James McGarrell began painting in the basement of his parents' house at age 20. His first formal art studies were at Indiana University and at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. He then entered the graduate painting program at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1955 McGarrell had his first solo exhibition at the Frank Perls Gallery in Beverly Hills and received a Fulbright grant to the State Academy of Art in Stuttgart, Germany.
After returning from Germany in 1956, McGarrell began a long distinguished academic career at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Three years later he returned to Indiana University to direct the graduate painting program. In 1981 he accepted a position in the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, where he remained until his retirement from teaching in 1993. He has also been an artist in residence at many institutions for short periods, most notably at Skowhegan, the International School in Umbria, Rice University, the University of Utah, Arizona State University, and Dartmouth College.
During the past half century McGarrell has had more than a hundred solo exhibitions at galleries and museums in America, England, France, and Italy. His paintings, prints, and drawings have been included in hundreds of exhibitions in the United States, South America, Europe, and Japan.
He is a member of the National Academy and Correspondent Member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l'Institut de France. In 1995 he was the recipient of the Jimmy Ernst Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Arts and Letters.