Born at Cremorne, New South Wales in 1915, Donald Friend began art classes under Sydney Long in 1930 and studied under Dattilo Rubbo between 1933 and 1935. He spent a year in London in 1936, at the Westminster School under Bernard Meninsky and Mark Gertler, then traveled to Nigeria, where he lived from 1937 until 1939.
Friend returned to Australia just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and enlisted in the army in June of 1942. He served as a gunner with artillery units based in Australia, and also served with a labour battalion in Queensland and briefly with Army Intelligence. During this period Friend wrote and illustrated Gunner's diary, published in 1943.
Towards the end of the Second World War there was pressure to commission a greater variety of artists for the official war art scheme. Friend was recommended by Sydney Ure Smith, who had published Gunner's diary, and Louis McCubbin, Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, who was advisor to the Memorial's art committee. Gunner's diary revealed Friend to be an eccentric artist of great talent who was also able to write with insight and humour about his experience. He was commissioned in 1945, working with the Royal Australian Air Force in Labuan and the 7th Division AIF in Borneo. Friend produced almost 200 paintings and drawings for the Australian War Memorial, mostly of the human figure, especially boys; they range from exquisite portraits of soldiers and children, to studies of corpses, war damage and emaciated prisoners.
Friend later worked in Balikpapan, but his plans to stay in the Pacific to record the surrender of the Japanese and the liberation of allied POWs were cancelled when he had to return to Australia with a severe tropical rash on his hands.