Bess was born on October 5, 1911, in Bay City, Texas to Arnold "Butch" Bess, an oil field worker, and Minta Lee Bess. Bess first experienced the "visions" he would use later in his art as a young child. His first introduction to oil painting were works done by a neighbor, and at thirteen years old he began lessons in painting from another neighbor.
A semi-migrant childhood was followed by some years at college, where he began by studying architecture, but found himself diverted into religion, psychology, and anthropology, readings that would later inform his own radical theories. Dropping out of university in 1932, Bess worked for several years roughnecking in the Beaumont oil fields, and also made several trips to Mexico, where he saw the work of muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. He returned to Bay City in 1934 to establish a painting studio.
During World War II, he enlisted in the Army Corps of Engineers and was given the task of designing camouflage. However, he was later moved to MacDill Air Force Base at Tampa, Florida, to teach bricklaying.
He worked as a commercial fisherman but painted in his spare time. He experienced visions or dreams, which he set down in his paintings. He began to exhibit his works, earning one-person shows at museums in San Antonio and Houston. On a trip to New York to find an art dealer, he met Betty Parsons who agreed to represent him. During his most creative period, 1949 through 1967, Betty Parsons arranged six solo exhibitions at her New York City gallery.
Bess's paintings are generally small and abstract. They incorporate symbols that Bess felt could bring him and others to a different state of consciousness
After living and painting for a while in San Antonio, he finally settled at his family's fishing camp at Chinquapin, near Bay City.
Forrest Bess died on November 10, 1977, from skin cancer at the age of 66.