Born in Wisconsin, in the mid-west of the United States, Tobey's only formal art training was attendance at Saturday classes at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1906 to 1908. He began working in New York as a fashion illustrator and exhibited portrait drawings. In 1918 he converted to the Baha'i World Faith after which his art sought to express his spiritual beliefs. Influenced by Middle and Far Eastern art, he is best known for his 'white writing' - an overlay of calligraphic symbols on an abstract field of marks. Widely travelled, Tobey was artist-in-residence at the radical school Dartington Hall in Devonshire in the 1930s and eventually settled in Basel, Switzerland.