One of eleven children, Hone Papita Raukura (Ralph) Hotere was born in Northland in 1931. He was educated at Hato Petera College and Auckland Teachers' College, before moving to Dunedin in 1952 to specialise in art. After a spell in the Bay of Islands as an arts advisor for the Education Department, Hotere was awarded a New Zealand Art Societies Fellowship to study in London at the Central School of Art. His time in England proved to be pivotal to his development as an artist. With the art world caught in a wave of general upheaval, which witnessed the advent of Pop Art and, subsequently, Op Art. Hotere found himself both influenced by both movements and, as an outsider from New Zealand, at enough of a critical distance to develop his own distinctive style.
Returning to New Zealand in 1965, he began to focus exclusively on his artistic career. Before being awarded the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship and moving to Dunedin permanently in 1969, Hotere had two important solo exhibitions in Auckland: Sangro Paintings and Human Rights (1965) and Black Paintings (1968).
In 1979, he used his friend Hone Tuwhare's well-known poem Rain to produce Three Banners with Poem, for the Hocken Library. The public appeal of this, and similar works is tremendous. In 1994 Ralph received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Otago. He received an Icon Award in 2003 and in 2006 he was awarded Te Taumata Award by Te Waka Toi recognising outstanding leadership and service to Māori arts. He was awarded New Zealand's highest honour – the membership of the Order of New Zealand – in the New Year Honours 2012. His work is represented in every major public and private collection in New Zealand and in art museums throughout the world.