Primarily a figurative painter, William Tolliver drew inspiration from the world around him, and from artists whose work he saw in books. He admits the painter who influenced him the most was Vincent van Gogh: “Van Gogh painted purely for the love of it. I can relate to that. I also liked his use of color, the way the light was reflected in his paintings, the powerful feeling in his work.” 

Tolliver was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, one of fourteen children whose mother worked in the fields picking cotton, a frequent subject for the artist. Although his school offered no art lessons, Tolliver displayed an early interest in art; he used dime store watercolor sets and paint-by-number kits that he purchased with his earnings from mowing lawns. His mother encouraged her children, often hosting drawing contests between herself and his siblings, and later bringing home art books from the library.

When Tolliver was fourteen, he left school and headed to Los Angeles, California, to join the Job Corps where he learned carpentry and was mentored by an artist. He spent some time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as an assistant to a sculptor, an experience that encouraged him to pursue art for himself. Returning to Vicksburg he worked in construction and painted at night. He was married in 1977 and shortly after, around 1980, he moved his family to Lafayette, Louisiana, to take advantage of the oil boom. The post was short-lived, however, as there was an oil glut and he soon lost his job. He still painted as a means of keeping up work, but lacked the confidence to share his work with a dealer. Going behind his back, in 1985 his wife, Debrah, took nine early landscapes to the Live Oak Gallery in Lafayette where they all sold within ten days. 

Working in a variety of media—oil, acrylic, watercolor, oil pastel—Tolliver found  recognition which in turn ignited his passion. “I love my work and I have worked very hard to portray African Americans with pride and dignity. My goal is to bring to the forefront the seriousness of art as a person’s heritage. I want my art to serve as a history lesson.”  His early works were traditional and often featured small figures in vast landscapes. He later frequently depicted jazz musicians, influenced perhaps by an uncle who played. These tend to be colorful renditions of men set against a cubist inflected background. He also created half-length portrayals of women shown close to the picture plane. Often there are heavy black outlines reminiscent of stained glass windows or perhaps the paint-by-number kits of Tolliver’s childhood. 

In 1991, the family moved to Georgia and opened an African American art gallery in Atlanta's Buckhead community, which they operated until 1997. Tolliver’s work became collectible, by museums and private collectors. His paintings have been included in the Art in Embassies Program of the United States Department of State and exhibited in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building in Washington. In 1996 he designed a promotional poster for the Olympic Games in Atlanta showing the state capitol framed on one side by rows of crops and a view of the city’s skyline at the top.