Born in Kragerø on 27 April 1857. He was the son of a merchant, Johannes Kittelsen and his wife Guriane Olsdatter Larsen. When his father died in 1868, Kittelsen became apprenticed to a watchmaker in his home town.

In 1870, he moved to Christiania (the present day Oslo) to become a student of a master painter, but resigned from that. He then moved on to Arendal and recommenced his watchmaker apprenticeship. With financial help from Diderich M. Aall and others he began at Wilhelm von Hanno’s Drawing School in Christiania in the autumn of 1874. He also took lessons from Julius Middelthun at The Norwegian National Academy of Craft and  Art Industry.

In 1876, he moved to Munich, studying at the Academy of Arts until 1879 under Professor Ludwig von Löfftz and Wilhelm von Lindenschmit , the Younger.

In 1880, he returned home to Norway where he spent some time in Kragerø.