The painter Alison Watt has spent a lifetime looking. Not glancing, the way the rest of us tend to survey the world, but really looking. On the few occasions, I've met her, in person, there is a quiet stillness about the way Watt carries herself and in the way she talks. A bright shimmering intelligence which surrounds her like an aura.

This stillness laced in with a pointed all-seeing eye has permeated Watt's painting since she first came to prominence as a student at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s after winning the National Portrait Gallery's annual portrait competition.

Walking into Watt's new exhibition, A Portrait without Likeness, which opened recently at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (SNPG) in Edinburgh, there is none of the restless energy you might pick up in the ether from other displays in the building; to wit, a bloody display based around the execution of Charles I in a neighbouring room…

A Portrait without Likeness features a brand new suite of paintings created by Watt in response to portraits and drawings by the celebrated eighteenth-century portrait painter Allan Ramsay which are held in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS).

The delicate light-sensitive drawings are nestled inside a vitrine, while two knockout Ramsay portraits; of his first and second wives, Anne Bayne and Margaret Lindsay of Evelick are both given their place on the wall alongside Watt's new paintings.

In A Portrait without Likeness, Watt has distilled a lifetime of looking by focusing on details in a handful of Ramsay's portraits including the two he made of his wives. Her new paintings have names like; Anne, Boscawen, Balcarres, A Lady and Stocking and feature a variety of motifs, including cut roses, lace-trimmed accessories, ribbons, feathers, books and cabbage leaves. The result is a series of exquisite ultra-still lifes.

Shimmering with Watt's usual mastery of form and precise application of oil paint, there is an almost intoxicating sensuality in all these works. In one painting, Evelick, a reference to Ramsay's portrait of his second wife, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, I swear I detected a grain of glitter flash seductively in one of the pink petals.

Painted between 1758 and 1760, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, Mrs Allan Ramsay, is a tender portrait, which shows Ramsay's young wife (she was 13 years his junior) arranging pink roses. She is holding a cut rose as she turns towards the viewer – her husband – with a look which is charged with longing laced with surprise.

In Watt's painting, Centifolia, we are presented with a single pink rose. Precisely cut, it languishes on a pinky-white surface, casting shadows which almost lifts it off the canvas.

In a new book published by NGS to accompany Watt's exhibition, art historian Tom Normand says of Centifolia and Lindsay, another single cut stem rose still life, that the works create "a mood that reflects upon the rose as a symbol of grace, and perhaps, pain…"

In a conversation with Julie Lawson, chief curator at the Sottish National Portrait Gallery, which is also included in the book, Watt talks about becoming obsessed with this rose in Margaret Lindsay's hand. "I had been looking at Ramsay's portrait of Margaret Lindsay for many years before I began to focus on the stem of the rose she is holding," she says. "A stem that is broken. What does that mean? We will never know. But it has come to represent for me the mysteriousness of the painting itself."

Like Watt, Tom Normand shares a reverence for Allan Ramsay's intimate portraits; such as the ones of his two wives. In the portrait of his young first wife, Anne Bayne, who died in childbirth having their third child just four years after he painted this portrait, Watt has chosen to home in on details, like the pink ribbons which adorn her ivory dress and the lace on her bonnet. All stand out starkly against a dark background. As does her oddly steely, yet simultaneously soft gaze towards her artist husband.

As Normand writes of Watt's new works: "These are extraordinary paintings, and unsettling images. Their ornamental character is, evidently, an illusion, for they astound and agitate in equal measure."

He's not wrong. Maybe it was the heat – not to mention the lack of oxygen caused by wearing my mandatory face-mask – but I was particularly struck by one painting, A Lady. In this work, a single white feather with delicate petal like sections, casts a shadow on a pinky-white background. I cannot tell you why but it exudes a heady erotic charge.

According to Watt, she "often at a loss to describe what my own painting is about." But, as she goes on to say: " … as a painter, you develop an emotionally powerful relationship with the painting itself and with your material, which makes the evolution of a work much more affecting. You feel it more."

A Portrait without Likeness, which will travel to Inverness Museum and Art Gallery early next year after the exhibition closes in Edinburgh, represents a shift in direction away from intricate large-scale paintings of drapery and folds; a fascination which has held Watt in thrall for several years.

Her facility to zero in on detail is still there and even though there are no figures in A Portrait Without Likeness, they are writ large in the tendrils of a feather or the spine and veins of a cabbage leaf.

And what of that cabbage leaf? It stems from intensive observation by Watt of Ramsay's portrait of society hostess, gardening enthusiast and Bluestocking Salonista, Frances Boscawen, In this portrait, painted around 1748, she is shown with a cabbage leaf in her lap. Cupped within the leaf is a group of berries or nuts. As Norman says in his essay: "This is an exceptional 'attribute' and quite at odds with the conventions of the period."

A nod towards her obsession with gardening? Possibly, as Boscawen oversaw the design of parklands of her family home at Hatchlands Park in Surrey. She also had five children, so maybe it is more of a nod to her fertility.

It was only later the thought struck me that cabbage leaves being "prescribed" by my former midwife mother when I was breastfeeding my first child to alleviate pain. Who knows?

For me, these new paintings – coupled with the Ramsay portraits – lingered long in my mind after I left the exhibition. I found myself thinking about them at odd moments during the day and even during the heat of the night.

Likewise, the beautifully-illustrated publication helped to shape my thoughts about the work; including the Ramsay portraits. As well as featuring the essay by Normand and conversations between the artist and Lawson, who has curated the show, there is a new short story, called Affinity, by Andrew O’Hagan, an old friend of Watt’s. Her conversations with all three during the gestation period of this body of work, which was originally due to open last year, has been important to its creation, she says.

Reader, the story by O'Hagan is so good, I read it twice. The pair will be in-conversation as of the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme in a session entitled The Joy of Influence on Tuesday Aug 24. I've signed up for the online version so I can relive the paintings… to affinity and beyond.

Alison Watt: A Portrait Without Likeness, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1, Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD, 0131 624 6200,, Thursday-Saturday, 10am-5pm, until January 9, 2022. Free - but booking required

Critic's Choice

Almost against the odds, the 17th edition of the Edinburgh Art Festival formally opens today with over 35 exhibitions and new commissions in visual art spaces across the city and beyond. In the "beyond" category, you'll find Turner-Prize co-winning artist Alberta Whittle at Jupiter Artland.

Jupiter Artland’s year-long residency programme, Healing the Hostile Environment, directly links artists in Scotland and the Caribbean.

Opening today, Whittle’s new exhibition will sit alongside an accompanying group show of her artistic "accomplices", showcasing a new generation of Scottish artists creating socially active artwork in the wake of the pandemic.

Whittle, who will represent Scotland at next year’s Venice Biennale, produced RESET at the height of lockdown, filming across Scotland (at Jupiter Artland and her home-town of Glasgow), South Africa and Barbados, responding to the immediate context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the global pandemic and climate emergency.

RESET is described as a work which connects emergent fears of contagion, moral panic and xenophobia with a call to action and a demand to face and heal injustices while cultivating hope in hostile environments.

Alberta Whittle developed RESET using the writings of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of the founding thinkers behind Queer Theory, a framework of thought that challenges binary categorisations. To reset, according to Whittle, is to change the narrative, to start afresh, and to realign ourselves towards a better politics defined by care and healing. RESET culminates with the image of the garden as a utopian space of relearning, reconnecting and resetting.

Artist contributions to Healing The Hostile Environment and the Rising Residency programme will be shown as part Jupiter Rising, a weekend long festival staged across the landscape of Jupiter Artland over the weekend of August 27 – 29.

Alberta Whittle, RESET, from today (July 31) until October 31, Jupiter Artland, Wilkieston, Edinburgh EH27 8BY, 01506 889900, Open daily, 10am-5pm, Until October 31. Adults, £10, child, £5. Concessions available. Pre-booking essential.

Don't Miss

Prior to the first lockdown last year, Stirling-based artist, June Carey, was invited by The Folio Society to create ten pastel drawings to illustrate its limited edition book of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. Carey's original drawings are currently on show at Glasgow's RGI Kelly Gallery. The exhibition ends on August 15, which marks the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s birth. On that date, actor Jimmy Chisholm, who appeared in Braveheart, will give a reading from Rob Roy.

The Rob Roy Drawings by June Carey, RGI Kelly Gallery, 118 Douglas Street, G2 E4T, 0141 258 1080,, Opening hours eg Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 5pm. Until August 15. Free - but booking required