Richard Smith



Not on display

Richard Smith 1931–2016
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1520 × 1221 mm
frame: 1538 × 1232 × 40 mm
Purchased 1972

Online caption

Smith produced this painting one year after having completed his studies at the Royal College of Art, London. The scale of the work, emphatic handling of paint and use of bright colours are testament to the influence of large-scale American abstract expressionist painting, first seen in strength in England in a group exhibition at the Tate in 1956. Around the time of the making of Painting Smith was also developing a growing interest in the physical and mental properties of environments generated by the mass media.

Technique and condition

The painting is in oil on commercially prepared canvas, and is unvarnished. The artist has built up a complex layer structure of overlapping rectangular shaped brush strokes that reveal glimpses into paint layers below and occasionally to areas of unpainted canvas. There are some passages of wet-in-wet mixing, but also regions where the paint has been allowed to dry before subsequent layers of paint were brushed over the top. The artist has made use of heavily diluted paint such that some passages simply resemble a stain on the canvas. Use of diluted paint has also resulted in prominent drips of yellow and red paint that run down the surface of the painting. The artist has also used stiff, undiluted white and yellow paint that appears to have more of a paste-like consistency; these paints have been dragged across the surface using a stiff brush that leaves the strokes evident.

Cadmium yellow, cadmium red and lead white pigments have been identified. There are other passages where green and blue pigments have been used, but these have not been analysed. Magnesium carbonate and barium sulphate extenders were identified in the red and yellow paints. The presence of magnesium carbonate in red and yellow paints indicates the use of Winsor & Newton paints, although the simultaneous use of paints by other manufacturers is not excluded. Castor wax was identified as a paint additive in the lead white tube paints. Castor wax is commonly encountered in the formulation of modern oil paints as a rheology modifier (to adjust the flow behaviour of paint, e.g. its viscosity).

The painting is in good condition, however the red and yellow paints are extremely water sensitive. Water sensitivity is commonly observed in modern unvarnished oil paintings, and is an area of ongoing research (see the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project). In this case the water sensitivity is likely to relate in part to the use of heavily diluted and therefore underbound paints. The painting is currently unframed and unglazed.

Further reading
Flowers Gallery, ‘Richard Smith’,, accessed on 7 February 2017.
Stuart Morris and Laura Gerrard, Colour-field Painting: Minimal, Cool, Hard Edge, Serial and Post-Painterly Abstract Art of the Sixties to the Present (Painters), Kent, 2007.

Judith Lee
February 2017

Research on this work was carried out as part of an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Award at Tate, 2013–2016.

Catalogue entry

Richard Smith b.1931

T01588 Painting 1958

Inscribed ‘R. Smith 59’(?) on top canvas turnover on reverse and ‘SMITH 59/PAINTING JAN59/125 GNS’ in centre of back of canvas.
Canvas,60 x 47¾(152.4 x 121.3).
Purchased from Mrs Doris Smith (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Coll:Mrs Doris Smith, mother of the artist.

The notes on T01588, T01807 and T10808 are based on a conversation with the artist (5 March 1974).Although ‘Painting1958’ is inscribed twice with the date1959Smith believes that the picture, because of its style and similarity to ‘Rainbow’ 1958 and ‘Somewhere Over’ 1958,was painted the same year, although finishing touches may have been added in January 1959.He told the compiler that he cannot remember ever exhibiting it despite the inscription‘125Gns’.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.


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