Petersen was born 1926 in Endelave, Denmark. He studied at University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco Art Institute, California College of Arts and Crafts (1952-1954), Atelier 17 (with Stanley Hayter), Islington Studio, London, the Print Workshop, London, and the Hans Hofmann School. He taught painting at Washington State University, printmaking at UC Berkeley, and painting and printmaking at UC Davis. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship.
In March 2010 Petersen's work was the subject of a major retrospective ("Roland Petersen: 50 Years of Painting") held at the Monterey Museum of Art in Monterey, California. Petersen, his daughter, and his wife, the photographer Caryl Ritter, were present.
Petersen has a very distinctive and recognizable style of printmaking. He works in color intaglio, which is a category of printmaking techniques including etching, drypoint and engraving. Intaglio means that the image is incised into the plate. Petersen uses this technique to achieve a variety of textures within each image, as well as multiple colors. The colors are bright and garish, and the effect of many of his prints is that of a photo negative, or an infrared photo. He makes use of patterns to throw the untextured areas into higher relief, for patterning reduces the intensity of color, much like newspaper photographs employ different densities of black dots to form a grayscale image. Petersen also uses complementary colors to set off forms. He tends to abstract the forms, and reduce them to geometric shapes, however they are usually still recognizable. There is a slight hint of influence from Oriental woodcuts.