Walter Phillips was born 1884 at Barton-on-Humber in Lincolnshire, England, the son of Reverend John Phillips, a Methodist minister. In his teens, he attended the Birmingham School of Art once a week, studying under Edward R. Taylor. He went to South Africa for a few years in the hope of earning enough money there to be able to study art in Paris, but returned with little more than he left with. By 1908 he had worked as a commercial artist in Manchester and London, then from 1908 to 1911 served as art master at Bishop Woodworth School in Salisbury, England. In 1911, he held his first solo show in Salisbury which was both critically and financially successful. Eventually, he and his wife Gladys Pitcher, whom he had married in December 1910, decided to emigrate to Canada, arriving in Winnipeg in June, 1913. Shortly after his arrival, a fellow artist he met taught him etching technique and sold him his tools.
From 1915 to 1918, he produced etchings in very small editions, subsequently switching to colour woodcut prints, a medium he found more to his liking. During the summers of 1917 and 1919, Phillips taught at the University of Wisconsin, and by then his works had commanded national and international attention. By1923 he had published forty-two colour woodcuts, and in a burst of productivity between 1926 and 1928 he produced thirty-nine. By now, he had well established his own pattern of making woodcuts: a graphite sketch; next, a finished watercolour; another sketch to compose the woodcut, and then the final print.
Phillips was so highly regarded that during the Great Depression he was one of a handful of artists who could live off the sale of his paintings and woodcuts. From1925 to 1935 his subjects were mainly from the Prairies, but by 1946 most of his subjects were from the Rocky Mountains. He also continued to be a prolific book illustrator. In 1940 he became a staff member of the Banff Summer School of Fine Arts and in 1941 moved to Calgary to take up the position of instructor at the Institute of Technology and Art, where he stayed until 1949.
In 1953 he moved to Banff where he lived in a house on Tunnel Mountain. By 1958 Phillips' eyesight began failing, and in 1960 he retired to Victoria. In1963, Walter Joseph Phillips died in Victoria at the age of 78. His ashes were scattered in the Alberta mountains he had loved so much and which had provided him with so many of his subjects.