McNaught was born in Glasgow, the only son of parents who worked as carpet designers. He studied fine art at Glasgow School of Art and at Hospitalfield Art College between 1966 and 1970, winning the Royal Scottish Academy painting award the year he graduated. He enjoyed a successful career in art education, at one time teaching the young Simon Laurie. In 2010 he won the Sir William Gillies Award at the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour. Now James paints full-time and his beautifully drawn distinctly idiosyncratic paintings are highly sought after worldwide.