Hester was born in Elsternwick and studied art from an early age. She was a student at St Michael's Grammar School from 1933 to 1937, then, at 17, enrolled in Commercial Art at Brighton Technical School, before attending the National Gallery School in Melbourne.
Hester met Albert Tucker in 1937, whom she began to live with intermittently in 1938 in East Melbourne, and whom she married in 1941. Hester was a contemporary of Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, John Perceval, and Laurence Hope. She helped to establish the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) and was the only female painter in the modernist movement, the Angry Penguins. Hester and Tucker had a son, Sweeney Reed (1944–1979).
In 1947, when Sweeney was three, Hester was diagnosed with terminal Hodgkin's lymphoma. Believing she had only 2 years to live, she decided to move to Sydney to live with Melbourne artist Gray Smith, gave her son into the care of John Reed and Sunday Reed, the influential, Melbourne-based art patrons, who subsequently adopted him. It emerged many years later that Tucker was not Sweeney's biological father, and that he was probably the son of Melbourne jazz drummer Billy Hyde, with whom Hester had had a brief affair. Sweeney Reed committed suicide in 1979.
The illness impacted heavily on Hester's work and left an indelible mark on it, loaded with emotional content. Hester and Gray moved to rural Hurstbridge in 1948 and later lived at Avonsleigh and Upwey in the Dandenong Ranges. She married Gray in 1959. They had two children, Fern and Peregrine. Hester had 3 solo exhibitions but struggled to sell work. She worked mainly in black ink and wash, using quick, spontaneous lines guided by stream of consciousness. She also wrote poetry and used her drawings to illustrate her words.
John and Sunday Reed organised a commemorative exhibitions of Hester's work in 1963. In 1981, Janine Burke, Hester's biographer, curated the first major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria. Hester's life and work was the subject of a documentary, The Good Looker, in 1995. Reviewing her work for Time (magazine) in 2001, Michael Fitzgerald wrote 'Forty-one years after her death, Hester's drawings still suck the oxygen from the air, providing some of the clearest-eyed images in Australian art.'
- Burke, Janine (2001). "Joy Hester". Art Collector (magazine) (17). Retrieved 2014-09-15.
- Burke, Janine (1996). "Hester, Joy St Clair (1920-1960)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 2008-03-14.
- "Joy Hester b. 1920 Elsternwick, Melbourne, Vic.". Design and Art Australia Online. Retrieved 2014-09-15.
- "Family Notices.". The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957) (Melbourne, Vic.: National Library of Australia). 2 May 1941. p. 4. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
- "Joy Hester". Art Gallery of New South Wales. Retrieved 2014-09-15.
- Susan Hawthorne; Renate Klein (1994). Australia for Women: Travel and Culture. Spinifex Press. p. 193. ISBN 978-1-875559-27-5.
- Wyndham, Susan (2002-03-18). "Image of an artist as a doomed man". The Age (Melbourne, Australia: Fairfax Media). Retrieved 2014-09-15.
- Fitzgerald, Michael (2001-09-10). "Love and Pain Neglected for decades, Joy Hester's art explores human emotions with an unflinching eye". Time (magazine) (New York City). Retrieved 2014-09-15.
- "The Good Looker (1995)". Australian Screen Online. National Film and Sound Archive. Retrieved 2014-09-15.
- Janine Burke,Joy Hester, Melbourne: Greenhouse Publications, 1983; Sydney: Vintage, reprint 2001.
- Michael Keon, Joy Hester: An Unsettling World, North Caulfield, Victoria: Malakoff Fine Art Press, 1993.
- Burke, Australian Gothic: A Life of Albert Tucker, Sydney: Knopf, 2002.
- Burke, The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide, Sydney: Knopf, 2002.
- Burke, (ed) Dear Sun: The Letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed, Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1995.
- Hart, Deborah Joy Hester and friends, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2001.
- Works by Joy Hester at the National Gallery of Victoria.
- Works by Joy Hester and others from the 2001 exhibition Joy Hester and Friends at the National Gallery of Australia.