Leon Kossoff was born in London on 7 December 1926, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants. He studied commercial art at St Martin's School of Art, London, from 1943 to 1945, attended the art course there from 1949 to 1953, then the Royal College of Art from 1953 to 1956; Frank Auerbach was a fellow student. Kossoff found the traditional methods of life-class teaching 'rigid and inhibiting', so during the early 1950s also took evening classes at Borough Polytechnic with David Bomberg, finding his approach to drawing was at once perceptive and spontaneous. The artist developed a method which combined careful study and analysis of his subject with an improvisatory, intuitive manner.
His first solo exhibition was in 1957 at the Beaux-Arts Gallery, London, the first of five he held there before its closure in 1965. Kossoff taught at art schools in London from 1959 to 1969, exhibiting there at Marlborough Galleries in 1968 and Fischer Fine Art in the 1970s, then in the United States in the 1980s, and at Anthony D'Offay in London. His subjects are always people and places familiar to him: portraits of family and friends, figure studies and nudes of recurring models, and street scenes or buildings close to his studios. In the early 1950s he worked at Mornington Crescent, Camden, then at Bethnal Green from 1953 to 1961, Willesden Junction from 1961 to 1966, then Willesden Green where he remains. From 1972 to 1975 a second studio was in Hackney.
Characteristic of his art, from the 1960s onwards, are charcoal drawings made on the spot, studies for thick impasto paintings, their sculptural appearance achieved by using fingers and knives, as well as brushes. In the mid-1980s Kossoff's palette brightened and the surface was less worked, more temperate. In 1987 he began to draw and paint Christ Church, Spitalfields. Kossoff is now recognised as a leading British artist. He represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1995, and a retrospective of his work was held at the Tate Gallery the following year.