Joseph McGurl was born in Massachusetts in 1958. He grew up working with his father James McGurl who was a muralist and his most influential teacher. Through him he was exposed to a wide variety of materials and learned an appreciation of the craft of painting. Another early influence was Ralph Rosenthal a teacher at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He subsequently graduated from Massachusetts College of Art with a dual major in painting and education. He also studied in England and Italy. After college he worked for a period of time as a yacht captain sailing throughout the east coast from Maine to the Caribbean. After a few years he realized that in order to improve he must devote himself solely to painting. In search of a more solid training in drawing he sought out Robert Cormier a devotee of the French Academy methods and he studied figure drawing under him.