Peter Doig's Milky Way

Born in Edinburgh in 1959, Peter Doig is one of the most highly regarded and internationally-renowned painters working today. Here our Press Officer, Adeline Amar, discusses one of his key early paintings, Milky Way: now on show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

The first time I encountered a Peter Doig painting in the flesh was when I worked on No Foreign Lands, our 2013 retrospective exhibition which concentrated on the works made since Doig moved to the Caribbean island of Trinidad in 2002.

Gallery spaces often take on a new look and atmosphere with each exhibition we work on, but this was especially acute with Doig’s paintings. Day after day, with every canvas that went up on the wall, the atmosphere in the building turned dreamy and tropical – an experience made all the more memorable by the smell of lavender that pervaded from the room hosting his most recent paintings. Doig uses lavender oil as a solvent, in place of turpentine, and the works there had been painted shortly before being brought to Edinburgh and therefore hadn’t had time to fully dry (a process which can take some time depending on how thick the paint layers are).

Peter Doig, 'Milky Way', 1989-90. © Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS (2015)

Doig completed Milky Way, a large painting which is now on show at Modern One,  back when he was studying for a Master’s degree at the Chelsea School of Art in 1989-90. Yet Milky Wayboth encapsulates some of the themes and techniques recurrent in the artist’s later work, and demonstrates the visual strength of his work.

Doig often works with a key image that strikes him, and combines different elements into one final image. In the centre of Milky Way is a small figure - a girl in a canoe - directly inspired by a scene from the horror film Friday the 13th, whilst the surrounding elements came from different inspiration sources. As Doig explains, “The tree line in Milky Way 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 that influenced the light in these paintings as well. The canoe was used as much for scale as for atmosphere, although it was important to me that the figure was slumped rather than erect. At the time I rode my bike every day to Chelsea along the Embankment and was looking a lot at Whistler’s quick washy paintings which often had a small figurative element. The stars themselves came from a star chart one of my fellow students. They represented the Milky Way in November which was when I painted them in.”

Poster for 'No Foreign Lands' (2013) featuring 'Pelican (Stag)', 2003

The image of the canoe figures very largely in his work, including the 2001 painting 100 Years Ago (Carrera). Another example of his technique of combining images and memories is Pelican (Stag) (2003).

Doig combined his own memory of seeing a man kill a pelican on a beach, with found imagery – a postcard of a man in Southern India dragging a fishing net behind him – to create the male figure, who appears on several large scale paintings. The dream-like, broody atmosphere and lush vegetation in Pelican (Stag) is also reminiscent of Milky Way.

But most of all, Milky Way is staggeringly beautiful; it catches your eye as you walk past and stops you in your tracks. It easily illustrates how, with its evocative and magical scenes, Doig’s work could mesmerize visitors even in the early stages of his nearly three decade career.

Peter Doig


Artist Peter Doig speaks about his work, as seen in the exhibition Peter Doig No Foreign Lands at the Scottish National Gallery from 3rd August to 3rd November 2013.

By Adeline Amar, 25 November 2015