Part 5, essay – historical and contemporary use of acrylics*

Acrylics – democratising art practice?

Until the early 20th century, artists had been working with the same painting materials for hundreds of years …. [t]hen in the 1940s and 50s acrylic paint burst upon the art scene.

Artist’s Manual. Collins 1995, p148.

Acrylics are pigmented acrylate resin which is water soluble, quick drying, and versatile, both permanent and flexible and ‘burst’ seems appropriate because everything about them is exuberant. While oils carry the weight of history with a chemistry that demands patience; and watercolours evoke delicate botanical paintings, acrylics are both speedy and capable of imitating legacy media. The timing seems perfect. Hitting that post-war point in social evolution where young people were suddenly freed from the constraints of duty, the teenager became the nymph between child and adult human forms, and a collision of leisure and education led to an explosion in liberal arts.

David Hockney

The ease of use of acrylics make them a gift for beginners in particular to experiment with but Hockney was certainly not that. With a nose for new ways of doing things – latterly iPad painting and virtual reality – he began using acrylics in the early 1960s (undated Tate notes). He was not alone. According to Britannica, other “[n]otable 20th-century artists who used acrylic paint include[d] Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Bridget Riley, Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman.”

I chose ‘The Bigger Splash’ (1967) to illustrate early use of acrylics. The flat, print-like effect must have been revolutionary, and the colours rewardingly strong. Hockney shows not only how smoothly this medium can be applied but adds a flourish of movement in that splash. ‘Here, he says, ‘look what else this can do’. I used soft pastels in my version to avoid direct copying while keeping the essential palette and composition.

Top: ‘Another Splash’ in soft pastels on UART sanded pastel paper after Hockney’s 1967 ‘Bigger Splash’ (crop Bottom). An experiment in colour imitation with a different medium in accordance with my principle ‘copy for practice, make it your own’. I have strengthened the tones and blended colours to make shapes in places where Hockney’s painting is flat everywhere apart from the splash itself.

Yael Maimon

I had to run a search for an example of a more contemporary artist than those of the 60s and 70s, and the image that drew me in was The Goldfish (?2016). It was the messiness of the brushwork that struck me; completely contrasting with Hockney’s graphical style of The Bigger Splash. Maimon was born in 1980, runs a cat sanctuary, and while she paints a range of subjects in a variety of media, she also paints many cats. Like Vine, Blackadder, and Hockney, Maimon finds what really matters about cats and describes them in tones and colour with wide brush strokes and little detail. In illustrating The Goldfish, I chose again to make a copy in soft pastels, this time because they seem suited to imprecision.

Left: my copy in pastels. Right: crop of Maimon’s original ‘The Goldfish’ in acrylics.

Hockney and Maimon have contrasting styles and techniques but the same core ability to bring out the essence of the subject; images hinting at a life that could walk right off the canvas. That this is achieved using the same medium says to me that it has grown up and come of age. Easy to transport, to work, and to store, acrylics arguably took art from the hands of the elite and made it available to everyone.

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500 of 500 words +/-50 excluding title, reference, and image notes.

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*The brief requires us to write about the historical and contemporary use of our preferred medium as illustrated by particular artists. Acrylics are newcomers to the artists’ tool box and so I have arbitrarily classified its beginning in the early 1950s/60s as historical for this purpose, and the late 20th century to the present day as contemporary.

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David Hockney (1937 – ) one of first users of acrylic paint. Via the Tate [online] Available at Acrylic paint – Art Term | Tate Accessed 1 February 2021.

Britannica. [online] Available at Acrylic painting | Britannica. Accessed 1 February 2021.

A brief account of the adoption of acrylics by artists. No author named. [online] Available at History of Acrylic Paint | Articles | MontMarte International Pty Ltd. Accessed 2 February 2021.

Yael Maimon (1980 – ). Feline artist. [online] Available at Feline Artist Yael Maimon. Accessed 2 February 2021.

David Hockney (1937 – ) home page [online] Available at David Hockney. Accessed 2 February 2021.

Artist’s Manual: the complete guide to painting and drawing materials and techniques, 1997. Pp 147-165. Harper Collins. No author given.

Kloosterboer, L. 2014. Painting in Acrylics: the indispensable guide. Firefly Books.

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I had not gone in search of cat art; I came across Yael Maimon via a painting called Goldfish and liked the style. This led to a search which brought up her website telling of her cat rescue work and feline art. This is from her YouTube channel and although it’s watercolour, to me it embodies the principles of minimal brushwork and that dart and strike method of applying medium I saw recently on Tony Allain’s live broadcast workshop .

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