Paton was born in Dunfermline, the son of a damask designer. After briefly following his father into the textile business he became a landscape painter. Hugh was the younger brother of the artist Sir Joseph Noel Paton, who was a good friend of the art critic and artist John Ruskin. It is likely that both brothers attended Ruskin's Edinburgh lectures of 1853 on the principles of Pre-Raphaelitism, which had a great impact on Hugh's work. In exquisitely meticulous studies he depicted the natural beauty of the Scottish Highlands. Paton displayed skill as both an oil and watercolour painter. He was elected to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1865, and throughout his career he exhibited nearly 400 pictures there.