Unlike the other painters associated with the Washington Color School of the late 1950s and 1960s, Thomas Victor Downing, Jr. preferred hard edged shapes that frequently create an optical effect. Dabbling with dots well before the contemporary artist Damien Hirst, in a 1962 interview he stated: “One day I got the idea of making a picture with nothing but polka-dots. I made a couple more—and I began to realize more possibilities. Something clicked.” He was also an outstanding colorist who used saturated hues, rather than diluted ones.

Downing’s birthplace was Suffolk, Virginia, located not far from Norfolk. Staying in state, he enrolled at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland where he studied  English literature and earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1948. A regular museum and gallery-goer, he decided to pursue art; he moved to New York, where he took painting classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn until 1950. He applied to a program offered by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and was granted a stipend of one hundred and fifty dollars a month. In acknowledging the award, he praised the museum, “From all indications Virginia has one of the more vital museum organizations of the States.” He used the funds for travel throughout Europe, with extended time in Paris and Florence. In Paris he studied briefly at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and was a studio assistant to Fernand Léger, a second generation cubist. During his time abroad he was an avid museum and gallery visitor as reflected in his report to the museum.

After returning stateside in 1951, Downing had a short stint with the United States Army at Fort Bliss, Texas; he then settled in the Washington, DC, area and taught at a Prince Georges County, Maryland, high school. Using the G.I. Bill, Downing took a summer art course at Catholic University conducted by Kenneth Noland, one of the founders of the Washington Color School. The group was known for large scale paintings done with acrylics on unprimed canvases. Initially Downing worked in this manner, but later declared: “Pouring and washing, or dripping and smearing was a way to get the paint to move, but it didn’t satisfy me.” In 1959 he and two peers founded a cooperative art gallery, Origo, and his work was shown at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, a gathering place for painters of the Washington Color School. He was a member of the first generation, along with Noland, Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Paul Reed, and Howard Mehring. As time passed the group expanded into a second generation that included such black artists as Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, and Kenneth Victor Young

In Downing’s paintings with circles he recognized the importance of color. “A circle has this same feeling of equilibrium and containment, so it defines an area in a way that lets color do more, act more as color.” Around 1966 he experimented with shaped canvases, and subsequently “plank” paintings where he explored illusionism with vibrant swaths of color that create a spatial dynamism. Evidently not totally pleased with this approach, he returned to his beloved circles.

From 1965 to 1968 Downing taught at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington (now operated by George Washington University). About ten years later he moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts where he resided until his death.