Jon Lightfoot was born in 1939 in Kansas City, Missouri to a Cherokee father and a Swedish mother. He attended grade school on the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma and high school in Tucson, Arizona. He later moved to New York, where he pursued his primary interest, theater and commercial art.
He studied under modernist painter Lowell Nesbitt for three years, then traveled to Italy and began painting figures. Lightfoot returned to Tucson in 1971, and by 1974 he was devoting all of his time to painting, developing a personal style of painting which incorporated realistic Native American faces with abstracted backdrops and blanket design.