Thomas Downing was born in Suffolk, Virginia, in 1928 and spent his childhood in Ivor, a nearby town. He graduated from the local high school in 1945, and attended Randolph Macon College from 1945-1948. The following year he saw an exhibition of the New York painting scene at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In particular, de Kooning?s Asheville (1948) made an impression. In 1949, Downing moved to New York to begin the ?Foundation Year? at Pratt Institute. During his stay, Downing visited galleries and became aware of such painters as Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, William Baziotes, and Adolph Gottlieb. Dissatisfied with the program, Downing withdrew from Pratt in 1951. Later that year, army duty intervened, leading to an assignment in a graphic aids section in El Paso, Texas.
At the close of his military service, he accepted a teaching job in Prince Georges County, just outside of Washington, D.C. He was impressed by a student show at Catholic University, and with his G.I. benefit, enrolled for a summer course in 1954. Here he met Kenneth Noland, his life-drawing instructor. Downing found a rapport with Noland which came to be a significant turning point in his work.