Harland Miller is an author, painter, curator and muse: an all-rounder. Upon leaving Chelsea School of Art, he launched into a world full of installation and conceptual art. Determined to be a painter, he decamped to New York to live where his heroes Mark Rothko and Basquiat had lived. His optimistically titled show Love Saves the Day opened at the Prisunic Gallery – "run by some French guys" – in 1991. His debut novel, Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, was published in 2000.
His studio on the edge of Bermondsey, south London is far from glamorous – freezing cold and full of squeezed paint tubes and encrusted palettes. Despite having two shows this winter, one at White Cube in London and one, titled Overcoming Optimism, in Edinburgh's Ingleby Gallery, around the studio there are a score of works in progress. He tells me that he made much of the work for the Edinburgh show in Elvington, Yorkshire (near where he was born, in 1964), in a studio in a disused aerodrome, where he had learned to drive as a teenager.
Miller was under pressure to paint for the two shows. His new body of work involves an element of chance and controlling accident. "It was physically hard to do but looks as if it was easy. Sometimes you had to let beautiful things go for the sake of the picture as a whole." He laughs, "Jay [Jopling, his dealer], said they looked feminine – not in a pejorative way, but as in they looked effortless."
Miller's best known paintings are of Penguin book covers, those well-loved volumes that used to be readily available at church fêtes and on second-hand book stalls, but are now, he points out, increasingly hard to find. Text is always an integral part of his work, even if only in the titles. "When I am talking to people I often scribble something down on my hand and then stick it up on the studio wall. Sometimes it appears in the work but sometimes it just does not look good enough graphically".
On the way back to the warmth of his car, I pass a slogan pinned to a cabinet: "murder, that's the way to do it". It is the title for a large arresting canvas in mustardy yellow and black resting against an adjacent wall. "It's from Punch and Judy, 'That's the way to do it!'," he says, pointing to the black outlines of the duelling pair. These new works are different in tone from his earlier paintings. "It is a balancing act – this is not a humorous palette and it is harder to get levity to work."
Harland Miller: Overcoming Optimism, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh (0131 556 4441) to 26 January