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During the early 1960s, he studied at Edinburgh College of Art, here he met with other young Scottish artists to begin lifelong friendships and share ideals for a renaissance in Scottish arts. His contemporaries included Alan Bold and Alexander Moffat. Bellany and Moffat studied under Robin Philipson. Their initial interest was in impressionism but with their common Scottish ancestry they looked toward Alan Davie as a connection to a greater but more accessible artistic world.
After his studies at Edinburgh, Bellany achieved a major travelling scholarship and traveled around Europe discovering how the traditions of the great northern European masters could be connected to his own Scottish experience. After this he would marry Helen Percy and move to attend the Royal College of Art in London.
In 1968 Bellany graduated and his diploma show was hailed as great success. Many of the paintings from this and the earlier periods are now in public institutions as well as various national galleries. After graduation, Bellany was offered a teaching position at the Edinburgh College of Art but he carried on as a working artist and flit between various teaching jobs at different art colleges.
He was elected to The London Group in 1973
When in 1974 he separated from his wife his art appears to take on a darker tone. The symbolism increases and it seems as though each picture can have a whole narrative of symbols within it, increasingly the pictures become wilder and wilder tending more to expressionism, at this point he suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to Port Seton for recuperation.
Between 1973-78 Bellany had been head of faculty of painting at Croydon College of Art and had met Juliet Lister who he later married. In 1982 he was offered a show in New York which exhibited some of his earlier work. He lectured at Goldsmith's College from 1978 to 1984.
The New York 1982 tour which included a showing at the Rosa Esman gallery, presented his work to a much greater audience, resulting in purchases to important private collections as well as to the NY MOMA. One of the works exhibited was Time and the Raven, a particularly strident work. The works title was borrowed by his friend Sir Peter Maxwell Davies for his UN composition of the same name in 1995
In 1984, following an impromptu holiday in France with his first wife and family he was diagnosed with liver disease, an consequence of his alcoholism. He abstained for the rest of his life but the damage had been done.
In 1985 his father and second wife Juliet died when she committed suicide. A retrospective was arranged for the National Gallery of Modern Art. The exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery included a portrait of the cricketer Sir Ian Botham. This portrait attracted more publicity for Bellany than he had ever previously achieved.
In 1986, he remarried his first wife Helen. The liver disease was becoming unmanageable and by the end of 1987 it was clear death was near.
In 1988 Bellany was operated on for a then relatively new liver transplant procedure; this also inspired works. Carried out at Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge by Sir Roy Calne, Bellany not only survived but started to paint within hours of the operation, first producing a portrait of the nurse caring for him, then going on to produce a set of pictures known as the Addenbrooke's series.
In 2005 he suffered a heart attack. He died in 2013.
In 2017, Fortnum & Mason in collaboration with art collector Frank Cohen presented an exhibition of work by Scottish artist John Bellany, in partnership with The Bellany Estate. The show called Fortnum's X Frank 2017 saw 50 works by Bellany scattered through Fortnum & Mason's iconic London store. Curated by Robert Upstone, former Director of The Fine Art Society and Head of Modern British Art at Tate, the exhibition featured paintings from all periods of Bellany’s career, and was the largest exhibition of the artist’s work since his death in 2013. 
Bellany's work is included in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut and Tate Britain, London. Another place where his work is featured is the National Portrait galleries. Additionally some of his works are held in Scotland by the National Galleries of Scotland and also by East Lothian Council reflecting his generosity to the local communities he lived in.
Notable public works
- Allegory, National Gallery of Scotland (1964)
- Bethel, Southampton City art Gallery (1967)
- Celtic Feast, Sheffield Museums (1974)
- Billy Connolly, National Gallery of Scotland
- Ian Botham, cricketer, National Portrait Gallery, London (1985)
- Chinatown, London Transport Museum (1987)
- "Artist John Bellany dies at 71". BBC News. 29 August 2013. Retrieved 29 August 2013.
- "Interview: John Bellany, artist". The Scotsman. 21 March 2010. Retrieved 29 August 2013.
- "Interview: John Bellany, artist" Retrieved 1 July 2015
- Mansfield, Susan (12 November 2012). "John Bellany: The resurrection man". The Scotsman. Retrieved 29 August 2013.
- email@example.com. "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". www1.hw.ac.uk. Retrieved 2016-04-04.
- "Conversation with Fate". Yale Center for British Art. Retrieved 2 December 2016.
- "Aurora". Yale Center for British Art. Retrieved 2 December 2016.