Oxygen distribution is a major determinant of treatment success in radiotherapy, with well-oxygenated tumour regions responding by up to a factor of three relative to anoxic volumes. Conversely, tumour hypoxia is associated with treatment resistance and negative prognosis. Tumour oxygenation is highly heterogeneous and difficult to measure directly. The recent advent of functional hypoxia imaging modalities such as fluorine-18 fluoromisonidazole positron emission tomography have shown promise in non-invasively determining regions of low oxygen tension. This raises the prospect of selectively increasing dose to hypoxic subvolumes, a concept known as dose painting. Yet while this is a promising approach, oxygen-mediated radioresistance is inherently a multiscale problem, and there are still a number of substantial challenges that must be overcome if hypoxia dose painting is to be successfully implemented. Current imaging modalities are limited by the physics of such systems to have resolutions in the millimetre regime, whereas oxygen distribution varies over a micron scale, and treatment delivery is typically modulated on a centimetre scale. In this review, we examine the mechanistic basis and implications of the radiobiological oxygen effect, the factors influencing microscopic heterogeneity in tumour oxygenation and the consequent challenges in the interpretation of clinical hypoxia imaging (in particular fluorine-18 fluoromisonidazole positron emission tomography). We also discuss dose-painting approaches and outline challenges that must be addressed to improve this treatment paradigm.