John Wilson Carmichael was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the son of a ship's carpenter. As a youth he apprenticed to a shipbuilder, drawing and designing. He is known to have spent time at sea including voyages aboard adventure and beagle with Charles Darwin.
He began painting in watercolors and his first oils appeared around 1825. His inspiration was usually found along the North Umbrian coast. Carmichael exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1835 to 1859 and at the British Institute from 1846 through 1852. He was noted for his ability to portray light in his paintings adding exceptional luminosity to his fine composition skills.
Throughout his career Carmichael demonstrated considerable powers as an artist. His work shows an intimate knowledge of ships and he was an expert at placing them in the water so that they seemed buoyant and responsive to the movement of wind and wave. Carmichael belongs to the circle of Clarkson Stanfield and Edward Cooke. He focused on subjects he knew and enjoyed, usually admiralty frigates or ships-of-the-line in a strong breeze off a coast or entering a harbor.