• Ian Gray’s artworks are created using digitally manipulated photographs, which are printed then painted over in oil and pastel.
Born and raised in Edinburgh and trained as a graphic artist, the 43-year-old does not claim his work is high art; he takes a succession of photographs, merges them digitally, and paints over the prints to heighten colour and atmosphere, with louring Scottish skies.
Fine-art critics might blench, but the results are impressive. The paintings – full canvases sell at around £4,500 – have won legions of fans, including 20 distilling companies worldwide who have commissioned his paintings, from Scotland’s Glenmorangie and Japan’s Suntory, to America’s Maker’s Mark.
Now he’s working on a project for the National Trust for Scotland to paint St Kilda, while a new Scottish tourism website, Bagging Scotland, has also hired him.
At home in Düsseldorf, Germany – he says he “did a runner” from the poll tax – he drinks gallons of his favourite tipple, Irn-Bru, which he stocks up during his frequent trips back to Scotland.
If there’s one lesson in his career worth picking up on, it might be to find your niche and conquer it. In the past 20 years, his business has thrived on the back of Scotland’s most famous export industry, as well as the world market for whisky.
In addition to his distillery images, and pictures of the interiors of whisky barrels or pot stills, Gray also produces Scottish landscapes. “I do this full-time, nothing else, just creating artwork,” he says.
When we spoke, Gray was working hard producing pictures for three shows: at the Ghent Whisky Festival in Belgium on 6-7 February, then the next week at the importer for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Düsseldorf and, later, at an exhibition for spirits connoisseurs at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.
About 20 years ago, Gray was on a camping trip on Islay. He started doing sketches and paintings of the Ardbeg distillery and its surroundings. “When they went on show, people from other distilleries caught on, and it just took off from there,” he say.
“All I’ve been doing for the past few years has been hanging around the distilleries, getting invited into the next one.”
Gray was born in Hamilton to a family with a tradition of creating and working with the arts. His father was an electrical engineer and inventor of a microwave rotary switch, while his mother was a kiltmaker. His grandfather was a sculptor and potter in his spare time, while his grandmother created pottery designs.
He describes his work as “hyperrealism”, in the style of photorealism, but using photographs directly, rather than reproducing them on canvas. He starts with a series of photographs, merges and manipulates them digitally together, prints them on paper and canvas, and then reworks them with inks and pastels.
“It adds atmosphere to the pictures, giving it depth,” he says. In one of his his Ardbeg paintings, called Storm is Coming, he has emphasised the louring skies “to sum up the weather on Islay, and the whisky, how robust it is, trying to put that into the painting”.
Gray has faced scepticism from fellow painters over “embellishing” photographs: "I’ve been questioned before by traditional artists. Art at the end of the day is to do something creatively, it’s just creation. That’s all I do, take an idea, take an image, and reproduce it into an artwork.
“It’s taken me about 15 years to perfect it. It goes from taking a photograph, digitialising that image. It is sometimes reproduced on to paper, reworked again with inks and oils, sometimes rescanned back into the computer to be corrected, then printed out again on to canvas or paper, and then reworked again. It’s not just one image printed on to canvas, there are several images and processes involved.
“Islay is a very, very special place, the people on Islay, I’ve had some fantastic experiences there. Every distillery is spectacular, each one has a special romantic location, a special atmosphere. Storm is Coming sums up the roughness of the island, but also the beauty. It was actually a series of ten photographs I took, getting completely soaked in the process. It was Sunday, the place was closed, it was quiet and peaceful until the storm came up.”
To capture Bowmore Sunset, he got a view of the setting sun reflecting on to the distillery off Loch Indaal. “I was eaten alive by midges, but I managed to have a wee dram with me, which also distracted me from all the bites.”
You’re unlikely to see Gray’s paintings turning up at Sotheby’s. But as he has assiduously plied his trade as an “optimistic Scotsman” selling his wares, they’ve been bought by whisky connoisseurs and collectors, bars, restaurants, whisky workers and distillery bosses worldwide.
Gray says the BBC’s political correspondent, Glen Campbell, from Islay, also bought one, picking it up from his parents’ house in Bathgate.
When Gray staged his first small show of work at Ardbeg nearly a decade ago, “every member of staff bought one of his prints of the distillery”, according to their visitor centre manager, Jackie Thomson.
Gray had tackled corporate commissions before he found his way to Islay. The German parliament hired him to paint the opening of the German Centre for Trade and Commerce in Singapore, as an official gift. He created 33 paintings for the headquarters of BYK Additives and Instruments in Germany.
But his growing ties with Islay saw him hold his 40th birthday party at Ardbeg. His large paintings now adorn the visitor centre walls. Gray is a regular visitor, arriving with his children in his green camper-van, settling in on Kintra beach. “He captures the mood and feel of a distillery so well, and also the way he paints light is breathtaking,” says Thomson. “This was a springboard for him to paint other distilleries and get absorbed in Islay life.”
Gray says he’s fascinated with production. “If you look at the whisky industry, it’s an industrial process, but a traditional old distillery is hands-on from malting the barley to producing the wash and hand-rolling the casks.” One day, he says, he’d love to get into the Irn-Bru factory and find out how they do it.
Among his biggest supporters has been George Grant from the Glenfarclas distillery, the company’s “brand ambassador” and son of the owner John Grant. He’s also worked closely with Glenmorangie. But critical to Gray’s international success was meeting Frank Coleman, senior vice-president for public affairs at the Distilled Spirits Council of the US, the distillers’ trade association. “Discus” is based in Washington.
Coleman first saw Gray’s work stacked in a bin at the Ardbeg gift shop, while he was on a trip with US journalists to Scotland,. He says: “I noticed they had these lovely watercolour prints of distilleries, and things related to Scotch whisky. I had only been in the industry about a year, and I was trying to revitalise the look of our offices. I just took them all and said, ‘Can you ship them to Washington?’”
The two men met a year or two later, when Coleman found Gray’s stand at a whisky festival in New York. It led to a commission for paintings of the new American Whiskey Trail, modelled on those in Scotland. Gray’s works now hang in the reception and boardrooms at Discus’s Washington headquarters, hosting top US political leaders.
One is a “semi-abstract” picture of a tray with glasses and whisky bottles; Coleman has the original at home. “He has an amazing eye for light, he draws the eye even to mundane subjects from distilleries, the light hits everything he does,” Coleman raves. “It takes a subject that’s popular in a certain universe, a subject that has never really been the subject of artwork, and he’s made it wildly popular. He’s spread it across the globe.”
The American Whiskey Trail starts at the rebuilt distillery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon home; the first president was convinced by his Scottish plantation manager to go into the distilling business when he left office.
The place gets a million visitors a year, and sells postcards of Gray’s work. The deal with his American paintings, says Coleman, was that Discus kept the originals, and Gray the reprint rights. It’s hard not to see him as the whisky business’s answer to Jack Vettriano, who is often scorned by critics as a lightweight or copyist, but makes a fortune from fans of prints and pricey originals.
“Ian Gray is great,” says Coleman, with American exuberance. “We love his art, and it’s a remarkable ability to capture our industry in it’s finest essence.”
Published in The Scotsman this year,,