In 1912, he moved to Seattle, Washington and studied art at the University of Washington. After a year of study, he left the university to travel around the United States and Europe. In 1919, he returned to Seattle and began teaching at the Cornish School of Allied Arts.
Tobey’s work is characterized by a delicate use of line and an interest in Eastern calligraphy. He often used a technique he called “white writing”, in which he would cover a canvas with densely patterns of white lines. These lines would create an overall image, while also allowing the viewer to see through to the background.
Tobey’s work was included in a number of important exhibitions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annual Exhibition and the Carnegie International. He received critical acclaim for his painting “Broadway” (1932), which was included in the latter exhibition.
In 1938, Tobey traveled to Asia, where he was deeply influenced by the cultures he encountered. After his return to the United States, he began to incorporate Asian motifs and techniques into his work.
Tobey’s later works are often large-scale, abstract compositions. He continued to experiment with his “white writing” technique, as well as other calligraphic styles.
Tobey died in 1976, in Basel, Switzerland.