John Hoyland was born on 12 October 1934, in Sheffield, Yorkshire, to a working-class family, and educated at Sheffield School of Art and Crafts within the junior art department (1946–51) before progressing to Sheffield College of Art (1951–56), and the Royal Academy Schools, London (1956–60), where Sir Charles Wheeler, the then President of the Royal Academy famously ordered that Hoyland's paintings – all abstracts – be removed from the walls of the Diploma Galleries. It was only the intervention of Peter Greenham, Acting Keeper of the Schools, that saved the day when he reminded Sir Charles Wheeler that Hoyland had painted admired landscapes and figurative paintings– evidence that he could 'paint properly'.
In 1953 Hoyland went abroad for the first time, hitch-hiking with a friend to the South of France. After the bleakness of Sheffield it was a revelation: 'To me it was like landing in Tahiti. There was still rationing here. Down there were all these brown girls, swimming and diving, and all these grapes.' Hoyland visited again in 1957 with David Smith when he was at the Royal Academy and got what he referred to as 'The Gauguin syndrome', a life-long romance with travel and the south.
Retrospectives of his paintings have been held at the Serpentine Gallery (1979), the Royal Academy (1999) and Tate St Ives (2006) In 1982 he won the John Moores Painting Prize and in 1998 the Royal Academy's Wollaston Award.
His works are held in many public and private collections including the Tate and Damien Hirst's Murderme Collection. In September 2010, Hoyland and five other British artists including Howard Hodgkin, John Walker, Ian Stephenson, Patrick Caulfield and R.B. Kitaj were included in an exhibition entitled The Independent Eye: Contemporary British Art from the Collection of Samuel and Gabrielle Lurie, at the Yale Center for British Art.
He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1991 and was appointed Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools in 1999. The National Portrait Gallery holds portraits of the artist in its collection.