Born in St Andrews, Barns-Graham studied at Edinburgh College of Art from 1932 to 1937, where she became interested in abstract art. She moved to St Ives in Cornwall in 1940, finding among the modernist artists who had settled there (including Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth) a sympathetic environment for her developing work. A visit to Switzerland in 1948 inspired a series of drawings and paintings of glaciers. Barns-Graham was captivated by the combination of their transparency and rough surfaces. From this time onwards she produced abstract compositions using geometrical forms, but with their origins in nature.