Pinning down the landscape he encounters on a day's march – be it in Orkney or in the east end of London – has consumed McFadyen since the early 1990s, when he was commissioned to design the sets for Kenneth MacMillan's last ballet, The Judas Tree, at the Royal Opera House in London. Prior to this point, the self-described realist painter, who studied at Chelsea School of Art from 1973-1977, was known as a figurative painter. McFadyen describes these early works as "witty, schematic and self-referential - They were about the irony of being a painter, a bit jokey."
The process of designing sets for MacMillan's ballet built on an earlier experience as artist-in-residence at the National Gallery in London in 1982, during which time he decided to make the observed world his subject and to paint people and scenes he had actually witnessed.
"A few years later, working on the commission to produce sets for the ballet, it became clear to me that something was missing," he recalls. "That thing was the figure. The dancers were real human beings and they were inhabiting the sets. I always found the figure quick to paint and then I'd spend a long time painting the so-called background. The viewers would then give all their attention to the figure. This catapulted me in a new direction. I still do figures but these days it's not unusual for me to exhibit huge 2x3m landscapes."
This is a busy summer for Paisley-born McFadyen, who has just been made a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts in London – an honour bestowed on few Scottish artists. This week, a major survey exhibition of four decades of work opens at the The Fleming Collection in London. Another survey exhibition, The Ability To Cling, is just closing at The Fine Art Society in London. It will travel next to Edinburgh's Bourne Fine Art, where it will be on show from August 1-September 15.
McFadyen is just the second living artist to be honoured by a solo show at The Fleming Collection, which is known as an embassy for Scottish art in the UK capital. The other artist was Will Maclean, who had an acclaimed exhibition there last year. The title, Made In Hackney, refers to the fact many of McFadyen's pictures were painted in his London Fields studio, regardless of whether they portray London, France or Scotland. "Most people think the artist has to be there, but any large painting by any artist must be done in a studio," he says.
The London work will chime with anyone who has been following the way in which the face of the east end of the city has been changing, particularly in preparation for the London Olympic Games.
One of the most striking works at The Fleming Collection is the massive Tate Moss, which portrays a derelict (now demolished) building found by McFadyen and the writer Iain Sinclair during a trip to the Games site in 2008. Finding the footpath blocked by Games authorities, McFadyen and Sinclair canoed up a canal into the zone where they found the building, once occupied by artists, with "Tate Moss" painted on its side.
McFadyen was fascinated by the building and photographed it from all angles. When he returned with Sinclair, who had by then written about the experience, they found the canal sealed off. Fittingly, Tate Moss lives on. It will go on show 10 days before the Games open.
Although he doesn't necessarily see himself as a Scottish artist, there is no doubt McFadyen is drawn to the wide open spaces of the landscape he finds during trips back here. One of the most starkly beautiful paintings in this exhibition in London is the majestic Inganess Bay (Orkney Islands) which dates to 1999 and an exhibition which he had there at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness for the St Magnus Festival in 2000.
"Painting the landscape is not an intellectual position," McFadyen says. "It's what I'm interested in. There are always interventions in the landscape, even though you don't seek them out. Even in wide open spaces in Scotland, there are pylons or other signs of human existence, even though you don't necessarily see the people."
Ever the journeyman, McFadyen says he is excited but nervous about seeing his older work alongside newer paintings. "I will be able to see where I have been," he says. "I'm looking forward to finding out what it feels like."
Jock McFadyen: Made In Hackney, The Fleming Collection, London (020 7409 5730, www.flemingcollection.co.uk), July 17-October 17.