The weather in Nice is not very nice. A warmth is in the air but the sky, so often an azure blue, is a slate grey of dirty clouds. But Jack Vettriano doesn’t mind.

The city on the French Riviera has been home for almost 20 years and he’s used to the occasional squall. He still keeps his flat in London, and another in his native Kirkcaldy, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, but his grand suite of rooms, in a Belle Époque apartment block just behind the Hotel Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais, is home for most of the year.

“I just love the South of France,” says Scotland’s most famous artist. “I go as far west as Cannes, as far east as Ventimiglia, which is over the border in Italy. I just love it and what I enjoy almost as much as anything is the anonymity. I’ve been recognized three times. In Edinburgh it was difficult to get through a day. I don’t get off on fame.” As W Somerset Maugham wrote, the Cote d’Azur is a “sunny place for shady people”.

The Apprentice, by Vettriano.

Now Vettriano, 70, is coming home and stepping back into the spotlight for the launch of an exhibition in his home town. “Jack Vettriano: The Early Years,” at the Kirkcaldy Galleries, contains more than 50 works including many of those from his most fertile period when he lived in Edinburgh from 1990 until moving to London in 1998, such as The Singing Butler and Mad Dogs.

The exhibition will also include previously unseen early works, including copies of the grand masters. The decision to include clumsy early efforts is one of which he is quite proud. “It’s really important that people see that,” he says. “It gives them hope. They can look at my later work and be, perhaps, intimidated by it, if they paint, but if you look at the early work you can see clearly that I struggled.”

There is a refreshing honesty about Vettriano, a former miner who was given his first set of oils by a girlfriend at the age of 22 and taught himself to paint. Celebrity collectors of his work include Madonna and Jack Nicholson and in 2004 The Singing Butler sold at auction for $912,600 — a world record for a Scottish painting.

“I just love the South of France … and what I enjoy almost as much as anything is the anonymity.... In Edinburgh it was difficult to get through a day. I don’t get off on fame.”

The world Vettriano has created during the past 35 years is a dark, emotionally desolate landscape of art deco bedrooms and sitting rooms — much like his own home in Nice — where the desired and the unloved cautiously interact in an atmosphere perfumed by the musky scent of lust. The men have stepped into these rooms from the film noir of the 1940s — suits and braces and fedoras — while the women are brunettes clad in corsets and silk stockings: what Martin Amis described as “the demonology of lingerie”.

Critics have panned Vettriano. His work has been called “dim erotica”. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones wrote: “Vettriano is not even an artist. He just happens to be popular.”

But he is incredibly popular. “I think I touch on the needs — well, perhaps the sexual needs, or the romantic needs — of people,” he says slowly and thoughtfully, “because I think most people have a tendency to shield their deepest needs and fantasies and I think what I have done is I have created in my paintings a whole new world that they can step into and step out of, whereas I am stuck in it.”

The Singing Butler, included in the Kirkcaldy show.

The dry kindling that ignites his artistic inspiration is broken relationships. He divorced his wife of 11 years, Gail Cormack, in 1988; it had felt too comfortable, he has said, and he wanted to experience the frisson of regret and recrimination then seek to imprison it in paint. In Edinburgh during the 1990s he admits to being a frequent patron of prostitutes and the city’s massage parlors and that the themes of dominance and desire found within the picture frame are largely autobiographical.

In 2012, Vettriano was caught drunk-driving and in possession of amphetamine; he was fined $980 and banned from driving for 18 months. “You know who I am. We can sort this out,” he told the arresting officers.

I ask if he ever regrets being too honest about the personal source of his artistic inspiration. “I take the view that the public deserve more than a bag of lies. That is to say I think anybody who looks at my work knows that I’ve been a naughty boy. It’s why I’ve turned down opportunities to do a biography, because I wouldn’t paint over — sorry to use the term — I don’t want to sit with a ghostwriter and talk a lot of shite and I can’t be honest because it’s all triple XXX certificate.”

“I think I touch on the needs — well, perhaps the sexual needs, or the romantic needs — of people.”

His work frequently features young women in various states of undress for the explicit sexual desire of older men. In A Sinister Turn of Emotion a young woman prepares to remove her underwear ahead of corporal punishment. In Home Visit a young prostitute in black slip and stockings spreads her legs for a besuited older client. Has he ever had concerns about being “canceled”?

He falls silent for a few seconds before saying: “What do you mean by being canceled?” After I offer further explanation he says: “Well, I don’t much give a f*** and you can quote me on that. Any artist worth the name has to be true to himself. People have called my work misogynistic, but I can tell you that women are the biggest fans of my work and that I find very interesting. I don’t apologize for what I have done and what I have painted. It is more or less autobiographical and I would argue that with anyone. I am being honest with myself and I’m not prepared to stand in line and be politically correct.”

Would he consider bending with the times? “Christ, no. I’m not worried about that and my new paintings reflect that. I’m still painting from the heart. I’m still painting with integrity. I’m not painting so men can get off on them. I’m painting them because that’s the world that I live in.”

Dancer for Money, by Vettriano, who has admitted to being a frequent patron of prostitutes.

He no longer visits brothels or hires escorts, and says he hasn’t for a long time, fearful of being a target for a media sting. Yet at 70, he is considering a longer-term relationship, if he can find the right person. “I would like to meet someone, but I think I’d like her to have a flat next door. I still have hope that there is someone out there prepared to take me on and look after me.”

National Galleries of Scotland have long refused to purchase a single painting by Vettriano. English galleries have been similarly immune. It may be that they couldn’t afford him, but it remains a bone of contention with Vettriano. “If they were being honest to the public, because it is taxpayers’ money, they would give what the taxpayer wants and I would be fairly high on that list.” When he met John Leighton, the gallery’s director, and asked when they would buy one of his paintings, he said Leighton replied: “We are doing it in alphabetical order.”

When the skies clear over Nice, Vettriano likes to walk down to the shingle beach. His work has long been divided between light and dark, between sex and romantic paintings such as Dance Me Till the End of Love. In the past the ratio was 75 per cent dark and 25 per cent light. Nice, it seems, has brought out his brighter side. “I’d say it’s about 50/50 now.

“I’m not painting so men can get off on them. I’m painting them because that’s the world that I live in.”

“I would stand by everything that I’ve done. Every painting I’ve put out. I think perhaps there might be one or two I would change but they were of their time. That was my mindset at the time when I painted them. But my new work that I’ve done is just as sexual.”

I ask what is on his easel and he lets out a chuckle. “It’s a woman in her underwear and she’s on a balcony and she’s making a phone call and she’s in fetish underwear — black — and she’s obviously, in my mind, she’s speaking to a client or a pimp and she’s going to make someone happy.”

“Jack Vettriano: The Early Years” is on at the Kirkcaldy Galleries, in Fife, Scotland, through October 23

Stephen McGinty is a journalist, a documentary producer, and the author of several books