Michael Canney was born in Falmouth to a mother who was an amateur artist. Having determined to become an artist himself in 1937, he received training from W. Lyons-Wilson at his school and followed this with classes under Leonard Fuller of the St Ives School and Arthur Hambly at Redruth. He held a small one-man exhibition in 1942 and served in Italy during the War where he became absorbed in Italian art and architecture and met Giorgio De Chirico. Following this, he completed his art training at Goldsmiths’ College between 1947 and 1951. In 1956 he moved back to Cornwall to become curator of Newlyn Art Gallery and in 1965 he taught at the University of California. He also taught at the Royal West of England College of Art in Bristol, remaining there until 1983. He then moved to Italy and, from there, to France in 1992, before returning to England to settle in Wiltshire where he painted until the late 1990s.
Canney’s earlier paintings were influenced above all by the Impressionists and the Cubists, in particular the work of Cézanne. During the period from 1957 to 1958, his work changed under the influence of Abstract Expressionism, moving towards a greater degree of gestural freedom. His work from the 1960s is characterised by hard-edged geometric abstraction and his work produced in Italy is noted for its bright colour palette. He is now remembered as one of the most important artists of the Cornish art scene of the mid-20th century.