Andy Warhol to Thomas Hart Benton

When it comes to hype, nothing works better than bringing out the big names. Acrylics have some very big names behind them. Why? Well, for one, acrylics have a very interesting “secret life” that make them appealing to painters.

But acrylics were also a modern solution to painting that cutting edge twentieth-century artists craved. Brought to market in the 1940s, acrylics started out as house paints but their easy usability and quick drying time caught the eye of many modern painters.

Liquid Texture

In 1955, to meet the demand from artists, Permanent Pigments Company developed the first water-based acrylic gesso called Liquitex, named for what it was all about: liquid texture. A year later Liquitex put out the first water-based fluid acrylic paints, called Soft Body acrylics, which you can still reach for today at your local art shop.

Since then hundreds of thousands of artists have chosen acrylics as their painting medium, including so many iconic masters of modernism.

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200 Versions and Counting

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110 by Robert Motherwell, acrylic, charcoal and graphite on canvas

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110 by Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic? The painting no one gets and we all had to study in art history class? Yup, acrylics…at least some of the 200 versions that he made on this theme. Talk about commitment.

He mixed his paints with graphite and charcoal for those signature shapes and startling blackness.

“I’d Rather Sink Than Call Brad for Help”

Drowning Girl by Roy Lichtenstein, acrylics on canvas

Drowning Girl by Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein, the man who brought comic book Ben-Day dots and pop culture drama to canvas? Yup, did it in acrylics, including his best known work, Drowning Girl.

 

Fields of Color

When you start an art movement with acrylics, people take notice. Kenneth Noland was a leader in the Color Field movement, one of the most mesmerizing modern art trends of the 20th century. Noland spearheaded the Washington Color School movement that bubbled up in America’s capital city in the 1960s. His works usually focus on painted depictions of circles, chevrons, stripes or shaped canvases. The latter especially showcase Noland’s fixation with the power that the edge of a canvas has overall.

Beginning by Kenneth Noland, acrylics on canvas, 1958

Beginning by Kenneth Noland

Colors Do the Twist

Zing 1 by Bridget Riley

Zing 1 by Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley — yet another art movement maker — this time of Op Art — did it with acrylics. Riley’s geometric-shaped lines of paint produced wild optical effects. Zing 1 was one of Riley’s breakthrough paintings, in which she used vertical stripes to create (borderline) mind-bending horizontal bands of color.

Significant Stains

Canyon by Helen Frankenthaler, acrylic painting

Canyon by Helen Frankenthaler, acrylic painting

Helen Frankenthaler made some very significant marks in her day. They came as drips and splatters. They came as stains and blots.

According to The Phillips Collection: “In 1963 she began using acrylic paint as opposed to turpentine-thinned oil, resulting in the expansion of form and the production of bolder, more saturated colors. Canyon (above) of 1965, painted in acrylic, exemplifies Frankenthaler’s paintings of the 1960s as it flows out from a boldly colored center, in this case red.”

Mixed Media Awe

Just opening his latest powerhouse exhibition at the Hirshhorn, Mark Bradford lives big at 6’7″ and paints that way too. He started out painting with cans of remainder paint sold for $1 at hardware stores and hasn’t altered from that course, simply adding dimension with layers upon layers of cut paper (construction paper, newspaper and photographs among others) along the way.

The Grace of Simple “Space”

An artist of subtlety, contemplation and harmony, Mark Rothko made the act of painting a mindful, meditative experience. Mixing oils, powdered pigments and acrylics, he created large scale canvases that brought grace to simple forms. He explored color exhaustively and the look and feel of his works is almost always conveyed through color and pattern.

No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow) by Mark Rothko

No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow) by Mark Rothko

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Late in his career Barnett Newman created paintings on a massive scale. He painted them in acrylics. The four works from his series Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue are all well over life-size and were made with pure, unmixed primary colors.

Heartland Artist

The Bicyclers by Thomas Hart Benton

The Bicyclers by Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton’s The Bicyclers is a tour de force from this American modernist. From the composition to the style, this painting indicates all that Benton would become famous for. Interesting to note in this context, he created several studies of this painting in oil and watercolor, but he decided to do the final version in acrylics.

 

Poolside Paintings

A Bigger Splash by David Hockney

A Bigger Splash by David Hockney

One of the most famous Brit Pop Artists, David Hockney painted several iconic California swimming pools — including his own — in acrylics. He started painting poolsides around the same time he came across acrylic paints in the 1960s. Their fast-drying ability (rather than the slow drying of oils) was most appropriate to the easy, breezy, clean and sunny landscapes that Hockney was depicting. A match made in California dreaming you could say.

Soupy Acrylics

Campbell's Soup Cans by Andy Warhol, acrylic painting

Campbell’s Soup Cans by Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, among others, were painted in acrylics. He is yet another example of a modern artist who found his modern medium in acrylics.

Maybe because they were easy to use? So that the artists could spend time building their legends and attending amazing parties (Andy, this means you!).

Maybe because they were fast and they were easy and the artists using them were modern, cutting edge and brand new as well?

Warhol, like all of the listed artists, craved newness because he was living in a new age. The modern 20th century defied historic precedence. Every artistic foray felt brand new. All eyes were looking forward into the ‘now’ and looking back simply wasn’t in the plans. Acrylics gave these artists a way forward into uncharted but exciting territory. The results, obviously, are well worth recognizing.

 

Do You Want to Join Them?

Hundreds of thousands of artists, both famous and unsung, have found that for their painting process, acrylics are the answer.

Now the next evolution of acrylics has arrived with Liquitex’s new cadmium-free colors, the world’s first non-cadmium acrylic paints with the same brightness, color strength and opacity as cadmium paint, offering artists a safer option in their practice.

 

Try them for yourself!

The Liquitex brand prides themselves in creating and delivering a best in class product with ingredients that are the most safe and effective for you, the artist.

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Liquitex was the first water-based acrylic paint created in 1955 and since then we have partnered with artists to ensure that we continually evolve and innovate – resulting in a long history of acrylic innovation. Today, Liquitex offers the largest array of vibrant acrylic paints, mediums and tools to enable acrylic artists to continually explore their art and take it to new and unprecedented boundaries. With our innovative drive, our creative passion and our intense desire to share the joys of artistic expression through unparalleled education and community outreach programs, Liquitex is and will continue to be a strong partner to help artists explore their art for decades to come.