Originally Jack Hoggan, he grew up in the industrial seaside town of Methil, Fife. He left school at 16 and later became an apprentice mining engineer. He took up painting as a hobby in his twenties. His earliest paintings were copies or pastiches of impressionist paintings – his first painting was a copy of Monet's Poppy Fields.
Vettriano's breakthrough year was 1988, when he felt ready to display his paintings in public and submitted two canvases for the Royal Scottish Academy annual show. Both paintings sold on the first day and Vettriano was approached by several galleries who wanted to sell his other work. The success and attention contributed to the breakdown of his first marriage and he moved to Edinburgh, changing his name to Vettriano, adding an "a" to his mother's maiden name.
Although his work is generally dismissed by art critics as being vulgar and devoid of imagination, he is one of the most commercially successful living artists. His original paintings now regularly fetch six figure prices, but he is thought to make more money from the sale of reproductions. His most popular work The Singing Butler, sells more posters and postcards than any other painting in the UK. On 21 April 2004 the original canvas of The Singing Butler sold at auction for £744,500 — in stark contrast to 1992 when Vettriano painted the picture and submitted it for inclusion in the Royal Academy summer show, only to be rejected.