Acrylic painting is a relatively young medium, as it emerged in the mid-20th century. It was first made commercially available in the 1960s, and while it does not have the same long history as watercolour or oil painting, it was instantly incredibly popular. Its versatility means that it was presented as an alternative to traditional oil painting, and it opened up numerous possibilities for modern and contemporary artists.
Acrylic paint has unique properties compared to other forms of paint that truly changed possibilities for artists. It uses a synthetic resin to bind pigments, and is water-based. This chemical composition means that it involves no toxic solvents, unlike oil painting; this allowed artists to work with acrylic without risking their health. The key advantage is that because it is water-based, it is easy to change its consistency. It can be used in thick layers to create a similar effect to oil paints, or thinned with water to create a watercolour effect. It can also be mixed with pastes and gels to give it a unique texture and effect that is impossible to achieve in any other medium.
Acrylic paint is quick-drying, so is ideal for layering, and allows the creation of thick impasto. On the other hand, oil paints give more time for blending colours and applying glazes over underpaintings. This slow-drying aspect of oil can be seen as an advantage for certain techniques, but it impedes an artist trying to work quickly. It can also be used to create a splattering effect, similar to the effects that Jackson Pollock created in his iconic works. Because it can be used on any surface – artists paint with acrylic on canvas, paper, and wood – it is incredibly versatile for mixed media work. Artists can also use pastel (both oil and chalk), charcoal and pen on top of the dried acrylic surface, creating new textures. It can be manipulated with a variety of tools: not only brushes, but rollers, palette knives and even the artist’s own hands.
Acrylic paint and oil paints are both incredibly popular, but acrylic paint has several advantages. It is lightweight, easy to manipulate and permanent; it is lightfast, so it does not fade with exposure to light. It is also water resistant once dried and does not crack with age, whereas oil paint has to be carefully applied to avoid the layers cracking. Oil paintings fade with age and become yellowed, as can be seen with many historic oil paintings, but this does not happen with acrylic paint; it is easy to create bold and bright colours that retain their appearance over time.
Acrylic painters can alter the appearance, hardness, flexibility, texture, and other characteristics of the paint surface by using acrylic mediums or simply by adding water. It was the perfect modern medium that inspired artists to adopt and champion this new form of painting. This can be seen all throughout modern art and in the work of Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, who used acrylic for his iconic ‘Campbell Soup Can’ paintings. Its ability to create crisp, sharp lines meant that it was perfect for Pop artists.
Bridget Riley, pioneer of Op art or optic art, also used acrylics because of their unique ability to set on various mediums, including wood, paper, canvas and linen. British artist David Hockney used acrylics for his iconic swimming pool paintings and in his famous works from the 1960s, and colour field artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Mark Rothko also used acrylic for their pioneering works. Rothko created a series of untitled acrylics where he used it to develop formal elements, including tone, depth, colour and perspective. The colour properties of acrylic allowed exploration of pure colour without the concern that the colour would fade or alter with time.
Acrylic painting is a truly modern medium and has been pioneered by some of the most famous modern artists, and contemporary artists continue to explore the potential of this new and versatile medium. Rosy Auguste creates fluid art with watercolour, and incredible abstract paintings in acrylic have been created by Daniela Schweinsberg and Francesco D’Adamo. You can see the influence of Jackson Pollock on Nestor Toro’s acrylic paintings on canvas, and it is used by contemporary street artists like Virginia Valère and Niki Hare. Discover the unique versatility of acrylic with original abstract paintings, portraits and landscapes on Singulart.