Developed in the late 1940s, acrylic paint has only a brief history compared to other visual arts media, such as watercolor and oil. Polymer-based acrylic entered the market as house paint, but its many benefits brought it to the attention of painters. By the 1950s, artists began using quick-drying acrylic to avoid oil paint’s considerable drying time. These artists found that the synthetic paint was very versatile and possessed much potential. As time passed, manufacturers improved methods by formulating artistic acrylic paints with richer pigments. Although it has proven versatile in artistic endeavors, acrylic as a medium is still in its infancy.
For many contemporary artists, acrylic became the perfect vehicle to drive their crafts. Offering a range of possibilities, acrylic can produce both the soft effects of watercolor paint and sharp effects of layered oil paint. In addition, acrylic can also be used in mixed media works, such as collage, and its versatility lends itself to experimentation and innovation. Acrylic does have some limitations. Its quick-drying plasticity discourages blending and wet-on-wet techniques, therefore creating boundaries for artists. Still, those who embraced acrylic in their work created fresh, new approaches reflecting all that this medium can offer.
Pop artist Andy Warhol explored acrylic’s range of effects. His famous “Campbell Soup Can” demonstrates the sharp, bold clarity possible with acrylic, while the stark and eerie “Little Electric Chair (Orange)” shows the grim subject in a faded and almost gentle light. Other artists’ works also demonstrate the possibilities of acrylic. In David Hockney’s “Three Chairs with a Section of a Picasso Mural,” acrylics provide the softness of watercolor, while in “Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians,” they create a sharpness similar to oil paints. This is not to imply that acrylic works should be viewed only in terms of other media. Acrylic is its own medium with its own possibilities.
Robert Motherwell used acrylic with pencil and charcoal to achieve striking effects, and contemporary Op artist Bridget Riley also took advantage of its ability to set easily on support mediums, such as wood, canvas, paper and linen. Mark Rothko’s series of untitled acrylics, on both canvas and paper, demonstrate its ability to enhance formal elements, such as tone, depth, color and scale. His colorfield paintings allowed audiences to approach the medium on its own terms. Acrylic’s future as a medium continues to unfold with each new work by the skilled hands of artists. Perhaps its full potential and possibilities have not yet been developed. However, it is clear that acrylic is an important medium, demonstrating the continual power and evolution of visual art.