Richard Smith began his formal art education in 1948 at the Luton School of Art in England. His studies were interrupted in 1950 for service in the Royal Air Force, but after two years in Hong Kong, he received his discharge and resumed his art studies at St. Albans School of Art in Hertfordshire. He was enrolled at the Royal College of Art in London from 1954 to 1957, where he became intrigued with popular culture and the mass media. He later published articles on these subjects in the Royal College publication Ark. Also attending the college during this period was Peter Blake, with whom Smith had shared a studio.
In 1956 Smith traveled to Paris, where he was impressed by the "all-over" style of American abstract expressionist Sam Francis, whose work was being exhibited there at the time. That same year he saw Rothko's work exhibited in London. In 1957 Smith was awarded a Royal College of Art scholarship for travel in Italy, then returned to England and taught mural painting for a year at Hammersmith College of Art. In 1959 he received the Harkness Fellowship of the Commonwealth Fund to travel in the United States. On his arrival in New York, he contacted Ellsworth Kelly, who introduced him to New York artists Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman and Agnes Martin. Smith made the acquaintance of Franz Kline and Mark Rothko at the Cedar Tavern.
Smith's work had been included in group exhibitions in England during the 1950s, but he had his first one-man show in New York at the Green Gallery in 1961. After his New York debut he returned to England and taught still-life painting at St. Martin's School of Art until 1963. During this period he also experimented with filmmaking, producing Trailer in 1962 with Robert Freeman. At the height of the pop art movement Smith could count among the visitors to his Bath Street Studio such notables as the Beatles, fashion designer Ossie Clark, and filmmaker Ken Russell. After a showing of his work in his Bath Street Studio in 1962, followed by an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Smith returned to New York in 1963. He taught in Aspen, Colorado, in 1965, at the University of Virginia in 1967, and at the University of California at Irvine in 1968. He then returned again to England, to East Tytherton, Wiltshire, and in 1971 was honored with the award of Commander of the British Empire. Smith moved back to New York City in the late 1970s and established a second studio in Colorado in 1988.
Smith had been producing print editions for less than a decade when he was awarded the Bradford Print Bienniale's first prize in 1976. In addition to his work at Graphicstudio, Smith has worked with numerous printers and workshops, including Aeropress and Tyler Graphics in New York, White Ink, Ltd.; Ian Lawson, Alan Cox at Sky Editions, Advanced Graphics, and J.C. Editions, all in London, and Duerreci in Rome.
Retrospective exhibitions of Smith's graphic works have been organized by the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol (1970), and by the Arts Council of Great Britain, London (1975). Other important solo exhibitions have been held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (1966), Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (1972), Museo de arte contemporaneo de Caracas, Venezuela (1975), Tate Gallery, London (1975), Hayden Gallery, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1978), and Stadtsmuseum, Ulm, Germany (1980). (Fine/Corlett 1991, 134)