Rachel Jones, 24: ‘Trying to second-guess what other people want is a recipe for disaster’

Kate Kellaway, The Guardian, Visit External Site
Rachel Jones in her east London studio: ‘I use colour and the energy I have as a person to alleviate some of the seriousness and darkness of the subject matter.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

She wondered how she’d ever make a living as a painter, but there was nothing else she was good at… 

I am 24. I was born in Whitechapel. My family lives in Essex. I had always loved drawing and was good at it. It was a way of escaping. I remember when I was still a schoolgirl thinking: how does anyone make a living being an artist? At school, it is assumed art is not a proper job. I decided then I had to do something else: I got a scholarship to do an animation course in New York. But animation is really laborious and hard and I realised: I don’t want to do this. It was a wake-up call. The more I spent time running away from painting, the more I realised painting was what I needed to do. When I told my mum I wanted to be an artist, she freaked out and said: how are you going to look after yourself? But it made sense to me. There was nothing else I was good at so why not just go for it?

Ultimately, you have to understand who you are making your work for: it should be for you, that is the first thing

All the work I have been making for the past couple of years has been about the replication of the black figure in the history of art and contemporary society. It is a massive subject and my most recent paintings are focused on the representation of violence and sexuality within black communities and refer back to things I have read from the 1700s and 1800s. I use colour and the energy I have as a person to alleviate some of the seriousness and darkness of the subject matter because I want the paintings to be accessible and for people to engage with them. I am attracted to things which are intense. I like it when you can feel the real presence of the person who has made a work within the painting.

At 19, I thought London was the centre of the universe but when I went up to Glasgow School of Art for my interview, I was amazed by its architecture and energy. I had the best three years there – and the worst. My last year was a struggle. I’d always painted realistically but reached a point when I thought: I can’t paint like this any more, it doesn’t mean anything. I had a crisis: how do I paint then? I spent the entire last year trying to figure that out. I was failing. It was difficult. I was ill. I had problems with my hands, which were getting infected. It was a horrible time and overwhelming but I stuck with it and the tutors were amazing.

Drawing trained me to look and figure out a different way to explain what was in my head and forge a new, less literal style and the paintings I made for my degree show were done in the last two months and came out in a splurge – it was such a relief. It is hard to persevere as a young artist before you have recognition. I had a lot of opportunities based on the work in my degree shows. I won awards and was given an opportunity to exhibit in the Royal Scottish Academy, I received support from the Stephen Campbell Trust. I had not realised how hard it would be to get your foot in the door. To make a living, you need a broad understanding of business and marketing… you can paint but if it ends there, no one will necessarily see your work.

I have a part-time job in an organic bakery in Clapham and work at farmers’ markets at the weekend. Prior to that, I was doing restaurant work which is great for meeting people but drains your energy and takes a lot of time from being in the studio.

When I was at school being a black woman was not prevalent in my mind but now I am aware that the representation of black artists within Britain is something that should be talked about more. It is hard not to be marginalised. There needs to be a sharing and an understanding of all the ways of making art. But there is an advantage to being a young artist today: the way we communicate. It has made it possible for artists to base themselves at the centre of things. Recently, I got Instagram and that has been great because people who have never seen my work, such as Eileen Cooper, who is at the Royal Academy, follow me. 

Can I imagine myself painting in my 80s? Oh yes. The dream is to make just enough money to paint all day, every day

If I was giving advice to someone younger I would say: ultimately, you have to understand who you are making your work for: it should be for you, that is the first thing. Trying to second-guess what other people want is a recipe for disaster, like building a house on sand. Then you have to decide how much you want to succeed. Not in terms of money or recognition but do you really want to do this? Is there anything else you can do because if there is, then your heart isn’t fully in it. This has to be it.Can I imagine myself painting in my 80s? Oh, yes – definitely. The dream is that I will make just enough money from my art to paint all day, every day. My husband (he doesn’t exist yet) but when he comes into my life we will have a dog and basically I will just get up, do some yoga, go to the studio, potter around. It will be such a good life…


Best Friends (not dated) by Rachel Jones. Photograph: © the artist