As a student, Arkley drew insatiably. Like Picasso, he covered every available surface from paper napkins to people's bodies with doodles. He admired the work of Paul Klee who coined the idea of 'taking a line for a walk'. He was a draughtsman rather than a painter and even in his paintings the sprayed or painted calligraphic line was always prominent. Arkley believed the Surrealists were his first introduction to contemporary art, and their practice of automatic writing and the Exquisite Corpse game were an important early influence.In 1969, after finishing school, Arkley embarked on a three year art course at Prahran College of Advanced Education. It was here that Fred Cress, an artist and lecturer, introduced him to the airbrush which became Arkley's trademark. Often used commercially for shading effects, Arkley refined the use of the airbrush as a drawing tool which he manipulated expertly like a pen. The airbrushed line, particularly when used to outline his fields of bright colour, lent a smooth and polished look to his works which suggested printed, mass produced images. Arkley has explained that he learnt much of his art history from glossy prints in books rather than first hand sources, and it was these reproductions that he wanted to emulate.
In 1975, Arkley held his first exhibition at Tolarno Galleries, the galleries that were to represent him for the rest of his career. It was the start of a close relationship with the gallery's director Georges Mora. Arkley's earliest exhibited paintings are known as the 'white' paintings They are steeped in the traditions of modernist and abstract art. Soft meditative works influenced by Zen philosophy, they explore the power and symbolism of black and white with a softness and delicacy enhanced by the powdery spray of the airbrush.