IN THE last room of the National Galleries’ compelling new survey of the work of the painter Joan Eardley there is a telling film. An old arts council video, filmed in 1963, sketching the work of its eponymous “Three Scottish Artists”, blissfully quiet and slow in pace, in which Eardley can be seen applying paint fast and furiously with deft, constructive, destructive strokes. Here, it seems, her eye hard and focused, critical and driven, is the essence of one of Scotland’s most important and influential twentieth century artists, captured on celluloid. On the galleries’ walls upstairs, the results of that application of paint are ranged, from early streetscapes to late seascapes, an impressionistic flurry of close and brilliant observation.

The studio in which Eardley is filmed is her second Glasgow studio in Townhead, although haze the details and it could equally have been no.1 South Cottages in Catterline, the fishing village some 20 miles south of Aberdeen in which Eardley completed many of her vivid land- and sea-scapes. The film was completed the year that Eardley died of breast cancer, aged just 42, her short 15 year career having marked her out in her own time as one of the bright lights of Scottish art.

Born in 1921 in Sussex to a Scottish mother and a dairy-farming father who committed suicide some 8 years later, Eardley spent her early years in London before moving up to Auchterarder then Bearsden at the beginning of the Second World War. She studied at Glasgow School of Art, moving into a studio in the vibrant but overcrowded slums of Townhead, taking her sketchbooks, even her easel out on to the streets to chalk the buildings, paint the streetscapes. The children came, then, for which she became so well known, sitting in return for threepence and sandwiches. The Samson children, of which there were 12, were her wriggling, giggling mainstay, and their portraits line the Gallery walls, on loan from collections around the UK.

But Eardley always needed escape. She found it in the mid 1950s in Catterline. She chanced upon the little village lining the clifftops above the horseshoe-shaped bay with one afternoon whilst exhibiting in Aberdeen following graduation. Within a year, she had set up a temporary studio in the Watch House, renting then buying her own succession of cottages in the small village.

Place is key, here. Glasgow opposed to Catterline, Catterline to Glasgow, all in fine balance. And there are the methods, too, the workings of the artist in detail. In one room, the early Glasgow works, the boldly blocked buildings and figures, the men sitting or standing next to cold stoves and fireplaces. And there are some of her wonderful pastels too, catching the cityscape in lines and smudges of colour, the pastel crumbling like the decaying buildings she depicts. Occasionally there is a layering up of paper, three sheets overlapping, the image on top seamless, as if trying to construct a panorama from scraps.

A few steps across the hall, Eardley’s first forays to Catterline, painting from the doorstep of No. 1 South Cottages. When Eardley first arrived, it was the view from her cottage which preoccupied her. The sea is curiously and completely absent. Her rented cottage itself, with its bare earth floors, became Eardley’s focus.

Eardley had a brilliance for cold, empty, evocative landscapes. There is the superb Catterline in Winter (1963), its moon glowing on a landscape cold and empty with the fall of fresh snow. But then, too, are the bright streaks of flowers in July Fields and Summer Fields, the dazzling light from the sunset of Seascape (1956-58).

The shores down below eventually drew Eardley’s eye, and she lugged her painting board down in all weathers with the help of the dwindling group of local fishermen, whose distinctive salmon “bag nets” were the focus of many of her early shore studies. The salmon bothy, the wedge-shape pier with its fishing boats moored or dragged up on the beach. In the distance the Kale Tap is frequently seen, the rock on which locals used to grow their greens.

In this second Catterline room, too, the large seascapes dominate, moody greys and blues, reds and browns, more colour the closer to the canvas one gets. The weather plays its part in the paintings, dripping paint, affecting the lie of the paint of the board. Eardley liked it that way.

She liked, too, her life at the end of the row, where no one passed and she could work without interruption all day. Her need for working solitude and her passions and domestic practicalities are hinted at in a fascinating set of previously unpublished letters from the Galleries' archives peppered amongst photos and paintbrushes and sketchbooks in cabinets throughout the exhibition.

Place is the basis of this exhibition, but it is the intimacy of her exhaustive, persistent exploration of the places and people which grabbed her that stand out, from the minutest details (the flowers in a cornfield, the fall of light on a wave, the sullen glance of a child) to a full landscape.

There might, on the surface, seem a dichotomy between the urban close view and the rural wide angle, but it is deceptive. “It’s the sort of intimate thing I like,” she once said. Perhaps it was the crowded nature of the Glasgow streetscapes that the city council so wanted to raze and reorder that brought Eardley’s focus in on its smallest citizens.

Perhaps the wide-open spaces and views of Catterline, the vast skies and landscapes, as she told her artist friend Margot Sandeman, brought her gaze correspondingly wider. Human life is writ small in the face of such vastness. Eardley paints its traces.

Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh until May 21, 2017