The paintings of the Scottish artist John Bellany, who has died aged 71 after a long illness, confronted issues of mortality, evil and the individual's capacity for survival. His career was dominated by the circumstances of his own turbulent life: the act of painting, in which he employed a personal language at once realist, expressionist and surrealist, enabled him to overcome alcoholism and survive several near-death episodes. He was prone to severe depression, had a liver transplant, and in 1985 suffered the death of his second wife, Juliet Gray. The following year he remarried his first wife, Helen Percy.
The drawings and etchings that Bellany did in the 1980s faced up to the seeming inevitability of his death from alcoholism: he produced the grimly candid Self-Portrait, Addenbrooke's Hospital (1988) just hours after coming round from his transplant operation. His capacity for triumphant perseverance for a further quarter century was celebrated in the retrospective John Bellany: A Passion for Life at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2012-13).
This confrontational and complex approach was largely at odds with the abstraction dominant in the 1960s, when he was a student. In 1967 he visited the site of Buchenwald concentration camp, near Weimar, in Germany, which made a searing impression on him. While Scottish artists of his own and previous generations were often inspired by the French tradition, Bellany looked closer to home, encouraged by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. He took inspiration from literature and from the culture of his own community, in the form of a potent mix of Celtic mythology and the Calvinistic guilt that sprang from the religious fundamentalism of John Knox.
This fear of the almighty ran in tandem with a deep respect for the power of the sea. Born and brought up in Port Seton, east along the coast from Edinburgh, John was the son of Agnes and Richard Bellany, both from families of fishermen and boatbuilders. He first went out to sea on a fishing boat at the age of eight and his holiday job as a teenager consisted of gutting fish. His early awareness of the precariousness of survival at sea was reflected in boyhood paintings of boats, strange creatures such as huge skates and dismembered fish.
From Preston Lodge high school he went to Edinburgh College of Art (1960-65) and the Royal College of Art, London (1965-68). He portrayed members of his family in a naturalistic vein, as in the drawing My Grandmother (1967), and continued to employ maritime imagery, as inStar of Bethlehem (1966), with a dour, apparently loveless couple standing up to their knees in dead fish in the boat of that name. Bellany's awareness of the Calvinistic worldview of hellfire and brimstone, of deep anxiety towards activities of the flesh and of fear of the consequences of sin linked him to the Renaissance world of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel. Twentieth-century influences included Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and the Australian painter Arthur Boyd.
Bellany created expressionist allegories indicating the struggle to adhere to the uncompromising values that define individual morality. He made it clear in discussion that the grey-haired figure with his head in his hands in Haunted Soul (1990) expressed the tension between the shame associated with man's physical existence and the essential good of spiritual life. Grotesque images of beasts killing or being killed are charged with fear, though the bestiality implied in slaughtering other creatures for one's own survival was utterly alien to Bellany's own nature, which sought to attain "a oneness of being".
Sexual guilt and the "devil in the bottle" contributed to his tormented images. His watercolour Self-Portrait (1987) incorporates a mask, a cat and a self-portrait by Van Gogh behind him. The signature, Giovanni Bellini, links an Italianised form of his name to a prosecco and peach cocktail, and is followed by the words Confessions of a Justified Sinner. As Edward Lucie-Smith has pointed out, the self-portrait gives the artist particular scope for linking his work to the great practitioners of the past.
In common with the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which inspired a number of paintings and prints, Bellany's life and work were characterised by brutality, compassion and a deeply felt generosity towards others. His identification with their suffering ultimately revealed itself in stoicism.
With Boyd, Bellany shared a predilection for references to art-historical sources, literature and the Bible. The Fright (1968) finds a couple sitting up in a bed – though one resembling the funeral rails of a hearse more than a conventional marital refuge. Behind them is a black and white mass suggesting a whale with all its implied glory and terror, and alongside them blue and white stripes suggesting Buchenwald prison garb or a stretch of water. The vessel they are on is all at sea: in art as in literature, a waterborne ship is often a metaphor for the soul. The application of paint is aggressive and intentionally disturbing; the allusions and interpretations are multiple; and there is an echo of Edvard Munch's The Scream.
The Fright appeared in Bellany's diploma show at the RCA. There followed teaching posts in Brighton, Winchester and London, till Bellany was himself a lecturer at the RCA in the mid-1980s. His work was acquired for major collections: the National Portrait Gallery (depicting himself alongside Sir Roy Calne, the surgeon who saved his life, and the cricketer Ian Botham), Tate Britain, and in New York, both theMetropolitan and Modern Art museums. With international success came houses in Saffron Walden, in Essex, and Barga, in Tuscany. Bellany was made an RA in 1991 and appointed CBE in 1994.
His first marriage to Helen lasted for a decade from 1964, and during their second she saw him through the darkest days of his illness. She survives him, as do their two sons, daughter and eight grandchildren.
• John Bellany, artist, born 18 June 1942; died 28 August 2013