George Russell Drysdale was born on 7 February 1912 into a wealthy family in Sussex, England. In 1919 his father moved the family to Pioneer, a sugar farm in Northern Queensland and later to Melbourne in 1923 where Drysdale attended Geelong Church of England Grammar School.

Drysdale was first introduced to art in his final year at Geelong Grammar when he commenced five art classes a week, possibly as a response to the discovery of a detached retina. 

In 1932 Drysdale was admitted to hospital for an eye operation and it was here that his surgeon (also a photographer) showed some of his drawings to Daryl Lindsay who in turn recommended Drysdale take lessons from George Bell.

At first, Drysdale rebelled against George Bell's dislike of illustration and love of Modern Art. Instead he decided to pursue a career as an illustrator. This was a short lived dream after Sir Keith Murdoch made it clear this dream would not be realised and a trip to Europe in 1932-34 soon turned Drysdale's mind away from illustrations as he witnessed the modern art scene in full swing.

Returning to Australia in 1934 with a new understanding and appreciation of modern art. Drysdale began to paint in a similar style to George Bell and Rupert Bunny, re-enrolling at the Bell-Shore School. For the next few years Drysdale's work benefitted from a friendly and competitive relationship with Peter Purves Smith, both artists' driving each other to create new art and push their own boundaries. 

Returning to Europe briefly in 1938 to study and paint in Paris and London, the threat of war prompted Drysdale's return to Australia. Eager to enlist in the armed forces, Drysdale was rejected due to ongoing issues with his eye that continued to plague him. Despite Drysdale's disappointment at being turned away from serving in World War 2, he entered the most productive and important stage of his career.

His country themed oils including The Drover's Wife, Home Town and The Cricketers would all be painted in the 1940s, leading into Drysdale's portraits of Cape York Aborigines in the 1950s and into the 1960s with one of his most famous works Man in Landscape 1963, depicting an Indigenous man holding onto the rocks and earth in front of him as though he is trying to hold onto not just the land Indigenous Australians had lived on for thousands of years, but also holding onto the heritage these rocks and earth represent. 

Drysdale's art was void of the literary characters used as subjects by other artists of his generation such as Nolan. Instead Drysdale presents the viewer with subjects that were not unfamiliar to the Australian audience in their themes and types, analysing these types and their place within Australia's national identity.

Despite choosing to live in Australia, Drysdale found international recognition. Exhibiting with Leicester Galleries in London for several years in the 1950s, he also found recognition in the United States early on when in 1941 the Metropolitan Museum Museum of Art in New York acquired  Monday Morning 1938.

Famously careful when planning his works, Drysdale did not create a vast quantity of artworks however he continued to find many notable collectors who were eager to purchase works when they came onto the market including Sir Kenneth Clark and Kym Bonython.

In 1954, Drysdale represented Australia at the Venice Biennale and in 1960 the Art Gallery of New South Wales organised a retrospective. After becoming a member of the Board of Trustees at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1962 and a member of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board the following year, Drysdale was knighted in 1969 and later appointed AC in 1980.