A painter, designer, lithographer, and illustrator, Nichols was born in David City, Nebraska. The son of a farmer, Nichols was educated at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (now the Art Institute of Chicago). His work is mostly closely associated with the American regionalist movement of the 1930s, and he is particularly well-known for his bucolic depictions of agrarian American scenery. His 1934 painting, End of the Hunt, received an award from the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1939, was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His paintings have been compared to those of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton.
Nichols participated in prestigious exhibitions throughout his lifetime, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, Denver Art Museum, and Dallas Museum of Art. He was the artist in residence at the University of Illinois from 1939 to 1940, and worked as a visiting professor for Carnegie Mellon University. He authored "A Philosophy of Esthetics" (1939) and provided illustrations for national magazines and two books, "A World History" (1940) and "Two Years Before the Mast" (1941). Nichols’s paintings were often reproduced for advertisements by companies such as General Mills, and in 1942 one of his winter scenes was featured on a United States postage stamp.
Today, Nichols’s paintings may be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Joslyn Art Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Sheldon Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Museum of Nebraska Art, and Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block.