The right paint for the job

No movements or schools of art began as a result of the discovery of new materials or inventions of new techniques. Rather, when new ideas and aesthetic departures arose, they created a demand for new technical methods that could express them in a more appropriate and fluent manner than was possible with the older methods.
–Ralph Mayer, The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, 4th edition

I’ve been trying to remember … it was so long ago … when, exactly did I develop an aversion to polymer paints, aka “acrylics”? I know that I did use them, from time to time, back when I was just starting out. I seem to recall painting a few large, abstract murals in acrylics back in the early 80s.

But I stopped using them altogether sometime in the middle of that decade. I think it had something to do with a growing realization that if I was going to get serious about painting I would have to ground myself more in the craft. Despite having a BFA, or maybe partly because of it, I had begun to chafe at how little I really knew about how paintings were put together. That was when I first apprenticed myself to Ralph Mayer (or more accurately his book, as mentioned in an earlier post), and started delving more seriously into the history of the medium itself.

Of course, having come on stream in the 1950s, acrylic paints have very little history, and they had even less back then. I had the sense, whether rightly or wrongly, that the advent of acrylics might have fundamentally changed the nature of painting, and not for the better. Maybe acrylics were responsible for the brash, plasticky look of Pop art, a look I had little desire to emulate. At any rate, Mayer had very little to say about acrylics.

While oils were by then my medium of choice, I also worked in watercolour and gouache, and even dabbled a bit in casein and egg tempera. It definitely didn’t hurt to limit myself to more traditional kinds of paints for a time to get a sense of how their strengths and weaknesses might have conditioned the look of historical painting. But if I was going to be honest, I’d probably have to wonder how much of my aversion to acrylics was grounded in practical considerations like that, and how much was just a kind of snobbishness. Acrylics do have a few unfortunate associations: I mentioned the plasticky look above (which can be overstated), and also they have a whiff of the beginner or the amateur about them, because their immensely practical qualities — quick drying time, no volatile solvents, clean up with soap and water, no “fat over lean” — lend themselves to use by those not willing or yet able to engage with more technically demanding media. Whereas nothing says “old master” like oil paint, the legions of amateur daubers who have worked in that medium notwithstanding.

By Creator:Fernand Léger (Photographed by Zambonia 28 October 2011) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Creator:Fernand Léger (Photographed by Zambonia 28 October 2011) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My current way of thinking is that it’s wrong to get too caught up in what one might call technological symbolism. Yes, the kind of paint you use conditions the look of your end result. And for that reason if you’re seeking to emulate the look of historic styles, as the Classical Realists do, you’d be foolish to try to do that with materials that hadn’t been invented back then. If emulating historic styles isn’t really your goal though it makes sense to use whatever kind of paint will best achieve the result you happen to be shooting for, and not get too wound up about “old master” connotations. If you like working slowly, or delicately blending your colours, then oils are probably the way to go. But if large flat areas of colour, improvisatory techniques with lots of overpainting, or heavy impasto are more your metier, then why not use paints that were developed for those very things?

As per the Mayer quote above, acrylic paints were developed precisely because painters were trying to use oil paint in ways that it was never intended to be used, and that was leading to all kinds of problems. New approaches demanded new technology, and now we have options open to us that earlier painters did not.

So where does that leave me? I’m a bit of a borderline case, I think. My approach derives from styles that date from the first half of the 20th century and so were developed predominantly by painters who worked a lot in oils, like Picasso and Braque. But many of the paintings from that era had more of the characteristics associated with acrylic paintings, like large flat areas of colour and improvisatory technique. Subtlety and fine modeling were often absent from early modernism, as in the Leger above. These styles were in fact some of the transitional ones that led, decades later, to the introduction of acrylics, because oil paint was not optimal for these kinds of uses.

As mentioned before I’m interested in exploring the formal languages of early modernism but more in the way of a commentary than a revival, so I don’t think its necessary for me to cleave to an antiquarian orthodoxy when it comes to the craft. All of which is to say I’ve decided to work a bit in acrylics again, for the first time in something like 30 years. I’ll let you know how that goes.