Born in 1942 in the Scottish fishing village of Port Seton, Bellany attended Edinburgh College of Art from 1960 to 1965, and the Royal College of Art from 1965 to 1968.

His early work was heavily influenced by the Northern European Expressionist-Realist tradition allied to personal symbolism and iconography often drawn from his family's sea-faring past. His work was often highly challenging and at times autobiographical as epitomised by a series of brutally unflinching self portraits produced in hospital following a major operation in the 1980s and held a major exhibition at The Scottish Gallery in 1985.

He was an artist of international standing with works in both MOMA and Metropolitan Museum in New York as well as The Tate Gallery, London and Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1991, and was honoured with a major retrospective at the Scottish National Galleries last year.