The Wonder Medium Of The 20th Century

A brief history of acrylics – an art medium that took the world by storm.

by Tanya Singh

For a vast number of contemporary artists, acrylic paints are a primary art material which makes it seem like the medium has been around forever. However, a lot of people don’t know that compared to oil paints and watercolors, acrylic painting is actually a very recent discovery in the art world. The history of oil painting extends as far back as the 16th century and watercolors have their roots in the Renaissance. Acrylic painting, on the other hand, has only just emerged over the course of the past century.

history acrylic painting

Nonetheless, it is needless to say that the discovery of these versatile polymer-based pigments took the art world by storm, and thousands of artists today prefer them to any other medium. Whether it’s their versatile nature, vibrancy, or stability, more and more artists are taking advantage of the wide range of approaches that acrylic paints offer.

The Discovery Of Acrylic Painting

Did you know that acrylic paints were actually developed as an industrial commodity? A German chemical company, BASF, patented by the Rohm and Haas Company, developed the first usable acrylic resin dispersion in 1934. Dr. Otto Röhm, a German chemist and the founder of the Rohm and Haas Company, was the one who brought the practical potential of acrylic paints to light. However, in these early years, acrylic resins were only intended for industrial use.

history acrylic paintingAs the years went by, and the art world dived into a phase of experimentation and materialistic exploration, this incredible synthetic medium finally found its calling. Post the 1930s and 1940s, artists like Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, and Mark Rothko began experimenting with acrylic paints, and the rest is history.

As with watercolor and oil, acrylic offered its own distinct set of characteristics and attributes, most notably its versatility, immediacy, and durability. Acrylic paints are made of pigments suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion, and their most unique quality is the minimal time needed for them to dry. It is no wonder that the medium became a favorite of the abstract expressionists. These paints are water-soluble and become water-resistant after drying. It is much easier to carry out techniques like impasto and even sculpturing with acrylics, as compared to the slow-drying oil paints and delicate watercolor pigments. Acrylics are also very versatile in terms of their applications. They can be easily applied to canvas, wood, metal and even high-quality paper. The consistency of the paint can be easily altered depending on the amount of water used to dilute it.

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Acrylic Painting In The Course Of Art History

Ever since their introduction as an art material, acrylic paints have played a major role in shaping the art world and have been an integral part of a number of important art movements. Acrylic art entered the art world at a time when artists were already trying to move away from the academic and realistic styles of painting into the contemporary world of exploration and experimentation. Naturally, this fascinating and easy-to-handle medium became the face of the revolution.

history acrylic paintingThe first group of artists to incorporate acrylic paints in their works were Mexican muralists like David Alfaro Siqueiros. His most famous work, Echo Of A Scream actually demonstrates a high level of experimentation with synthetic acrylic pigments. In fact, Siqueiros became so fond of this medium that he actually began to conduct workshops to share his knowledge with other artists in New York. One notable attendee of this workshop was Jackson Pollock, who went on to use synthetic gloss enamel paints for his action paintings and we all know how that turned out. In fact, most Abstract Expressionist artists, from Pollock to Jasper Johns, experimented with the early reproductions of acrylic paint.

Related Article: Exploring Acrylic Art

The Pop Art movement that began in the 1950s with celebrated artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein taking the lead, was perhaps the most important in terms of the popularity of acrylic paints. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl both are world famous works of acrylic art. This material provided an ideal medium for the pop art forms, which sought hard-edged flat images and distinct use of line. In essence, the arrival of acrylic painting opened up a whole new wave of creativity and possibility in the modern art world that to this day is still a strong influence in artistic forms and trends.

Today, acrylic painting has achieved almost the same status as the age-old techniques of sculpture and oil painting. In fact, there are a vast number of artists who prefer the immediacy of acrylics over the layering process involved in oil painting and the limitations of watercolor in terms of materiality. Below is a glimpse into the wonders created using this medium by our artists at ARTmine.


Although late to arrive, acrylic painting has had a marked influence in the development of 20th-century art movements and forms. The flexibility and versatility it offers the artist unlocks limitless creative vistas that are still being explored further today.

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Tanya Singh is a budding art historian and writer. She is currently pursuing her postgraduate studies at the LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. With a versatile portfolio, she has over three years of experience in writing as well as editing.


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