Sam Francis was born in San Mateo, California, on June 25, 1923. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1943, after studying medicine and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, but started painting as a form of therapy after a plane accident forced him to spend an extended period of time in hospital. From 1945 to 1946, he studied painting at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco, and in 1947 produced his first abstract composition. He spent the following two years studying Art History at the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated with an master's degree in Literary Studies.

In 1950 he moved to Paris and two years later had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie du Dragon. During this period, his style was deeply influenced by Art Informel and by the Abstract Expressionist works of Jackson Pollock. In 1955 he participated in his first museum exhibition, presenting seven paintings at the Tendances Actuelles exhibition at the Kunsthalle of Berne. The following year he took part in the Twelve Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1957 he spent time in Mexico, New York, and Japan. His stay in Japan had a significant impact on his artistic development, as is clearly seen in the incorporation of Oriental painting techniques in his work from this time, particularly the use of thin layers of paint and large blank areas. In 1959 Francis took part in Documenta II, Kassel, and the São Paulo Bienal.

In 1961, despite falling ill and spending a long time in a hospital in Bern, he participated in the Arte e Contemplazione exhibition at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, and the Abstract Expressionists and Imaginists exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Though regarded primarily as a painter, he was also a sculptor and printmaker, and produced a series of color lithographs in 1963. In 1984 he founded Lapis Press, an influential publishing house specializing in visual arts and philosophy. His work is held in many public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the Idemitsu Museum of Art, Tokyo. Sam Francis died on November 4, 1994, in Santa Monica, California.