Colburn grew up in Los Angeles and studied geology at the University of Southern California. After graduating in 1932, he went to Europe, where he spent a year traveling and studying art. Upon his return to Los Angeles, he briefly attended Chouinard Art School, where he studied with Don Graham. In 1937 he moved to Carmel and became a member of the Carmel Art Association three years later. He studied painting with Paul Whitman, and learned much through his interaction with other artists.