Still the subject of much exploration and innovation, acrylic painting is a much younger medium than oil or watercolor, both historically and aesthetically, its manifold applications still being discovered and its physicality, its raw weight, as crucial as ever to such a vital, malleable material. Modern and contemporary artists have used acrylic paints since they became widely and affordably available in the 1950s to render virtually every color and texture imaginable. Acrylic paints offer a nearly infinite range of possibilities, allowing artists the freedom to craft everything from bulky, sculptural low-relief canvases to light, opaque and ethereal compositions.
Often, such bold and surprising styles of application, achieved by adding other materials to the acrylic or simply applying it in copious, thick squeezes right from the tube, exist within the same work, creating a spectacular sense of contrast both in color and surface. These many shifting, subtle and still-emerging qualities of acrylic paint make owning an original rather than a reproduction all the more essential. Artists’ freedom to transform acrylic paint however they see fit, more so than oil or watercolor, creates unique expressive possibilities. Not only the choice of acrylic, but the ways it is manipulated, become essential elements of the artwork, and in turn inseparable from its strictly visual properties.
Acrylic paints have held a particular appeal for artists choosing to work with bold, bright colors, from Andy Warhol and the original Pop artists, through street art-based painters of the 1980s like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, to current post-modern artists like Damien Hirst and Julie Mehretu. Such major figures of the last fifty years of art history have found inexhaustible appeal in acrylics, largely due to their intensely bright and long-lasting colors.
This, in turn, has made collectors cherish acrylic paintings in particular, because such original works often deploy completely unique and inimitable hues that, so far at least, show no sign of fading or cracking with age. Whereas the soft tones of watercolors often fade, and oil paints typically begin to crack and yellow with age, the oldest acrylic paintings from the late 1950s still show no signs of visual impoverishment, making them especially popular with discerning and passionate collectors. Such unconventionally bright tones are not just an aesthetic asset; they become part of the medium’s value as works age while retaining their original vigor.
Touching on Texture
Though the sculptural and gestural qualities of oil paints are surely familiar to most collectors, the capacity of artists working with acrylic to mimic such textures and surfaces while exploring completely new possibilities is equally impressive. Many of the aforementioned artists, as well as unclassifiable, tireless innovators like Sol LeWitt and David Hockney, have relied on acrylic not for its rough, expressive feel, but rather for its capacity to appear utterly and completely smooth. The medium’s origins in Pop art make perfect sense in this light, an ideal way for artists to replicate the manufactured and slick-textured uniformity of mass-produced objects. Applied in measured, even and relatively thin layers, acrylic paints maintain their intensity, allowing such artists to strive after purely smooth color without sacrificing the boldness of each tone. Here, acrylic comes closer to actual methods of reproduction like silk-screens and lithographs. Studio expertise is on full display in such works, inviting the collector to gaze at the careful application of an almost immaterial layer of paint.
Meanwhile, artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Leon Golub emphasized acrylic paints’ intensely tactile properties, conveyed in the building up of layers, the application of thick, copious swaths, and the use of unconventional surfaces. Acrylic paints, originally manufactured for use on buildings and interiors, are not only extremely durable but also very adaptable, which has led artists to use them on virtually every surface imaginable. From collage and sculpture to paintings on every conceivable support, acrylic enables artists to pursue new and boldly unconventional combinations of media, styles and tones. Those same qualities of resourcefulness, adaptability and visual intensity make acrylic paintings particularly appealing for collectors. It is a superb and surprising medium that enables rich new experiences for artists and collectors alike.
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This article was written for ARTmine by Benjamin Sutton.