Jack Smith was born in Sheffield and studied at St Martin's School of Art, 1948-50, and the Royal College of Art, 1950-3. At the Royal College he was taught by Ruskin Spear and Carel Weight. In 1953 Smith began teaching painting at the Bath Academy of Art, where his colleagues included Bryan Wynter, William Scott, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon and Kenneth Armitage. Smith won first prize at the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition in 1956, by which time he had begun to show in America. In 1959 he was honoured with a major retrospective at Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Between 1959-60, Smith began to focus on the movement of light on everyday objects. Norbert Lynton commented, 'There is no doubt that these pictures are made of paint, with a brush moving mostly horizontally both to record the action of light and to hold real light and shadow in the ridges and grooves' (see Jack Smith a painter in pursuit of marvels, London, 2000, p. 45).