I first came across Peter Doig’s work when I was working at the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas. ‘Peter Doig: Works on Paper’ in 2005 was the contemporary British painter’s first museum exhibition dedicated entirely to his drawings.
It was in this show that the preparatory sketch for Cricket Painting (Paragrand) (2006–ongoing) – a large-scale beachscape with a cricket match in progress – was first displayed. The idea for the painting came to Doig in 2003 and preparatory work began a year later in Trinidad – the artist’s home on-and-off since childhood. With stints spent at London’s top art colleges in the 1980s and studios subsequently in Scotland, Port of Spain and Canada, Doig has experienced some very contrasting worlds, and these different environments have inspired his portrayal of lonely figures in haunting landscapes for which he is now well-known. Nominated for the Turner Prize in 1994, Doig’s was the subject of a retrospective at Tate modern in 2008, which displayed, in the artist’s words, “memories of where each painting was made”.
Eight years after our first encounter, and before a major survey show of his work opens in Edinburgh, I caught up with Doig at Michael Werner gallery in Mayfair to find out more about this depiction of a grass-roots cricket match in Trinidad.
I notice that on the label the completion date for Cricket Painting (Paragrand) is still to be confirmed!
Yes, I’ve worked on it over a number of years – I keep coming back to it. I want to keep it open.
Are you interested in cricket?
Somewhat. I grew up in the north so winter sports are my sports really. I played in a British ice hockey league for eight years and painted many ice hockey and skiing pictures in the 1980s. I’ve also done some golf paintings. My father lived in St Andrews and was obsessed with golf. I’ve played a bit of baseball in my time and I’ve played cricket on a kind of casual basis. Now living in the Caribbean I have a better feeling for cricket, because I think cricket is a real grass-roots sport there. You see people playing cricket on the street and in empty lots on the beach, and watching them I understand the sport a lot more, especially the excitement of kids learning to play among their friends. Talent and enthusiasm is something you can’t teach. The sports person I like is someone who has developed an individual style and technique through playing, rather than just being coached, coached, coached.
Tell me more about the cricket match depicted in Cricket Painting (Paragrand).
Wind ball is what is actually depicted here. Wind ball involves throwing an old tennis ball. They don’t actually bowl – they pelt the ball. Basically you can throw the ball anyway you want. A lot of kids in Trinidad learn to play cricket by playing wind ball – they even have wind ball leagues.
Have you ever seen a cricket match at Lord’s?
Yes, I have actually. I saw West Indies play there about five years ago – I’ve got a friend who’s an MCC Member. The only places I’ve seen professional cricket is Lord’s and the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain. The atmosphere is quiet different at Queen’s Park – they’ve got big sound systems going and its much louder, more raucous. I saw Sri Lanka oust India there in the World Cup there in 2007, which was very unexpected!
I wondered how familiar you were with cricket, because you have managed to create an accurate, yet effortless depiction of a casual game. For example, the bowler in mid-delivery is very convincing, as is the batsman ready to receive.
A number of people I know who play cricket have made the same point you have about the various poses, especially that of the batsman. I looked particularly at two or three different photographs I had taken of cricket matches, and I was also familiar with the pictures of West Indian cricketers in classical cricket poses lining the walls at Queen’s Park. I wanted an accurate depiction of players who really know how to throw and hit a ball. I’ve got an artist friend in Trinidad called Embah who has made a lot of cricket pictures. He is self-taught and knows everything about cricket, like most men of his generation who lived through the great days of West Indian cricket in the 1970s and ’80s. I’ve actually got a sculpture he made in response to Brain Lara first breaking the record of score in Test cricket. And a painting by an Irish artist of Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose - I think it’s taken from a famous photograph. Do you have any contemporary paintings in your collection?
Yes, lots. We have an active commissioning programme and actually we have pictures celebrating the partnership of Walsh and Ambrose by Barbadian-born artist David Skinner, as well as a portrait of Brian Lara by Justin Mortimer, to name but a few.
Have you got any Francis Bacon paintings in your collection?
No. The strength of the collection is fine and decorative British art from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sadly we are lacking in modern art from the twentieth century, but our contemporary holdings are developing.
Perhaps the Bacon pictures are a bit subversive for Lord’s, but you would definitely be interested in them. The late Bacon paintings to which I refer are highly sexualised – men reduced to stumps of flesh and cricket pads. Recently published pictures found in Bacon’s studio show cricketers, footballers, boxers. They’re very funny.
Interesting you mention Bacon because the acidic orange backdrop you use in Cricket Painting (Paragrand) and other paintings reminds me of his work. Would you say Bacon is an influence?
Yes, he uses this very bright unnatural orange ground and yes, in part, I am influenced by his colour combinations. I play off the association of orange with the tropical. I mix the brightest orange paint that has the richest pigmentation I can get, which is cadmium orange, with synthetic fluorescent orange powder. I want to make the colour sear into your eyes, burn into the retinas, fuse the image into the back of your head when you look at it. Other part of the composition become just shapes when you look at the painting, because you can’t focus on them because of the brightness of the colour.
The idea of an image burning into one’s memory is a very powerful idea. When I first saw your drawings they made a huge impact – your portrayals of ghostly figures on placid lakes stayed with me for years. In Cricket Painting (Paragrand), as in many of your works, there is a water source – the sea. How would you describe your treatment of water and the landscape here?
Yes, the emphasis is on the batsman instead. The wicket keeper is just a memory. My aim was to try to create a picture that exists without time in a way. The shorts the batsman is wearing are just shorts I wanted to play down the fact that they were Ocean Pacific shorts – I wanted to escape from those sorts of detail that date a picture. The strange area of painting behind the batsman is in fact a boogie board for surfing, but it’s just there for colour really.
Are your canvases primed? I ask because of your wonderful play with drips and splashes, here and in your other works that would be impossible to achieve on a canvas that has protective layer between the linen and the paint.
You’re right – they’re not primed. I just like the way the raw linen absorbs the paint rather than the paint staying on the surface. You get this velvety feel to the colour. As time has gone by I’ve become more interested in the fluid use of paint rather than using impasto straight out of the tube. I’ve become more interested in paint that flows and bleeds rather than sits on top, but then there are also elements where it sits on top as well.
Your artwork clearly has some abstract elements to it. On one hand you are depicting an everyday pastime and on the other you are examining the non-objective, the idea of memory, memory of the shape of the landscape or the quality of water. Are you on the road to abstraction?
As time goes by I am veering towards something more abstract, yes. I am starting to discard the purely figurative. If I become an abstract painter I want it to happen through the making of work – I would like it to be something that evolves rather than just one day making a decision.
“Peter Doig: No Foreign Land” is on view at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 3 August–3 November
This article orginally appeared in the MCC Magazine.