Barbara Rae was born in Falkirk, Scotland and studied at Edinburgh College of Art from 1961 to 1965. After winning a post-graduate scholarship, she travelled to France and Spain drawing inspiration from contemporary European art. In 1967 she had her first solo exhibition in Edinburgh and has exhibited regularly since then. She attended Moray House College of Education and taught in Edinburgh until 1972. She went on to lecture in Drawing, Painting and Printmaking at Aberdeen College of Education from 1972 to 1974 and in Drawing and Painting at Glasgow School of Art from 1975 to 1996. In 1992 she was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Academy and in 1995 a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission.
Among Rae’s many awards are Major Scottish Arts Council Awards in 1975 and 1981, the Guthrie Medal from the Royal Scottish Academy in 1977, the Royal Scottish Academy Sir William Gillies Travel Award in 1983, the Calouste Gulbenkian Printmaking Award also in 1983 and the Hunting Group Prize in 1990.