Born in Exeter, Hilliard came from a family of miniature painters. His first known miniature was made when he was thirteen years old. Hilliard was apprenticed to Robert Brandon, a London goldsmith and became a freeman of the Goldsmiths' Company in 1569. In addition to painting miniatures, Hilliard also produced a number of full-length portraits. He enjoyed royal patronage and painted Elizabeth I from life in 1572 and 1600. James I also employed Hilliard from 1603, giving him many commissions for miniatures and medals.