John Axton grew up in southern Illinois. The death of his father in the Korean War before he got to know him and the blindness of his brother are major influences on his sparse, haunting imagery. In 1967, he graduated from Southern Illinois University's commercial art program and worked for an engraving firm in Denver. In 1979, he moved to New Mexico. Inspired by the landscape and the Native Americans he saw in Taos, he became a full-time painter. In the mid-1990s, he lived briefly in New York City and Livingston, Montana but returned to New Mexico. He had a studio behind his former wife's art gallery in Santa Fe.