THE LAST time Ann McKenna saw her "Auntie Joan" she was shocked to have the door shut in her face. Auntie Joan was the artist Joan Eardley. Ann Samson, as she was then, was one of a large family of 12 children from the Townhead area of Glasgow whom Eardley painted over and over again from the mid-1950s until the artist's premature death from cancer in 1963.

Ann, who is now 61, recalls: "We went up to her studio door after school when we saw she was there and chapped on it as usual. She shouted at us, 'Away you go and don't come to my door again!'" Ann recalls.

"We were really upset because this wasn't like her. We ran home to our mother crying that Auntie Joan wouldn't let us in. Our mother went straight up to her studio to see her. When she came back she said to us we wouldn't be seeing her again because Joan wasn't well. In fact, she told us she was dying and that was that. We never saw her again."

Ann is recounting this story as we stand outside The Watch House, known as The Watchie, a former Customs and Excise look-out and the most northerly building on the clifftop village of Catterline, a few miles south of Stonehaven on the north-east coast of Scotland. Joan Eardley worked here from 1952-1954 before renting and then buying her own property in the village.

Being at this isolated spot, biting north east wind at our back, is bringing memories flooding back for Ann, who is in tears as she tells me she can imagine Joan standing here painting. "She would have be completely at home here," says Ann. "I can just picture her."

From 1950, until she died in 1963, Eardley divided her working life between her studio in Townhead, Glasgow and Catterline. As revealed in a major exhibition Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, the two locations provided endless inspiration.

Ann and her older sister Pat, 62, are visiting Catterline for the first time. Pat, who suffers from vertigo, is bringing up the rear, walking gingerly along a narrow path assisted by Ron Stephen, who knew Joan when he was a wee boy growing up in Catterline in the 1950s.

Also in our party is Patrick Elliot, chief curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, who explains that meeting Ron Stephen in the summer of 2016 proved a turning point for the exhibition.

With the show's catalogue in one hand, he stops every so often to point out views Eardley painted. In an instant, famous works such as Catterline in Winter, painted in 1963, a few months before Joan died aged 42, make perfect sense.

Standing on the path, it is possible to look back to South Row, the small row of cottages at the most southerly part of the village. Joan rented No 1, the cottage at the village's most southerly tip from 1954-59, before buying it in January 1963, around the time she painted Catterline in Winter.

Elliot explains: "Ron's insight and knowledge of Catterline at the time Joan Eardley was living and working here was invaluable. Together with input from Pat and Ann and their oldest brother Andrew, who was the only one of the Samson children to visit Catterline with Joan, around 1956, it became clear that by focusing on the two locations, we could create a clear picture based around her working practice as an artist."

With her pronounced squint and fiery red hair, Pat's younger self is the most recognisable of all the Samson kids in Joan Eardley's Townhead sketches and paintings. I have been living with a postcard version of Pat – pinned on my kitchen wall – for years.

Joan Eardley didn't paint figures in Catterline so there is no Eardley-esque record of 71-year-old Ron Stephen as a boy. There is, however, a large body of landscapes and seascapes painted all around this village, which had around 30 homes in it when Joan lived there.

As a gay woman at a time when it was not discussed in the same way it is today, she was able to find a sense of peace here; living openly with partners, including Dorothy Steel and Lil Neilson. According to Ron Stephen, if it was a talking point among the villagers, it was never an issue.

In the exhibition catalogue, there is an excerpt from a letter written after Joan's death by one of her neighbours, Ruby Coull, to Joan's friend Lady Audrey Walker. It includes the line: "She lived so quietly among us and was accepted as one of us."

When she initially settled in Catterline the early 1950s, Eardley, who wrote about her periods of depression in letters to friends, said she wanted to focus on landscape, not the sea.

But gradually, she was drawn to the wild, boiling seas, and particularly the area on the stony foreshore where salmon nets were laid out to dry on larch poles close to an old salmon bothy. It was in this area, known as The Makin Green, she would pitch her easel in all weathers.

One of the stand-out paintings in A Sense of Place is The Wave, painted in 1961. This large rectangular work is described as being an "oil and grit on board" and depicts a wall of seawater rushing over the Catterline pier.

It was on this spot that her ashes were spread following her death in August 1963. As Ron Stephens puts it, Joan Eardley was "in her element among the elements".

Just like an Eardley seascape, emotions are close to the surface for Ann and Pat during this visit to Catterline. Their mother, Jean, died in September aged 95. She was the same age as Joan Eardley and the two women forged an unlikely friendship.

The Samson family lived in a two-bedroom tenement flat a short walk from Joan's top floor studio at 204 St James Road, Townhead. Money was tight and when her children brought home Joan's drawings of them, Jean lit the fire with them. These same drawings would fetch thousands of pounds today if they had survived.

Joan started sketching and painting their big brother Andrew in the mid-1950s when he was 12. Intrigued by the sight of a woman in trousers pushing her easel in an old pushchair in Hopetoun Place off Rottenrow, Andrew asked if she would paint him. Soon, she was painting him regularly in her attic studio. One-by-one, all his siblings followed.

"Our mum had to go and check her out of course," says Ann. "But she liked Joan – and liked the fact that we were out from under her feet getting fed pieces or sweeties. Sometimes, there wasn't enough food for us all to have a meal at night."

Prior to being bulldozed by post-war city planners in the 1960s to make way for better road systems, Townhead was a community on the edge of oblivion. It may have been overcrowded and dirty but as Ann and Pat say repeatedly during their visit to Catterline, there was a fierce sense of community which saw people look out for each other; and look out for each others' children.

The Catterline of Ron Stephen's youth was also a community on the brink of extinction. His family had been fisherfolk in the village since the early 1700s. By the 1950s, the fishing industry was in steep decline and his father, Andrew, eked out a living as fisherman, taxi driver and delivery man, until the family packed up and left the village in 1957 when Ron was 12 years old.

Today, Ann and Pat still live in the east end of Glasgow, a short walk from Rottenrow, where they grew up. Both are divorced and both are grandmothers. Pat is a great-grandmother. Both are long-term volunteers at The Lodging House Mission in Glasgow's east end, a charity which supports men and women affected by homelessness.

As we drive into Glasgow city centre after a long but exhilarating day walking in Joan Eardley's footsteps, the Samson "girls" point to ghostly-looking spots beside the motorway as the haunts of their childhood. Close to the site of the old Rottenrow Maternity Hospital, where they and all their siblings were born, and where they had their own children, a new college building has sprung up almost overnight. "That was the street where we lived," says Ann.

Joan Eardley painted it all.

Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place is at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Road, Edinburgh until May 21