‘I sold my first painting for £25’: Sir Peter Blake, Royal College of Art, graduated 1956
I joined in 1953, after my national service. I’d applied to study graphic design, but was accepted as a painter – I had sent them a portrait I did of my sister. So I studied painting but knew about graphic design, which accounts for a lot. I was so grateful to be there, and used it well.
That first year, we spent a lot of time in the life room, where you were taught and your work was corrected, at your easel. In our second year, we were let loose. I did a series of paintings about my childhood.
At the end of my third year, I was awarded the Leverhulme Research Award, to study popular art around Europe, and given £500 to live on for a year. I went to Holland, Belgium, France, Italy and Spain. I was in Paris for Christmas 1956 – it was amazing. A lot of the American writers were still there.
When I came back to England, I decided to combine painting, commercial art and part-time teaching, so I wasn’t relying on any one of them for money. I sold my first painting, called Loelia, World’s Most Tattooed Lady, which I’d done at college, to the American writer and artist Fleur Cowles for £25. After that, the architect Colin St John Wilson started collecting my work.
My advice to graduates is to work hard and apply yourself, but remember that luck is a big part of it. Covid-19 is a bump in the road: I’ve been forced to work in my studio, and have produced things I might not otherwise have done. But painting is a constant; there will always be oil, brushes and canvases.
‘Leaving felt like falling into a cloud’: Sam Taylor-Johnson, Goldsmiths, graduated 1990
The day this photograph was taken, [Palestinian artist] Mona Hatoum was visiting Goldsmiths. She’d asked us to bring in something personal, so I brought my Walkman. I sang along to Talking Heads in front of the class, my one and only public performance.
I originally studied sculpture at North East London Polytechnic, but after a year transferred to Goldsmiths. It was intimidating and overwhelming – everyone was debating art; Damien Hirst had already staged [the groundbreaking exhibition] Freeze, in 1988. I didn’t know where to fit in.
You had to be self-motivated. Rather than learning a set of skills, you learned how to be disciplined, how to trust your creative ideas. I found my voice. I was the first person in my extended family to go to college. It felt so exciting, like the world was opening up.
Leaving, and suddenly having to navigate the world of work, felt like falling into a cloud. At my final-year show, a man told me: “Don’t take a good job – you’ll never leave,” so I worked front of house at Camden Palace, and had bar jobs. But I also shared a studio, and even when I was exhausted, I went in and tried to come up with ideas.
My turning point was a group show at the Lisson Gallery called Wonderful Life, in 1993. I had picked up a camera for the first time, and photographed club bouncers looking at paintings at the then Tate Gallery. Things slowly started to grow after that, but I had to adopt a type of confidence I didn’t have. I had to learn how to say, “My ideas matter.”
I feel for this year’s graduates. Art markets may suffer – but not artists, or true creativity. The world will always need that.
‘I nearly turned down my breakthrough show’: Sir Steve McQueen, Goldsmiths, graduated 1993
Going to Chelsea College of Art to do my art foundation was a liberation. I was finally doing what I wanted, after 18 years of being told what to do. I met people with similar interests, but not necessarily similar backgrounds.
At Goldsmiths, where I studied fine art, I loved the vigour. I was given a large studio and told to get on with it. At first, you think, yippee! But after six weeks you’re begging someone to tell you what to do. Then you start following your own initiative.
Film-making first grabbed me outside college; 1933’s Zéro De Conduite, directed by Jean Vigo, blew my mind. But there was no access to cameras in the art department, so I got friendly with a technician on the MA film course called Noski, and eventually they adopted me on to their course. I shot Bear for my final-year show.
I’m worried that black students are still being marked down. Only two got a first in my year; the only reason I did was because I was marked by two external examiners. After I graduated, I went to do grad film at New York University, which wasn’t for me. I came back after three months and worked in Marks & Spencer for a bit. The only opportunity I was given was a show of black artists – Mirage, at the ICA in 1995, a breakthrough show. At first I turned it down, thinking I was being ghettoised, but it was the best thing I ever did. The wider art world was not paying attention to black artists, unlike today.
My years at art college were some of the best of my life. I got to experiment and explore. Most of all, I got to find out where it was going to take me.
‘Don’t stop working. Work comes out of work’: Sir Antony Gormley, Goldsmiths and the Slade School of Art, graduated 1979
I was a student for a long time: 11 years, if you include the three I spent travelling. I did a degree at Cambridge, but decided that sculpture was my thing.
I started at Central in 1974, before swapping to Goldsmiths. It was extraordinary: the entire student body was the agent of its own evolution and the tutors were so committed.
I went straight into a two-year postgraduate course at the Slade. It wasn’t as exciting, but I did produce better work. The summer after I graduated I made two works that opened doors for me, Bed and Room. I sold my first piece, too.
In September 1980, I took part in the Milan Triennale; it gave me an inkling of things beginning to happen. But throughout this time, I was teaching. I never expected to live from my work.
I’m aware of how difficult these days are for students. But you can make anything anywhere – and you don’t need a gallery to show it. With sculpture in particular, material, spacial and financial constraints will always be there, but it doesn’t matter what scale your work is. My advice is: don’t stop working. Work comes out of work. And always listen to what the thing you’re making is telling you.
‘I felt I had a lifetime ahead of me – that gave me ambition’: Rachel Whiteread, the Slade School of Art, UCL, graduated 1987
After studying painting at Brighton, I realised I was more interested in making things, and applied to do an MA in sculpture. I had a lot of freedom and 24-hour access to a studio, which is unheard of today. It was the most amazing degree; you were essentially self-taught, but with guidance. I was at an advantage, as I was from the art world [Whiteread’s mother was an artist], but I didn’t realise you could become a famous artist. I imagined I would become a professor. My generation was the first to earn proper money.
I have no recollection of going to collect my degree – I was quite cocky like that. The summer after graduation, I earned money where I could: TV stuff with my sister, restaurant work. I applied to Thatcher’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme, and was given £40 a week. I sublet a horrible studio in Wapping; it had mice and no windows, but it was good to have.
My first significant piece after Slade was called Closet: a wardrobe interior covered in black felt. It was a eureka moment; I felt I had found my genre. Becoming a professional artist is a gradual process, but one day you discover you’re making something that people are interested in.
My advice to this year’s graduates is to keep being honest with yourself, and keep working. But never feel like art is something you have to do; art school can open you up to all sorts of things.
‘If I had my time again, I would give myself a break’: Samuel Ross, De Montfort University, graduated 2012
I was insanely focused as a student. I studied graphic design and contemporary illustration while running a T-shirt line and working part-time in shops and warehouses. I’d be in the university design studio from 8am until 9 or 10pm; I’d go to the library until midnight, then I might go out. If I had my time again, I would give myself a break.
A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to go into higher education, so I was incredibly grateful. University was a culture shock. I come from an intellectual family, so was comfortable dissecting ideas and expressing myself, but my lived experience was very different from a lot of my peers. I was engaging with the middle and upper class for the first time – it was surreal, seeing people who didn’t have to worry about the immediacies of life.
I didn’t know then that my ambition was to go into fashion. It wasn’t until after university, when I got a job designing kitchenware for Grand Designs and Jamie Oliver, that I understood that that direction might be too reductive for me.
If I were to give graduates any advice it would be to assess the landscape. What is and is not working within your discipline? If you can identify grey areas, it’s easier to get your voice heard.
In fashion, an industry that operates on youth culture and subversion, it’s super important to be in tune with the zeitgeist. Having an understanding of what will resonate with generations outside your own will give you wider reach.
‘Your graduate show should be your worst. Mine was a disaster’: JW Anderson, London College of Fashion, graduated 2005
I didn’t get on to the womenswear course, but was desperate to go to London, so when they offered me a spot on their new menswear course, I packed my bags.
One of the most memorable pieces I made were men’s blue striped shorts and shirts with little acorns woven out of straw coming off them. Weirdly, I’m all about straw now, so it must have done something to me.
In the second year, you grow up overnight. You’ve worked out that you need a tin opener and that you have to do your own washing. You start to embrace reality and it forms you, politically and creatively. I had to work throughout to pay for it; I was very lucky to get a job doing the windows at Prada. Then I started making jumpers and selling them in small shops.
There’s anxiety that your graduate show has to be the best show you ever do, but it should probably be the worst – because then it can only get better. My graduate show was an absolute disaster: very last minute. It was women’s 1920s underwear with Aran knitwear and resin jewellery with insects trapped inside; it was a trip. But I have never hired graduates based on their final collections. It’s all about personality, and how you work in a team. You can’t judge someone on one collection.
There’s never a perfect moment to get a job (I graduated in the middle of a housing crisis), but I believe there is a job for everyone. If you work hard, opportunities will come your way. If you know what you want, you’ve got to put it out there and start walking towards it.
‘I found my tribe, and the value of taking risks’: Hussein Chalayan, Central Saint Martins, graduated 1993
I had no idea that my graduate show, in 1993, would be such a big break. I buried part of the collection in my friend’s garden a few months beforehand. When I dug it up again, iron filings in the clothes had oxidised and formed a crust.
Afterwards, a magazine wrote about me and within a year I had a window at Browns (Isabella Blow took the collection there in bin bags) and my first off-schedule show. Soon Björk was wearing my clothes.
When I was growing up, becoming a designer hadn’t seemed possible. As a Turkish Cypriot living between Cyprus and the UK, I had never seen anyone from my culture designing fashion. Then I read about Rifat Ozbek, who is Turkish, studying at Central Saint Martins and it opened up the possibility.
College was where I found my tribe – people I’m still friends with. College also taught me the value of taking risks. I used to feel scared to start a project, but I learned that starting is the hardest part. I also learned that failure happens to everyone. You can’t succeed without it.
We are living in such a different time. The digital world is the biggest advantage graduates have now. Starting an Instagram account is free and gives you a way to promote yourself in the way you want. It can be very powerful.
My advice would be to find a tribe, even if that is digitally, and collaborate with them. With sustainability and the environment so important now, there are new economies being created and opportunities to share processes. Perhaps this time will create an atmosphere of greater comradeship – for all of us.