Born in rural Indiana, Wayman Elbridge Adams's interest in art was encouraged from an early age by his father, a horse farmer and amateur artist. At the age of twenty-one, Adams moved to Indianapolis to attend the John Herron Art Institute. It was there that Adams began to paint portraits, the works for which he became best known. Having made a name for himself as a portraitist, Adams relocated to New York City. He took two trips to Europe, the first in 1910 when he traveled to Italy with William Merritt Chase. Two years later, he accompanied Robert Henri to Spain where he met fellow artist Margaret Graham Burroughs, whom he married six years later. The couple had one child, a son named Wayman Jr., who was called "Snig."

Approaching the canvas, Adams favored the alla prima style of painting modeled by Chase and Henri. He would paint an entire portrait in one sitting, sometimes in only three to four hours, rather than toiling over the span of several drafts. This loose, expressive style infused his images with emotional immediacy and made the experience far more pleasant for the sitter. He became well known as a “lightning” artist and recorded many prominent figures, including Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, tire tycoon B. F. Goodrich, and the golfer Bobby Jones. Adams traveled throughout the country to fulfill commission for wealthy patrons, but routinely spent winter months in the South, especially in New Orleans. Throughout his career, Adams participated in important national and international exhibitions, often capturing prizes for his entries.

A member of the National Academy of Design, Adams was also a teacher. In 1932, he and Margaret opened and taught at the Old Mill Art Colony in New York's Adirondack Mountains; from 1935–1936, he taught in Taxco, Mexico. He served as a mentor to young Maltby Sykes whom he met when working in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1948, Adams escaped the cold of New York state, retiring to his wife’s hometown of Austin, Texas. He remained active in the city’s artistic circles until his death. Wayman Adams's work is represented in the collections of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and San Antonio Museum of Art.