Nolan studied at the National Gallery of Victoria’s School of Art in 1934 and 1936 but educated himself primarily through books on Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and the surrealists. From 1938 he was encouraged and supported by art patrons Sunday and John Reed. Their house, ‘Heide’, in the outer Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg (now Heide Museum of Modern Art), was a meeting place for the avant-garde group known as the Angry Penguins, named after the radical cultural journal. The group included the artists Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, John Perceval and Arthur Boyd. The Angry Penguins sought to modernise Australian art and poetry by adopting spontaneous and visionary processes influenced by surrealism.
In 1940 Nolan held his first solo exhibition in Melbourne, designed sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes production of Icare, and became a founding member of the Contemporary Art Society. Conscripted into the army in 1942, he spent two years in northwestern Victoria, where he painted the local landscape and figures in a powerfully simplified style of intense colour and bold brushwork.
Deserting the army in 1944, Nolan lived under the assumed name of Robert Murray, and the following year began his iconic series of the bushranger Ned Kelly that portrayed events leading to the much-mythologised outlaw’s demise.
Leaving Melbourne in 1947 Nolan travelled extensively around Australia – his travels heavily influenced his body or work.
Nolan left for London in 1951 and spent extended periods in Greece and the USA. He also worked often as a designer for theatre and opera productions in London and Australia.