Peter Howson was born in London of Scottish parents and moved with his family to Prestwick, Ayrshire, when was aged four. He was raised in a religious family and the first ever painting he did was a Crucifixion, when he was 6 years old. He spent a short time as an infantry soldier in the Royal Highland Fusiliers but left to study at the Glasgow School of Art, from 1975 to 1977, and from 1979 to 1981. Here he worked alongside contemporaries such as Adrian Wiszniewski, Steven Campbell and Ken Currie, who also worked in figurative art.
His early works are typified by very masculine working class men, most famously in The Heroic Dosser (1987). Later he was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum of London, to be the official war artist for the Bosnian/Hercegovina under Serbian and Croatian aggression in 1993. Here he produced some of his most shocking and controversial work detailing the atrocities which were taking place at the time, like Plum Grove (1994). One painting in particular Croatian and Muslim, detailing a rape created controversy partly because of its explicit subject matter but also because Howson had painted it from the accounts of its victims. He was also the official war painter at the Kosovo War for the London Times.
Much of his work cast stereotypes on the lower social groups; he portrayed brawls including drunken, even physically deformed men and women.
In more recent years his work has exhibited strong religious themes which some say is linked to the treatment of his alcoholism and drug addiction at the Castle Craig Hospital in Peebles in 2000, after which he converted to Christianity. Howson also has Asperger syndrome.
His work has appeared in other media, with his widest exposure arguably for a British postage stamp he did in 1998 to celebrate engineering achievements for the millennium. In addition his work has been used on album covers by Live (Throwing Copper), The Beautiful South (Quench) and Jackie Leven (Fairytales for Hardmen).
His work is exhibited in many major collections and is in the private collection of celebrities such as David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Madonna.
Howson is now recognized as one of his generations leading figurative painters.