At the time of year when the storms start to come in on the west coast and yachts and pleasure cruisers head home to their dry winter storage, one old herring boat, varnish freshly applied, supplies in for the long haul, headed out from Crinan to the lonely seas.

The Sgarbh (Gaelic for cormorant), a motor sailor that now belongs to the artist Ross Ryan, was built some 70 years ago, equipped with sail and motor, a former working boat that has not seen a herring haul for some years.

“I grew up in Crinan,” says Ryan, who will take over the upstairs exhibition space at Edinburgh’s Scottish Gallery this month. “When I was younger, it was a busy fishing village, but there are fewer boats now.” He has spent the last 20 years “moving around painting in different places,” from Berlin to the Arctic.

In the summer, he takes tourists out on charters in the Sgarbh from the family business, the Crinan Hotel; in winter, he delivers sailing boats across the Atlantic. “It’s just another job I could do,” he says.

The idea to chart 60 days on the winter seas came last summer. “I like to have a theme,” he says. “I liked the idea of seeing places I knew well, but in the winter, when it’s not busy.”

The itinerary was somewhat haphazard – a waiting to see which way winds and tides favoured, for there is no point setting things in stone when your mode of transport is so dependant on the weather.

“I spent a lot of time getting ready. The stove was broken and needed work, and the boat had to be varnished. By the time I set off I was quite tired,” he says. He continued his long-standing “bottle project”, throwing out messages in glass bottles, the subject of a future exhibition. And then he says, the realization came that here he was, out on the sea and he should “probably do some painting.”

“The first one I did was an Oktoberfest on Mull,” he says, “it was the birthday of a friend of mine, so I painted the morning after.” Other paintings followed, a visual log – sketches of his own boat, landscapes by night, by day, by wind, rain and anything else the environment could throw at him. Ryan says he liked the idea of battening down the hatches, cosying up to the stove in a blow, “a romantic idea,” he says which was quickly dispelled.

Whilst the previous autumn had been fine, last autumn, when he set out, was wild. “I ended up going up the Caledonian Canal for a week for shelter,” he says, which is when he ran into one of his subjects, the Flying Dutchman – not the legendary ghost ship, although named for her, a Dutch schooner cruising the West Coast filled with “adventurers who love comfort”.

And yet despite having only 3 fine days in 60, sailing these relatively empty seas – still full of life from fishing boats to ferries – was wonderful, he says. When you’re a lone sailor, people always take you in, he says, offer you dinner, and this suited Ryan and his “human landscapes” very well.

Stocked up on books about outlandish sea voyages in small boats, he painted his own adventures. Rounding Ardnamurchan point in a blow, he got out his palette - there’s something Turner-ish in the notion, although Ryan didn’t strap himself to the mast, as Turner famously did (or famously didn’t).

“I do like to paint in the extremes,” he laughs. “I don’t like to paint outside when it’s a nice day – whereas if it’s harsh and brutal…”

“There is a kind of practical element to what you can achieve whilst moving at the same time,” he says. “I had some experience of knowing painting on board with a palette knife was better than on canvas – you can bend a board and spill the wind,” he says, “but a canvas would end up in the sea.”

This interest in extreme conditions and process is something he addressed in the Arctic, for which he prepared by getting his father to lock him into a walk-in freezer in the hotel restaurant “painting frozen scallops. I wouldn’t have starved…” He found he needed a lot of gloves.

His father, who has recently passed away, was ill with dementia, but encouraged his son to go on his winter trip, much as he’d encouraged him as a teenager to take the boat out and “disappear for days”.

“There was a lot of my father wrapped up in the trip. I think it’s come out in the paintings,” says Ryan. “He’d have loved it, the trying to paint like this. He’d have loved the carnage.”

Ross Ryan: The Logbook – A Solo Winter Voyage, The Scottish Gallery, 16 Dundas Street, Edinburgh, 0131 558 1200 Until 2 June, Mon – Fri, 10am – 6pm; Sat, 10am – 4pm