The following article focuses on the history and current state of acrylic paints—it is the first in a new series. Future articles will cover acrylic painting techniques and methods.
A brief overview of artists’ acrylic paints
Acrylic paint was first developed in the 1950s as house paint, and made commercially available as artist grade paints in the 1960s. The term—acrylic—refers to the fact that the pigment for the paint is suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion.
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When you compare acrylic to oil paint, where pigment is suspended in oil (usually linseed oil) and the name makes perfect sense. Water is used to combine the pigment and emulsion in acrylic paints, therefore acrylics are considered to be “water-based.”
Depending on the painting techniques used, acrylic paintings may look similar either to oil paintings OR watercolor paintings. Of course, acrylic paint can also be applied in such a way that it is clearly an acrylic painting, and not oil or watercolor.
Currently there are two types of acrylic paints on the market. I’ll refer to them as “traditional” acrylic paints and “new” acrylic paints.
Traditional acrylic paints are the fast-drying paints that have been around for the last 50 years. They are made by Liquitex, Winsor and Newton, Golden, Grumbacher, and others. Newer acrylic paints do not dry as quickly and can be reactivated after drying. They are made by Golden and Chroma.
Here’s a quick explanation of the advantages and disadvantages of acrylic paints, whether you’re using traditional acrylics or “new” acrylics:
Advantages and disadvantages of traditional acrylics:
Advantages – Acrylic paints are water-based, which means they can be thinned with just water (no toxic spirits are required). In addition, wet paint can be cleaned off of brushes with soap and water.
Disadvantages – Acrylic paints can contain toxins within their pigments, just like some oil paints do. Using “retarder” to slow the drying time of acrylics often introduces additional toxins.
Advantages – Traditional acrylic paints dry rapidly, so there is no need to wait between painting sessions for layers to dry. Paintings are dry enough to ship safely within a day or so.
Disadvantages – Because acrylic paints dry quickly they cannot be easily blended to create the “wet in wet” technique that is popular with oil paints. This is what can give a “harsher” look to acrylic paintings when compared to oils.
Acrylic paint also dries quickly on the palette. There are special palettes designed to extend the life of acrylic paint outside of the tube, but for slower painters, this can be a big problem.
Advantages – Unlike watercolors, another water-based paint, once traditional acrylics are dry they are on the support to stay. This makes painting new layers on top of previous ones simpler.
Disadvantages – Once the paint is dry, it cannot be removed or altered.
Advantages – Acrylic paints have been proven to be more flexible than oil paints. There is no need to follow “fat over lean” rules with acrylics so that they won’t crack.
Disadvantages – We’ve only had 50 years of acrylic paints. . . how they’ll hold up after a few hundred years cannot be proven for another 150 years. Certainly, acrylics appear to be more durable now than oil paints, but one must remember that they have not yet passed the acid test of time.
Advantages and disadvantages of new acrylics:
There are no differences between traditional acrylics and newer acrylic paints, except that you won’t need to use any toxic retarders to slow drying time (see below).
Advantages – New acrylic paints have extended drying times, so the paint can be left on a sealed palette and remain workable for several days. Also, wet-in-wet techniques can be used, just like oil paints, without a retarder.
Disadvantages – If you like your acrylics to dry very quickly, these won’t.
Advantages: These paints do reactivate. When water is applied to paint that is dry to the touch, it can be reactivated, worked into and/or lifted off. Over time, this ability to reactivate is eventually lost.
Disadvantages – Painting wet over dry acrylics may cause some color bleed.
Advantages – Same as traditional oil paints.
Disadvantages – These paints are even “younger” than traditional acrylic paints. Efforts are being made to prove their longevity, but nothing can be irrefutably proven until sufficient time passes.
That’s all for today’s article. . . I hope it’s given you some idea of where acrylic paints come from and how they work.
Next time we’ll go a bit deeper and cover acrylic painting techniques. Stay tuned!