Born in Aberdeenshire, Cowie studied at Glasgow School of Art. He taught at Bellshill Academy, near Glasgow and later became Warden at Hospitalfield House, an art school near Arbroath. His style of painting was precise and linear. Cowie was an admirer of Poussin and the pre-raphaelite painters and believed in the classical values of self-restraint and objectivity. He had a meticulous way of working and believed that art was a product of thought and reason.