Born in Aley (Lebanon) in 1928, Aref El Rayess started painting at the age of eleven. In 1948 his first exhibition was held in Beirut with the support of the journalist Arlette Levy, the artist Georges Cyr, the art critic Victor Hakim and the Head of the French Institute of Archaeology Henry Seyrig.
From 1948 to 1957 El Rayess travelled between Senegal and Paris where he studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts, and the free studios of Fernand Leger, Andre Lhôte, and La Grande Chaumière among others. In 1957 he returned to Lebanon and opened a studio and an atelier of Aubusson tapestries with the Canadian Roger Caron. In 1959 after an exhibition at the Italian Cultural Centre he was offered a scholarship to study in Italy. He spent four productive years between Florence and Rome; and in 1963 the Lebanese government commissioned him to produce two sculptures to represent Lebanon at the New York World Fair. El Rayess spent two years in the USA meeting with Expressionists painters and intellectuals.
In 1967 he returned to Lebanon, marked by the events in the Arab World. He was a Founding member of the Fine Arts Department at the Lebanese University where he taught, and Dar el Fan (The House of Art and Culture) with his close friend Janine Rubeiz. From that moment on, El Rayess organized, attended and participated in conferences and exhibitions on politics and arts in the Arab World. In 1972 he published a manifesto titled With Whom and Against Whom. In 1975 he was invited to Algeria where he produced a series of drawings depicting the Lebanese civil war, published as the book The Road to Peace; and in 1978 he participated in the International Art Exhibition in Solidarity with Palestine. He started working in Saudi Arabia around this time, where he produced around 13 sculptures between Jeddah, Tabuk and Riyad. He stayed in Jeddah until 1987 and returned to Aley, Lebanon, in 1992, where he lived until he passed away in 2005.