IN AN obituary which The Herald carried after his sudden death in June last year, professor Stuart MacDonald was described as a "lighthouse keeper". To the casual reader, this might have been confusing as this was clearly about a person embedded in Scotland's arts scene. But for anyone connected to the creative industries, it prompted a wry smile.

Not only was he a born mentor and guiding light to countless creatives in his various roles in education and public life, Stuart MacDonald was the keeper of the flame for The Lighthouse in Glasgow.

From 1998 until 2006 MacDonald was a key figure in the establishment of Scotland’s centre for architecture, design and the city. This genial Dundonian guided The Lighthouse to success and international respect before returning to Aberdeen to become head of Gray’s School of Art, where he had studied in the late 1960s.

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Although he had a successful career behind the scenes in the arts, painting was always his first love. The acclaimed post-war artist Keith Vaughan saw his degree show and bought a work from him followed by another in 1972.

After a long career as a mentor, teacher and leader of men and women, MacDonald "retired" in 2009. Still in his early sixties, it was time to devote his energies to art, albeit with the odd professional gig thrown in. In retirement, he held roles as visiting professor of architecture at Strathclyde University, emeritus professor of Creative Industries at the Robert Gordon University and as director of Creative Frontline, his consultancy specialising in creativity, design and innovation.

In 2015, MacDonald joined the board of WASPS, the charity which provides studios to support artists and arts organisations. He had rented a studio at WASPS in Aberdeen before taking on Studio 203 in The Briggait in Glasgow and had just attended a board meeting in Glasgow on June 9 last year when he collapsed and died on the way home.

His sudden death sent shock waves throughout the arts community and it's fitting that the first retrospective look at his life as a practising artist is being staged at The Briggait in an exhibition which opened in the main hall last night. For many people, myself included, it's a chance to see his paintings. It's fair to say that while he encouraged others, Stuart MacDonald didn't always put himself in the spotlight.

According to his wife, Catherine, who has been a driving force in staging this exhibition, art was always at the centre of his thinking. "It informed his beliefs about the world and the questions he considered in his own practice," she explains. "His working class roots, his passion for learning, politics and the social and cultural history of Scotland begun in his youth remained constant throughout his life as did his desire to be a painter. In every house he built a studio and, at home or abroad, he made drawings or studies regardless of time or place.”

Walking into the bright airy central space in The Briggait, the first thing which hits me squarely between the eyes about the work on display is its complexity. MacDonald’s work is mainly abstract, using wide-ranging colour fields with the odd early foray into gloomy browns and other subdued colours. These paintings all combine ideas and images that create a pictorial narrative and reflect a personal response to the real and the metaphysical world.

His paintings make use of familiar symbols and historical references brought together over many years of study, experimentation and reflection. His last paintings were a series of what he referred to as “tableaus”; symbolic still lives. His work always employed a clear-sighted painterly language, making reference to space and architecture. Themes which clearly fired him up in his day jobs. For him, drawing was a way of thinking; of developing and formalising his ideas.

Catherine explains: "His interest in referencing architecture and art history and the poetic and visual landscape of Scotland was key to developing his own painterly language. Pop-art flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s in America and Britain. The work of these artists influenced popular culture and many students of art at the time incorporated the ready-made everyday objects into their work."

Looking at his body of work as a whole, it is possible to chart the key themes to which Stuart MacDonald returned time and time again.

In his early work, recurring images include Scotland's coasts, hills, bridges and boats. Etchings on show, made in the early 1970s, are filled with symbols and signs as the young artist tried to make sense of the world around him.

Some of the most interesting work on show is from a period in the 1970s after he had been on an RSA Travelling Scholarship to Florence. This sparked a lifelong interest in the metaphorical and underlying messages in religious paintings such as Simone Martini and brother-in-law Lippo Menni's Annunciation, painted around 1333. This "mystical contract" between the creative process and the depiction of the Annunciation, in which the Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary she was going to bear a son, struck a chord with MacDonald which was to last a lifetime.

Stuart MacDonald: Studio 203 Revisited, The Briggait, 141 Bridgegate, Glasgow, G1 5HZ. waspsstdudios.org From today until 15 November