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 a long 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 M. A. in Literary Studies.

In 1950 he moved to Paris and two years later had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie du Dragon. At that time his style was deeply affected 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 Tendances Actuelles at the Kunsthalle of Berne. The following year he took part in the exhibition Twelve Americans at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1957 he spent some time in Mexico, New York, and Japan. His visit to Japan had a significant impact on his artistic development, and this is clearly seen in the incorporation of Oriental painting techniques in his work of the time, such as 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, Brasil.

In 1961, despite falling ill and spending a long time in a hospital in Berne, he participated in the exhibitions Arte e Contemplazione at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, and Abstract Expressionists and Imaginists at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Though known primarily as a painter, he was also a sculptor and printmaker, producing a new series of color lithographs in 1963. In 1984 he founded Lapis Press, a famous publishing house specializing in visual arts and philosophy. His work is held by 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 passed away on November 4, 1994, in Santa Monica, California.