Tracey Emin: 'Alan Miller was a true ally. He showed me how to be a painter'

My Life In A Column
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The Independent Online

Last night I went to bed crying. I had been thinking about my days at the Royal College of Art. I've always said the best thing about the Royal College of Art was receiving that letter saying that I got in, and after that it went downhill.

But, of course, that's not true. Twenty two years on from receiving that letter I look back at my time there and realise how lucky and how honoured I was to get a place. I remember my interview as if it was yesterday. The year that I applied, more than 2,000 people had gone after 20 places, and almost everybody had done exceptionally well in their last art school. To even apply for a place on the painting course at the RCA, you had to have received either a First or a 2:1 for your degree.

I was doing something quite strange when I applied, as I had taken my Bachelor of Arts in printmaking, and my painting experience was almost non-existent, apart from large panel paintings on board, done with screenprinting ink and very cheap household paintbrushes. It was unanimously agreed at the time of my interview that my paintings had something in terms of picture making, but as far as the art of painting was concerned, forget it.

I remember laughing and asking the six gentlemen (who included Professor Paul Huxley, painting tutors Alan Miller and Adrian Berg – who since that day I've always referred to as Bergy Baby – and Peter Allen, the painting school technician): if my painting was so crap, why had they bothered to give me an interview in the first place? I remember one of them asking me if I thought my painting was bad. I said yes, because I had never been taught how to paint, that I knew I was technically quite incompetent and that I really, really wanted to spend two years learning how to paint.

Peter Allen told me that out of all the portfolios that they had looked at, I was one of the very few people who had comprehensive, complete sketchbooks which showed a system of thought, in so many ways a journey and that showed very positive student potential, which was why I had been given an interview. I remember Professor Huxley asking me how I thought I would be able to get on with the other students. I thought it could possibly be a trick question, but I gave a standard compromise answer, something along the lines of it being like a football team. The interview went very fast and there was a lot of laughing at my painting The Day the Pub Burnt Down. (Frank Auerbach's got nothing on me!)

Adrian Berg was doubled up, especially when I told him the pub hadn't actually burnt down, it was just that I spent so much time in there that sometimes I wish it had, and the orange flames added something to the mucky browns and greys. Adrian said it was possibly one of the worst paintings he had ever seen. I looked at it as it stood there on the easel and told Adrian not to be so nasty because he was making me feel really sorry for it, which was making me like it even more.

I left the room all smiles, thinking what a great interview it had been, but knowing in my heart that I hadn't got in.

So when that big, fat letter thudded through the letterbox I knew just by the weight of it that it was good news. The royal crest on the franked mail and that letter: "Congratulations...." I knew I had done so well to get in. Leaving school so young, no GCEs, no A-levels, no foundation course, and absolutely no painting skills whatsoever! To this day, when I see Adrian Berg at the Royal Academy, I point at him and say, "It's your fault, it's all your bloody fault!" and he says, "Don't give me all the credit, there were other people in the room at the time of your interview."

I was incredibly unhappy at the Royal College. The summer before I started I had lost my home and its entire contents, including my three cats, which I had to give to a farmer to look after. I moved to London and became a lodger in a flat in Bell Street. My first year was filled with a lot of difficulty and tears. I did find it very hard to blend in and mix with the other students. I did feel very different from them.

All the teaching that I'd had at Maidstone College of Art, where I had done my BA, was guided by two trains of thought. On one level, a Marxist doctrine, so we were given the social and political skills with which to understand art history; and on another level, a passionate spiritual guidance through creativity. And believe me, this was not happening at the Royal College of Art in the late Eighties, at the height of Thatcherism.

At the end of my first year I was told that if I didn't do a large oil painting, I might be asked to leave the course. I went into the office to see the secretary and said: "Tell Paul Huxley I'm bored, that if this place had no walls it wouldn't exist for me, and that I'm going down to Margate and I don't know when I'll be back." And I just walked out.

On my return the following week, there was a letter informing me that I would have to have a serious meeting with my tutors and professor to discuss my future on the course. I used to arrive at the college at around quarter to 11 in the morning and leave at 10 o'clock at night. I would work every Saturday and in the spring and summer terms I would go in on Saturdays and Sundays. I had no money and I had no social life whatsoever. All I had was the soul-destroying act of trying to make a good painting. I remember literally banging my head against my studio wall and crying with frustration.

Each night I would walk around the studios looking at other people's work. There was very little that I could relate to. People would spend weeks painting Velasquez's cuff, 10ft high. Meanwhile, I was just finding out who Velasquez was. I would spend at least three mornings a week at the National Gallery before going to college.

But it didn't matter how hard I worked, I could never get that mix of cerise pink that the girl got in studio B. Until one day, Rachel, the girl who ran the paint shop, told me it was Series F. Series F cost £16 a tube – I was never going to get that cerise pink, no matter how hard I tried.

That summer term, I applied for a travel grant. But during the meeting when I was pulled up in front of my professor and the other tutors, I was told that the thing that would stop me from being thrown off the course was if I made a large painting in oils.

So instead of the Ritblat travel award, which I had in fact won, I would be given as much paint and as much canvas as I needed, any colours, any series. I was furious! The closest I was going to get to the Mediterranean was a turquoise cirrus sea. That evening, when I sat in my studio, Alan Miller came to see me. He was very kind and he said, "I'm going to show you a really good shortcut."

And for the next week after college had finished, between 5pm and 10pm, he spent every evening showing me how to mix paints, what brushes to use, and most importantly, how to stretch canvas. He showed me the rudiments of how to be a painter. He did this out of the kindness of his heart, in his own time, and over that week we became really good friends and I realised within the RCA I had an ally – someone could practically really help me, no bullshit, no pressure, just really good advice that has helped me right until this day.

That summer I did a whole series of paintings, big oil paintings, and during the summer holidays Alan even popped in to see how I was getting on and I remember his great big smile and him saying: "You've done it, you've done it!"

It was Alan's funeral yesterday. I didn't go because I wanted this column to be a tribute to him and I thank him for the confidence he instilled in me and I will always be grateful for his selfless support, which I know he extended to many others and he will be really missed.