Davie was born in Grangemouth, near Edinburgh and studied at Edinburgh College of Art. In 1948 he saw the work of the American Abstract Expressionists and was impressed by their intensity and freedom. Davie abandoned traditional methods of composition and subject matter and sought to free his art from premeditated decision-making. This approach owes much to the artist's interest in Zen Buddhism and there is also an analogy with jazz - Davie was a jazz saxophonist early on in his career. In the later 1950s and 1960s Davie's brushwork became more controlled and the imagery more legible. Mysterious symbols began to appear, found in sources as varied as American Indian pottery, maps, ancient rock-carvings and Aboriginal art.