Richard John Watkins was born in Sydney on 4 May 1937. He studied at the Julian Ashton School and, intermittently, at the East Sydney Technical College between 1955 and 1958, without receiving a formal qualification. In 1959 he moved to London, where he remained until 1961, taking brief trips to France and Spain. He returned to Sydney via the United States of America, visiting galleries and seeing work by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. Watkins’ work was first shown in a group exhibition, Young Commonwealth artists, in London in 1962, and he held his first solo exhibition at the Barry Stern Gallery, Sydney, in 1963. Between 1974 and 1979 he was based in Hong Kong, from where he traveled to Europe in 1974–75 and again in 1977–78.

From 1963 onwards Watkins held regular exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1985 he was selected to represent Australia in the XVIII Bienal de São Paulo. He has participated in many group exhibitions, including: Contemporary Australian painting which toured to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1965; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, exhibition The field, which was the first survey of colour-field painting and geometric abstraction in Australia; Creating Australia: 200 years of Australian art 1788–1988, an exhibition that toured Australian state galleries in 1988; and The moderns: 20th century painting and sculpture, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, 2005. His first retrospective was held at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery in 1989, and the National Gallery of Australia presented the major survey, Dick Watkins in context, in 1993. Watkins’ work is collected in state and regional galleries, and numerous corporate and private collections. He lives and works in Sydney.