Ocean was born Humphrey Anthony Erdeswick Butler-Bowdon, on 22 June 1951 in Sussex, England, and went to art schools in Tunbridge Wells, Brighton and Canterbury. From 1971 he was bass player with the Pub rock band Kilburn and the High Roads, which opened for The Who on its Christmas tour in 1973.
In 1983, Ocean painted Paul McCartney's portrait as part of the first prize in the 1982 John Player Portrait Award and the following year painted the poet Philip Larkin's portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, a work described by the novelist Nick Hornby as "unanswerable". Four years later, Ocean travelled to Northern Brazil with the American anthropologist Stephen Nugent, a lecturer at the University of London, eager to expose colonial caricatures of the region. Their subsequent book, Big Mouth: The Amazon Speaks, was published by Fourth Estate (HarperCollins) in 1990, and features evocative illustrations of Brazil. In 1999 the National Maritime Museum commissioned Ocean to paint a picture of modern maritime Britain. Throughout the 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century, Ocean's paintings were exhibited in many of the leading museums in the United Kingdom. In addition to his portrait of Philip Larkin, he is perhaps best known for his iconic etching, Black Love Chair, which appeared on the cover of Paul McCartney's 2007 album Memory Almost Full.
In 2002, Ocean served as Artist-in-Residence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which culminated in an exhibition inspired by 17th-century Dutch genre paintings and South London suburbia. That year he was awarded an honorary fellowship by Canterbury College of Art (now the University for the Creative Arts) where he had been a student between 1970-1973.
In 2012 Ocean was appointed Royal Academy professor of perspective, a position once held by J. M. W. Turner.
- 1984 National Portrait Gallery (London)
- 1992 Double-Portrait, Tate Liverpool
- 1997 urbasuburba (with Jock McFadyen), The Whitworth Art Gallery
- 1999 The Painter's Eye (with John Tchalenko), National Portrait Gallery
- 2003 How's My Driving, Dulwich Picture Gallery
- 2006 How do you look (film with John Tchalenko), Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons of England
- 2009 Sidney Cooper Gallery, Canterbury Christ Church University
- 2012 A Handbook of Modern Life National Portrait Gallery (London)
- British Council
- Bruges-Zeebrugge Port Authority
- Christ Church, Oxford
- Ferens Art Gallery, Hull
- Hertford College, Oxford
- Imperial War Museum, London
- National Maritime Museum, London
- National Portrait Gallery, London
- Queen Mary College, London
- Royal Library, Windsor Castle
- Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
- Royal Society of Chemistry
- St John's College, Cambridge
- South London Gallery
- Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
- University of Birmingham
- Victoria & Albert Museum
- The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester
- Wolverhampton Art Gallery