The "Fairy Painter". Born into a family of damask weavers in Dunfermline (Fife), Paton was the elder brother of another artist, Hugh Waller Paton (1828-95). He had no formal training, although briefly attended classes at the Royal Academy in London in 1843. He showed his first painting at the Royal Scottish Academy the following year, becoming an Associate in 1847 and a Fellow in 1850.
Paton was noted for his historical, allegorical and religious subjects, but particularly for his whimsical and romantic fairy paintings in the Pre-Raphaelite style.
His most famous paintings are perhaps Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1846) and The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847), both now in the National Gallery of Scotland, with other notable works including The Pursuit of Pleasure (1855), Mors Janua Vitae (1866), Oskold and the Elle-maids (1874) and In Die Malo (1882). Several of his works are displayed in Dunfermline City Chambers, others are held by the Royal Collection and Glasgow Museum and Art Galleries. He was also produced sculpture and two volumes of poetry.
Paton was appointed Queen's Limner for Scotland in 1865, knighted two years later and was awarded on honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh in 1878.
He died in Edinburgh. Of his sons, Diarmid Noel Paton (1859 - 1929) became Regius Professor of Physiology at the University of Glasgow and another, Frederick Noel Paton (b. 1861), was Director of Commercial Intelligence to the Government of India.