Peter Upward was born in Melbourne on 28 September 1932. He began his training at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1951 before transferring to the Julian Ashton School in Sydney (1951–55); there he studied under John Passmore, who encouraged his early interest in abstraction. In 1956 Upward settled in Melbourne, enjoying a successful period there until 1960, when he was drawn back to Sydney, favouring its cosmopolitan lifestyle and strong support for abstraction. There he worked and exhibited alongside other abstract painters—including John Olsen, Clement Meadmore, Passmore, Leonard Hessing, and Stanislaus Rapotec. Upward’s first show, a joint exhibition with Meadmore, was held at the Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, in 1959. This was followed in 1961 by two major Sydney 9 group exhibitions, shown in Sydney and Melbourne.

In 1962 Upward moved to London where he experienced some success with three solo exhibitions. During his time in London, his work underwent significant change based on his developing interests in astrology, beat generation literature and Action Painting. Upward returned permanently to Sydney in 1971 and began teaching at East Sydney Technical College. He continued painting and exhibiting, expanding and evolving his approach to colour and materials. His expressive style of abstraction, which was uncommon in Australia at the time, led to his recognition as an outstanding and vibrant artist. In 1980 his work was exhibited in Abstract Expressionism in Australia, a group exhibition held at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Sydney. Upward died in Sydney on 9 November 1983. A retrospective was shown the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, in 1984. A second retrospective, organised by the Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest, was shown in 2007.