Scotland has a very significant tradition of painting, shaped in large part by its structure of art institutions, and otherwise shaped by the vision and forward looking brilliance of key individuals or groups of artists.



The painting icons that make their mark in art history tend to be those that have broken new ground (rather than copied), be it emergence, new open-air techniques, new colour techniques, new subject matter, recording historical interest, particular connection with the human psyche, recording key events, breaking new painting styles or those that paint against the present commercial flows.


Painting can also move through surges from static, low development periods, where copies and variations are the norm, to high change phases where an individual or group of painters, make a breakthrough and drive progress and create a shift.  


Important early figures included the portraitists Sir Allan Ramsay (1713 - 1784), Sir Henry Raeburn (1756 - 1823) and Sir David Wilkie (1785 - 1841).        


This period also saw the formation of the key institutions that would dominate and influence the development of Scottish art from the nineteenth century through to the current period.

This infrastructure would ensure that Scotland had and continues to have an artistic framework that would produce a long stream of great painters and artists.    


There are four key institutions that I would highlight that would seek to drive artistic excellence and standards, namely the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA), which was established in 1826, the Royal Glasgow Institute, (RGI) in 1861, the Paisley Art Institute (PAI) in 1876 and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) in 1876.


Also critical to Scottish art development was the establishment of the four main art schools, (GSA) the Glasgow School of Art in 1845. (ECA) the Edinburgh College of Art can trace its origins to 1760 and the current institution was formed in 1906. Duncan of Jordanstone and the School of Art and Design (Dundee) was formed in 1892 and the Gray's School of Art (Aberdeen) was founded in 1885.


The art colleges would ensure that teaching standards were rigorous and of the highest quality and thereafter, post qualification, the annual art exhibitions of the various institutes, where elected entry to membership and recognition of progress was dictated by fellow art members, who would seek to maintain the highest ongoing standards of painting.


Thus, the Scottish art establishment was created. Like the Paris Salons, there are many artists who have benefited from operating within that establishment, and there are many, over the years, who have successfully rebelled against what they view as the typical politics of and the artistic dampening and constraints placed on them, by that same ‘establishment'.


As these institutions took shape notable painters such as William McTaggart (1835 -1910), the landscape and history painter also emerged.


In the period 1890 to 1900, one of the most significant groups of painters, the ‘Glasgow Boys' were to become acclaimed in both Europe and America. Key members of this group included Sir James Guthrie HRA, PRSA, RP, RSW (1859 - 1930), Joseph Crawhall (1861 - 1913), George Henry RA, RSA, RP, RSW (1858 - 1943), Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864 - 1933), William Kennedy (1859 - 1918), Sir John Lavery RA, RSA, RHA, PRP (1856 - 1941), Arthur Melville ARSA, RSW, RWS (1855 - 1904) and William York Macgregor RSA, RSW (1855 - 1923). This loose-knit group of around twenty artists rejected prevailing interest in sentimental scenes, historical dramas and highland themes in favour of contemporary influences, including Jules Bastien-Lepage and John McNeill Whistler. The group preferred to work outdoors and to paint more realistically using common themes including rural characters and landscapes. They moved to a flat brushstroke technique and colour, texture and pattern became of increasing importance.


This extremely influential group was followed by the ‘Scottish Colourists' whose painting in the 1920s and 1930s was greatly influenced by the developments in Paris and French art including impressionism and post-impressionism. Samuel John Peploe RSA (1871 - 1935), John Duncan Fergusson RBA (1874 - 1961), George Leslie Hunter (1877 - 1931) and Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell RSA RSW (1883 - 1937) all liked to paint using more vivid and vibrant colour styles. They innovated by replicating the light intensity of the Mediterranean in their Scottish landscapes and bright interior scenes and they created a new profile for still life scenes, where they used free flowing high colour techniques that produced very distinctive new studies.


There have been many distinguished Scottish artists since that point who have established an international reputation, including -


Joan Eardley RSA (1921 - 1963) who famously portrayed urban deprivation and decline, with her dramatic, observational studies of street children in the Townhead area of Glasgow.

John Bellany RA, HRSA (1942) who rejected fashionable landscape and still life traditions and focused on expressive commentaries on life and the human condition

The New Glasgow Boys, or new image artists, Peter Howson (1958), Stephen Campbell (1953 - 2007), Stephen Conroy (1964), Adrian Wiszniewski (1958), Ken Currie (1960) and Stephen Barclay (1961) emerged in the mid 1980s. The human figure is central to their work and they use strong figurative compositions to challenge human nature, incident, events or orthodoxy.  

Peter Howson (1958) enjoys the highest public profile of the New Glasgow Boys, driven by recurring media publicity about his health, mental health, personal crises, and public and religious projects. There is always a sense of drama surrounding Howson; an energy, which he channels to create his powerful character studies and narratives.

Jack Vettriano (1954) is a largely self-taught artist, who produces popular poster-like scenes that depict visual narratives that include beaches, buildings and piers and he also creates forceful compositions that depict encounters between men and women that suggest secret liaisons in bar, club or bedroom.


Many of these artists already have an international reputation and following.



The quality of media commentary and art criticism can also make a big difference to the understanding of art or art development. Healthy development stems from an active debate and discussion. Scottish Art journalism needs more than a low quality repetition of a sensational story - it needs to observe, interpret and chart progress and challenge for improvement.     



Much of the mainstream of Scottish art is conventional and conservative, with many of the top artists painting in the traditional genres of landscape and still life. Portrayal of subject matter is limited and ranges from the photo realistic, through impressionist to the more expressive studies.  

Redefining landscapes, a subject that has been produced for centuries, is complex. The area of most significant recent innovation is the expressive landscape where the beauty of a scene is reproduced using high colour with almost exaggerated impasto techniques to translate the emotions (rather than physical view) that you would sense if you were standing at the viewpoint.

Otherwise we have some exquisite contemporary realist and impressionist studies, which demonstrate the underlying excellence of the painting techniques.
Indeed, contemporary art is dominated by a generation of painters who were rigorously taught how to draw and paint (in the art schools of the 70's, 80's and early 90's). These artists are a dying breed and this period and time zone may be looked back on as producing the last of the great Scottish painters.


Beyond landscape and still or studio life, the figurative artists probably create the most intellectually challenging art - whether it is a stark narrative, an emotionally charged or thoughtful character study or a more subtle or humorous interplay.

Figurative art has had a significant revival in the 2000s and this has come about, as art buyers have become more confident and accept anonymous figurative images into their homes. Where early stage buyers delight in the beauty of a scene, mid to late collection stage buyers tend to seek the force and power of a figurative study.  

Landscapes blend, where a dramatic figurative study will challenge and provoke a reaction with its viewers.


Current Scottish art buyers show little appetite for abstract art and this has translated to a shortage of painters supplying this important art genre.


If we consider the massive shifts in our lifestyles, from the technology advancements, through social and communication changes and the trend to globalisation, then Scottish art needs to ensure that it retains its traditional painting credentials, but it also needs to use and adapt this platform to keep pace with our knowledge and educational development. There is scope for more abstraction and art that creates a contemporary record that connects with the current rate and scale of human change.


The traditional path of world art is relatively stagnant. Conceptual art is the current offer. Some of the most interesting global developments are what we see from the emerging global powers, where art is recording the rapid socio-political and socio-economic shifts that are occurring in these high growth and changing economies.


In Scottish Art and ‘on canvas' art, we have some of the best skills in evidence anywhere in the world. We just need to ensure that we use them in a way that connects with society in a contemporary and relevant way.