James Cowie came from an Aberdeenshire farming family. After completing his studies at Glasgow School of Art, he taught at Bellshill Academy. Later he taught at Hospitalfield, Arbroath.
Cowie was an insightful artist and an exceptional draughtsman. An influential teacher, he himself sought inspiration from the early Renaissance; yet sometimes his work showed a surrealist quality. James Cowie spent his retirement in Edinburgh where he was awarded an honorary degree by the University.