Art Term Tuesday: Acrylic Paint

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Paint is paint, right? Apparently, not so much. For years, I’ve read labels next to artwork citing the medium, or material, as “acrylic on canvas”, “tempera on canvas”, or “oil on canvas” without truly distinguishing between them. Even being cognizant of the history of paints, how artists and their apprentices mixed their own paints to achieve the exact hues they wanted, how specific artists were known for specific colors like Titian Red or Klein Blue, or how the invention of metal paint tubes in 1841 acted as a vehicle for Impressionism because it allowed the artist to paint en plein air; the notion that the choice of medium mattered to the message is a new one.

First hammered home by my foray into printmaking and understanding that each technique and process resulted in a distinct end product, and then followed up by Vice President and COO Amanda Shepard in her latest blog post suggesting we start being more careful about our use of language and attempt to be more specific in how we discuss artworks to communicate more effectively, I’ve become more discrete in my descriptions of artworks. In this mood, I decided to take on my generic usage of the term paint and clarify it via specificity.

Acrylic paint as a medium for artists is still in its infancy while tempera, oil, and watercolor have graced the canvas for centuries. All paint is a combination of two ingredients, pigment (color) that is either natural or man-made and a binder that holds the pigment together, acrylic paint is a mixture of pigment and an acrylic polymer emulsion first manufactured commercially in the 1950s. It wasn’t picked up as an artist tool, however, until the 1960s! Dependent on how artists mix it, acrylic can take on the characteristics of its rivals in addition to those only it possesses: the ability to be used on a variety of surfaces, durability, quick drying time, bright colors, and lightfastness. These properties make acrylic paint conducive to multiple techniques including stippling, splattering, dabbing, and dry bushing that provide distinct textures, visuality, and versatility to an artists’ canvas.

Julian Stanczak, Polish American, 1928-2017. Spectral Blue. Acrylic on canvas, 1975. Courtesy of the Julian Stanczak Estate. Photo by FWMoA.

Despite it being one of the oldest painting methods and also water-soluble, traditional tempera paints, a mixture of colored pigments and egg yolk, are also the most toxic. Unable to be stored or used on canvas, only on stiff boards, tempera was highly toxic as its paints originally contained mercury, arsenic, and lead. Today’s modern artist grade synthetics are less toxic, though they can still pose health threats to painters. In addition, tempera lost out to oil painting because it cannot be applied in thick layers, therefore they do not create the same deep color saturation achieved by Dutch masters like Van Eyck. Oil paints, which are pigments in linseed oil, have a slow drying time which is advantageous to artists wanting to gradually develop a painting. Despite the saturation levels they can achieve, however, they darken, yellow, and become transparent with age. This is the reason many art museums employ conservators, to restore and maintain these paintings susceptible to drying, cracking, and color changes. Acrylic paints do not. For artists like Julian Stanczak, who was allergic to oils and needed his colors to retain their specific hue to challenge his viewers’ perceptions, acrylic paint was the only option.  

Julian Stanczak, Polish American, 1928-2017. Tactile See Through. Acrylic on canvas, 1974. Courtesy of the Julian Stanczak Estate. Photo by FWMoA.

In fact, Stanczak, like many artists, mixes his own colors despite commercially available ones. Breakthroughs in chemistry throughout history have made various natural and manmade pigments available, improving the variety, saturation, and permanence of the paint. Not driven by the artistic demand, however, but by commercial needs, so artists experimented to create pigments and paints that met their criteria. With his focus on color to create his Optical art paintings, Stanczak’s works demanded specific hues that can withstand the test of time. These “optical illusion” paintings are a feast for the eyes, and a headache for the mind, depending on the brilliancy and use of color. His process, on the surface, was fairly simple: a pencil drawing, choosing a color scheme via paint strips, painting the appropriate number of coats of the prevailing color, taping out the “wavelength” colors, and then removing the tape once the acrylics dried. The medium, however, is crucial. The communication of colors within the paintings that create the visual disturbance are exact and mathematical, just as the taping that separates them is. Though his work requires no knowledge of art history to experience the vibrations, movement, and geometry, this insight into his chosen medium explains how his paintings are created and takes the simplicity of the fundamental elements (line, shape, color, and texture) to a new height.

The next time you find yourself drawn to a work in an art museum, ask yourself: what pulled you into the story the artist is telling? Was it the size? The subject? The texture? The mood? The movement? Whatever it was, the driving force behind it was the medium the artist chose that allowed them to execute those design elements. I know the next time I look at a work of art I won’t read the label and say, “Oh, acrylic on canvas, that’s just paint”.

The works of Julian Stanczak and his wife, Barbara, will be on display at FWMoA in Full Spectrum: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of Julian Stanczak; Wood and Stone Sculpture of Barbara Stanczak through November 24th, 2019.

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