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Alumni Story: David Rayson, MA Painting, 1997

David Rayson is a London-based artist who was Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art from 2006 to 2017. His early work concentrated on meticulous paintings of urban and suburban scenes, in particular the Ashmore Park Estate in Wolverhampton where he grew up. Rayson has exhibited in the UK and internationally and his work is included in major collections including Tate, the British Council, Deutsche Bank, Brooklyn Museum and the Contemporary Art Society.

The Lamp by David Rayson
The Lamp, David Rayson 1996
Acrylic on panel

What were you doing before you started studying at the RCA?

I was a primary school teacher in Bristol and had a studio building up a body of work. I also worked for the Arnolfini Gallery running some educational workshops based on their exhibition programme. In hindsight it was a really creative time for me – doing and teaching out of an enthusiasm for ‘finding out’ and ‘making stuff’.

My first degree was in illustration at Maidstone College of Art, which was quite an open course back then, which crossed over into fine art, with students employing painting, model-making, printmaking and photography. As a result, my fascination with storytelling and my love of the graphic aesthetic continues.

Can you remember any differences between your expectation of studying at the RCA and the reality?

My time as a student at the RCA was a time of living through extreme opposites, unravelling my habits, putting myself back together, finding my way – getting complacent, playing it safe, realising it – so working to churn things up again, making hideous mistakes, losing my way, feeling desperate, starting from scratch and in short: slowly building up a meaningful practice.

Importantly it was about being surrounded by a peer group going through the same turbulent cycles, it was a day to day reality, as was the nightly unreality of the Art Bar – opening at bang on 5.30pm.

Can you describe what it was like studying at the RCA — what was a typical day like?

Studying Painting at the RCA was self-driven. You were given a space and showed where all the important things were: the workshops, the sinks for washing brushes, the loos, how to access the library, the Art Bar, and the quickest way by public transport to and from Atlantis (the art shop that is, not the subterranean utopia) which was on Brick Lane back then.

The learning and ‘finding out’ came from every aspect of daily life at the College, occasionally timetabled in, but more often by witnessing ways of thinking and making beyond the Painting Programme. Each weekend I would also beat the pavement taking in all the major shows, and searching out through word of mouth the smaller and emerging commercial galleries and project spaces across London.

The Hall by David Rayson
The Hall, David Rayson 1997
Acrylic on panel

What was the mixture of students like?

We were self-absorbed Painting students at the RCA – highly charged and totally driven. We were, as indeed with every year group since then is, a mixed group made up of the cool kids, freeloaders, the fantastically talented, copy-cats and the terminally lost.

Thankfully back in my day the Art Bar attracted like-minded misguided visionaries from across the whole College, trying to make sense of it all in the short two years we had been given. It was a fragile existence, but then one sound tutorial, a seminal lecture, a life changing study-trip, or a mind-blowing exhibition and the clouds would part, and one could see for miles.

How did your work develop while you were at the RCA?

I grew with every new day, every encounter, every hangover, every move my peer group made in their studios, often while my own work got greyer. Then there would be the happy accident or the hard-won breakthrough. Sometimes I was so far behind I thought I was in front. In any given week I would bolt, shrink back and then gain ground again. I still have the stretch marks.

Can you remember any particular tutors that had a significant impact on your practice?

Thinking back, it was the whole culture that became a way of life. We were there to paint our way out of our own stories, out of our own corners, and so we worked, ate, drank and slept painting.

I remember Peter Doig’s patience and support, and his ‘relaxed’ take on teaching. Alan Miller’s pace, wisdom, generosity and toothy grin. Merlin James’ wonderful knowledge and painterly language. But mostly, the positivity and the put-downs from the other Painting students kept one on one’s toes.

The Garden by David Rayson
The Garden, David Rayson 2013
Ink on Paper

Did you face any particular challenges?

All the usual challenges, such as relationship breakdowns and the resulting misdemeanours, living on thin air, having to sometimes sleep on other people’s sofas, cooking up lots of odd soups, constantly chasing money and materials, and in short always prioritising time to paint and make.

What was most rewarding about your time at the RCA?

Even during the toughest times, I was where I wanted to be. The rest of the world just seemed like a silly distraction.

When you graduated from the RCA, did you have a grand plan for the future?

Only to never be distracted again – since then to this day my overriding aim was to prioritise being a painter – painting.

Do you have a clear sense of how your time at the RCA informed what you’ve gone on to do?

Totally – in my drive to make work, my teaching and my life. I began my time at the RCA in the Autumn of 1995, and I have I only graduated last summer, twenty-three years later, when the RCA awarded me with a Professor Emeritus.

David Rayson in his studio
David Rayson in his studio

Looking back, are there things that stand out in your career as highlights, or achievements you’re most proud of? 

The two years I spent on the RCA’s Painting Programme was the most seminal and life affirming period of my life – and this in turn drove my ambition to sustain this wonderful culture of learning and making things happen, firstly as a RCA Painting tutor, and then as it’s Head of Programme, working with the most amazing staff, and the most inspiring and self-driven students and graduates on the planet.

Find out more about MA Painting at the RCA and how to apply.