John Coburn attended East Sydney Technical College from 1947 to 1950, later marrying silkscreen printer Barbara Woodward in 1953. That same year he attended an exhibition of French painting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales that profoundly influenced his work. Coburn realised that just as Matisse and Picasso gave consideration to international and indigenous art in their work, he could draw from Aboriginal art and its spiritual connections to the landscape in his own painting. In 1960 Coburn achieved prominence as the winner of the Blake Prize and from 1969 to 1972, he worked in France, designing tapestries for the Aubusson workshops.
Coburn’s paintings and designs are typically large, stylised works in which summary forms and flat areas of colour establish formal harmonies within a distinctive iconography that continues to be inspired by European modernism and indigenous culture.
Coburn's work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, amongst others.