Nicolaïdes was born in Washington, D.C., where his Greek-born father worked as an importer of Asian artifacts. His mother's American ancestors date back to the Colonial period. He made his living initially by a variety of jobs, including picture framing, journalism, and even by appearing once in a film as an extra, playing the role of an art student. Despite his family's opposition, he did in fact become an art student, during which he attended the Art Students' League in New York City, where he studied with John Sloan and George Bridgman. At the Art Students League he met the avant-garde couple Wilhelmina Weber Furlong and her husband Thomas Furlong
He served in the U.S. Army in France during World War I, where he was one of the first American camouflage artists, serving in the same unit as Barry Faulkner, Sherry Edmundson Fry, Abraham Rattner and others. Among his wartime duties, he often worked with contour maps.
Following World War I, he returned to New York to teach at the Art Students' League. In the process, he developed a method of teaching drawing that he shared in the world-famous and widely used The Natural Way to Draw (1941).
At the time of Nicolaïdes' death, the manuscript for The Natural Way to Draw was incomplete. A close friend and former student, Mamie Harmon, oversaw its completion and its publication in 1941. (Harmon's papers are available in the Archives of American Art.) His influence on the teaching of drawing has been long-lasting and substantial, and his book is still in use today. In brief, he taught drawing by (1) exploring the edge of the subject with 'contour drawing', (2) encouraging free and rapid 'gesture drawing', (3) encouraging tonal drawings of weight or mass, and (4) (most importantly) prescribing a daily exercise of 'memory drawing'.
- The Biography of Wilhelmina Weber Furlong: The Treasured Collection of Golden Heart Farm by Clint B. Weber, ISBN 978-0-9851601-0-4
- Art Students League of New York Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine - Instructors and Lecturers - Past and Present
- Dowden, Raymond Baxter (1942). "Review of The Natural Way to Draw, by Kimon Nicolaïdes". College Art Journal. 1 (3): 80–81.
- Mamie Harmon Papers Relating to Kimon Nicolaides, 1935-1985 / Archives of American Art