not simply a souvenir of his childhood, but a conceptual device that could simulate the way our memories may be transformed and distorted over time." "Snow draws you inwards," Doig once said, which is why he so often used it as a device in his work, encouraging viewers to enter into his own remembered and filmic landscapes.

The circle in the middle of the piece is a visual reference to the opening scene of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), in which a flashback shows the protagonist (now on his deathbed) in an ambiguous snowy landscape. The circle also resonates with a number of theatrical and film devices: the spotlight, camera lens, etc. and this painting deftly harnesses the nostalgia, melancholia, and emotion of filmmaking, while amplifying the medium's ambiguity and mystery - this painting is a still moment that will not be explained at some other point in the narrative.

The snowflakes are both figurative and abstract, and play with mark-making techniques to show how a painter might think about both snow (descriptively) and the colored dots of an abstract composition (formally). The complex, yet whimsical, relationship between form, brushwork, and content in this work is an important moment in contemporary painting.

Oil on canvas - Whitechapel Gallery



In Blotter we see a gloved figure standing on a sheet of frozen ice, watching his own feet as he appears to stamp in puddles, making ripples spread about him. His reflection is visible beneath and he is backed by a snowy bank, and higher up, a darkening forest. The movement on top of the ice is mesmerizing and the figure is totally absorbed in his action. The ice is rendered in calming purples, grays and blues.

The title referred to the process of building up color - literally soaking paint into the canvas - but also to the experience of being completely absorbed in a place or landscape. To start, Doig took a photo of his brother on ice onto which he had pumped water to create more interesting and vivid reflections. Doig was fascinated by the use of reflection in film, which is often used to represent an entrance point into another world. In this piece he reference's Jean Cocteau's 1950 film Orphée.

Additionally, blotting paper can be used to carry LSD, a drug that Doig took as a teen. Art critic Sean O'Hagan said: "A painting like the knowingly titled Blotter is charged with that heightened, fractured, but pinpoint-clear way of seeing that anyone who has taken the drug will immediately recognize." This was what Doig was trying to achieve with his work; he wanted the viewer to experience states of minds that are hard to describe.

Blotter won the first prize in the 1993 John Moores Painting Prize exhibition, representing a turning point in Doig's career, and an appetite for this strange and enticing form of Magical Realism.

Oil on Canvas - The Walker Art Gallery


Canoe Lake

This canvas features a green canoe floating on a yellow lake. The colors are acidic and sickly. A feminine figure slumps in the boat, as her hand dangles into the water, meeting its reflection. Behind the lake, reeds reach upwards.

This work was one of seven canoe paintings that would become one of Doig's trademarks. Canoes have long been used to symbolize Doig's childhood home, Canada, in art and imagery, but Doig also favors boats as they create a suggestion of hidden depths. He said: "Because you think of floating. There is a lot more below". Art critic Adrian Searle 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." In either interpretation, the canoe is a precarious vehicle for travelling the unseen waters of Doig's paintings.

As with Milky Way (1989-90), the motif of the girl in the canoe is borrowed from the ultimate scene of slasher movie Friday the 13th. He said: "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."

Of course, the in-between-ness of the half sleeping girl in the canoe is itself a horror trope, with links to the undead, to death, and to ghosts roaming bodies of water. Although Friday the 13th's girl protagonist is ostensibly a survivor of the film, Canoe Lake also cites John William Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott (1888), the famous Pre-Raphaelite rendering of the suicidal protagonist of Tennyson's eponymous poem. The painting's unnerving imaging of a non-site (which simultaneously exists in our world, the underworld, the world of the horror movie and that of the Pre Raphaelites) remains a troubling testament to the power of painting on the human psyche today.

Oil on canvas - The Saatchi Collection


Echo Lake

In the middle of this surreal landscape a police car stands as an officer approaches the starlit lake in the foreground, his reflection visible beneath. He is peering out towards the viewer with his hands aloft as if he is shielding his eyes to see into the darkness. His mouth is open as if he is calling out. Eerie forests absorb the light, and horizontal bands of color in the middle of the piece are muddy and dark, while the greens of the trees behind are ghostly.

The piece's darkness, the figure's pose and the eerie background all refer back to Edvard Munch's Ashes (1894), painted more than 100 years earlier. Doig said: "I looked at the coloration 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."

Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, said Doig's paintings "have a kind of mythic quality that's both ancient and very, very modern. They seem to capture a contemporary sense of anxiety and melancholy and uncertainty. Lately, he's gone more toward the sort of darkness we associate with Goya." This is evident here. The piece is menacing, asking more questions than it answers. Again we see the reflection motif, bringing up thoughts of drowning in the unknown. The low vantage point suggests we, the viewer, are in the lake, perhaps floating in one of Doig's famed canoes. We are far enough away to be unable to hear the officer's shouts of warning or rescue. Doig was always looking to produce "an image that is not about a reality, but one that is somehow in between the actuality of the scene and something that is in your head". By positioning us, the viewer, as the "screamer" in his own painting, Doig again centralizes an embodied, emotive experience of his work, an ideal that had long been absent in discussing important aspects of contemporary art's relationship to its audience.

Oil paint on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Two Trees

At three and a half meters wide, this piece is so monumental that when it was installed in the South London Gallery, windows had to be removed to get it in. The canvas depicts three young men, standing in front of the ocean as the rising moon or setting sun brightens the horizon.

The piece took six years to complete and Doig worked on it up until the moment it was delivered to the gallery. All of the artist's signature motifs are there; water, reflection, a solitary boat, snowfall, vivid color, and mysterious messages, but here the violence hinted at in previous pieces becomes more pronounced, literally foregrounded in the painting.

On the left a hockey player in a helmet wears a camouflage uniform, which ironically functions to make the player, holding his big stick, even more visible. In the middle, a young man's head is either dressed in what could be a knitted hat or showing an exposed brain. This figure referred to a killing that took place in Doig's own Trinidad neighborhood, according to press reports at the time. On the right a man films a scene with a camcorder - signposting events in which onlookers film scenes of death and devastation, rather than stepping in to help.

Mark Hudson, art critic, said: "This is art that's designed to resonate in the mind as much as the eye: a sumptuous Magic Realism for the digital age, with a random, search-engine-like connection-making rendered in oil painting that delights with the sheer richness of its surfaces."

Oil on linen - Michael Werner Gallery

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Peter Doig Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 29 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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