Burnett was born in London in 1958 to New Zealand parents, both artists. The family came to live in New Zealand while Tom was only young. Burnett left school at seventeen, studied watercolour painting with his father for a year, and then had his first exhibition in Auckland. Since then he has exhibited extensively throughout New Zealand. He is best known for his evocative images of Northland, New Zealand and the Pacific, and for his printing techniques which he combines with painting and drawing.