Artists Switch From Labeling Their Paintings Acrylic To *Synthetic Polymer*

English: THAHLES, 2006. Corday. Synthetic Poly...

English: THAHLES, 2006. Corday. Synthetic Polymer and Pigment on raw linen. 72 x 216in. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wrote and published this article in June of 2012, yet artists are still commenting on it.

Featured it again in 2015, and for a 3rd time October 2016.  Here’s the original article–

I don’t know all the reasons for acrylic shame, but I do know that many galleries and artists have long labeled acrylic paintings as *mixed media* to help increase sales. I’ve also heard stories of art collectors losing interest and walking away from a painting once they learned it was painted with acrylic paints.

Lately, I have noticed a new trend–contemporary artists are labeling their paintings *synthetic polymer* paintings rather than use the dreaded word *acrylic* to describe their work.

I’m thinking of doing the same. Synthetic polymer does sound more advanced, up-to-the-minute, complex. Perhaps *synthetic polymer* as a medium is actually more accurate a description, since *acrylic* does come in many forms other than paint. There are acrylic nails, acrylic fish tanks, acrylic comes in sheets, there are acrylic fibers, and acrylic acids. Just using the word *acrylic* alone in a line description assumes that the reader/viewer of your work will know that refers to artist acrylic paints. As contemporary artists continue to expand the materials they work with it may just be necessary to use *synthetic polymer* to describe the paint used, for accuracy and clarity. What do you think? Are you willing to drop the use of the term *acrylic painting* and start describing your paintings at *synthetic polymer paintings*? If so, why? For more accurate descriptions? Hope to increase sales? Please leave a comment below.

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49 thoughts on “Artists Switch From Labeling Their Paintings Acrylic To *Synthetic Polymer*

  1. I think it really does highlight how a lot of art is about reputation. People are often scared to say they like something unless they’re given permission first and unfortunately poor old acrylics aren’t so fashionable, and have not been granted that permission yet.
    Maybe that’s because they’re the types of paint used by school children…..which to me makes using the name synthetic polymer a good idea. It promotes a point of difference between the paints used as you learn and the ones used as an artist and says, ‘I’m a professional now!’

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  2. the thing i learned about acrylic paint is that its life is 30 years or less. this is because after it dries, it becomes plastic which over time, will break and cannot be repaired. this is why i’ve dropped acrylic as a medium.

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  3. Yes I think it’s more professional, for example Gold paints of NY are leaders in experimenting texture effects of ‘acrylics’ and are so sophisticated due to the innovative research behind the visual language of ‘acrylic’ painting that it would be correct for an artist to specify exactly the type of chemical compound used in the finished art work
    Having said this contemporary art to my knowledge doesn’t have material boundaries, that’s why it’s contemporary… a mountain of old discarded dolls to state a point is described as an installation and nobody goes to the trouble of listing the technical and/or chemical composition of the art piece, a huge Koons sculpture may have a harmful chemical finish which is not going to be publicised because he’s Jeff and unquestionable… What about Hirst and his fleshy artwork… “putrifying meat” and flies… it’s all relative, so giving acrylic a more accurate definition can be considered a communicative evolution that in certain cases (ie. particular brand) really does have sense because ulterior research has ironed out those ‘aging’ problems, for example, and a conscientious artist should state it …

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  4. Our language is part of our art. How can we separate the description of our work? As far as I am concerned, We are not only responsible for elevating our level of work, elevating our level of language we use when describing our work and talking about our work. I think as artists we have a responsibility to keep up with the advancements and trends as much as possible, It only makes sense if you want to be better at what you do.

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  5. Interesting! I will definitely use that for my descriptions. I paint with acrylic but also add that it’s mixed media because my paintings are done with hot glue and acrylic additive mediums and simply putting synthetic polymers would better!

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    • @Natso, Yes! I agree. The mixed media label tends to apply better to works that consist of a wider variety of materials. I’ve never felt comfortable categorizing my acrylic paintings as mixed media. Using the descriptive term *synthetic polymers* makes more sense for me as well.

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  6. I think I would use Synthetic Polymer, this makes scene in the art world today with all the various acrylic mediums available on the market and the changing with technology. As a professional contemporary artist this seems to be a more interesting label for future artists to go forward in our new era of art .

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  7. Synthetic polymer! It’s worth a try. I work in acrylics a great deal and I’ve never considered them the red-haired stepchildren. I’m going to give it a trial run and see how people react to it. I had a teacher I really admired who would bristle at the word “illustrator” but I don’t have a problem labeling myself that way. It’s so funny the way different words can cause a different reaction.

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    • Hi Susan
      I know what you mean. Acrylic artist paints have been around for so long! I don’t know the origins of their supposed inferiority either in the minds of gallerist and collectors. What I like about applying the description *synthetic polymer and pigment* to the materials list of a painting is that it seems a more accurate and logical list of ingredients.

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  8. Well , My blog’s name IS Acrylic Painting ! I’m not changing it now ! lol I don’t know why there would be snobbery against acrylics .They’re supposed to last for 500 years or more . I don’t know where the commenter A.J . Brown got his information from about acrylic paintings only lasting 30 years or less I have some that are more than 20 years old and they are in perfect condition. Thanks for the interesting article !

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    • Yes, I think it is such misinformation that filters down to some art buyers who then fear buying acrylic paintings. When I was an art collection manager, a museum curator wanted to borrow a painting from the 1960’s that was badly deteriorating with large holes in the paint surface. He said it may be worth the conservation work to get it into the show since the body of work available by that artist was so small. But when the curator saw the condition of the painting he gave up on it. It was mixed media and the artist must have done something to cause the instability in the paint film.

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  9. Luba says:

    Your art sales are not going to increase simply by substituting a complicated sounding scientific word for “acrylic paint” as the medium. Some artists that are using the term “synthetic polymer” claim that this word is more specific than “acrylic paint”. Quite the contrary, actually, as “synthetic polymer” is an umbrella term; in fact, a more specific, fancy-sounding word for acrylic paint is “acrylic polymer emulsion”. I believe that if an artist labels their artwork as being created with “synthetic polymers”, you will further alienate your customers. Art is hard enough to sell as it is, and some folks don’t even know what “acrylic” means… so I feel that labeling your art as “synthetic polymer” is yet another way to completely make a potential customer feel uncomfortable or “stupid for not knowing”. I work in retail sales (art supplies, artwork etc) and believe me… the last thing you want to do is annoy a customer.

    Questions will arise in their minds, such as: Do you feel like you are special from other artists that label their work as acrylic paint (industry standard word, by the way)? Is there something special about your art, that you have to use a different medium (I don’t see anything special about your art, when I own art by x number of artists that use acrylic or oil paints)? I don’t want to feel stupid, so I think I’ll walk away… OR: I don’t want to feel stupid, so I’ll talk to the artist; customer talks to artist, and still can’t see a reason for calling the medium a “synthetic polymer”. Now imagine if one of your potential customers has worked in picture framing, conservation/restorating work of art, a chemist, etc… ? They would probably laugh and say that the artist is just trying to feel special.

    Now, let’s talk about why some of Andy Warhol’s work is labeled as a syntheic polymer. That is a different story. Acrylics were invented in the 1950s/60s by Liquitex, at the request of many working artists of that time (Jackson Pollock was one of them). Many different names were tossed around… but synthetic polymer was just a descriptive term that was used as a stand-in before something else “stuck”.

    Synthetic Painting Media by Lawrence N. Jensen (pub date 1964) is a good reference book for anyone interested in early acrylic paints. Some of these synthetic paints were called: Acrylic Resins, Polymer Tempera, Oil-Compatibale Acrylic Resin Paints, Ethyl Silicate, Pyroxylin, Vinyl Acetate, Vinyl Chloride Acetate.

    From the book: “Although the artist is concerned primarily with the methods and techniques necessary for the proper handling of his materials, it is also important that he have an understanding of the general characteristics and origins of his medium.” Page 38, under the chapter “Synthetic Painting Media”. Note the word GENERAL in there.

    In fact, the closest historical term for the acrylic polymer emulsion (acrylic paints) of today is probably polymer tempera paint. But, why get complex? Just use the term acrylic paint, or acrylic polymer emulsion, and that’s it. If the artist is mixing up some sort of laboratory, custom colors and wants to call it something like “synthetic polymer”, fine.. but… in reality, how many artists have a chem lab in their studios? Should I start calling oil paintings “organic pigment w/drying oil vehicle on linen”? Sounds pretty ridiculous to me. Focus on your art and it should speak for itself.

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    • Luba says:

      BFA in Drawing, but I also work in the art supplies industry and have worked in art galleries. I’m also a picture framer with knowledge in conservation framing. If you need clarification, you can email Golden Artist Colors directly, but seeing as how they are using the term “Synthetic Polymer” as a general descriptive term for their acrylic paint, I am not sure what they will tell you. Golden Artist Colors labels their paint as Acrylic Polymer Emulsion, or Acrylic Polymer Dispersion, which is the industry standard for describing Acrylic Paints. A Synthetic Polymer could be anything – is it a Polymer Tempera, as I have stated above, or Ethyl SIlicate (see the book I quoted from in my previous comment).

      Also, I regularly do business with gallery owners in the industry and acrylic paint is the preferred terminology for medium-specific work. Synthetic Polymer would be questioned, because it is a very vague term that could mean any sort of plastic which falls under that description. To list the medium of a painting as “Synthetic Polymer” or “Mixed Media” (when in truth the artist used acrylics, or acrylics/oils/ink combination), is just doing the artist a disservice, especially if a conservator has to touch up the work or needs to know what was used so that the work may be restored. If a conservator sees “Synthetic Polymer” on the work, it will cause a great deal of frustration because Synthetic Polymer could be ANYTHING. Acrylic is much more specific. When dealing with “Mixed Media” artwork, listng mediums in order of those that were used first -> last: India Ink/Acrylic/Oils on panel (for example) is even better because then the conservator will know what the painting is made up of. Honestly, to be vague about your materials makes matters difficult for people who handle the work after the artist has sold it.

      For shortening purposes, an artist could list “Mixed Media” as the medium, and then write on the back of the work (not on the canvas but up by the bars, unless it’s a wood panel with sealed area where the writing will be) the list of materials used. Some include a small write-up in an envelope to be kept with the painting at all times.

      This entire conversation can be likened to naming an inkjet print a Giclee.

      “Giclée (pron.: /ʒiːˈkleɪ/ zhee-KLAY or /dʒiːˈkleɪ/), is a neologism coined in 1991 by printmaker Jack Duganne[1] for fine art digital prints made on inkjet printers. The name originally applied to fine art prints created on IRIS printers in a process invented in the late 1980s but has since come to mean any inkjet print. It is often used by artists, galleries, and print shops to denote high quality printing but since it is an unregulated word it has no associated warranty of quality.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gicl%C3%A9e#cite_note-2

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    • Too much information. I’m not trying to impress anyone. My original article simply stated that I had noted a new trend with artists labeling their art images as *synthetic polymer and pigment*.

      I’ve worked in the museum profession with advanced graduate degree level training in fine art conservation, as well as my associations with commercial galleries, and so I can’t help but wonder why
      you are even disputing my observation of the trend in labeling acrylic paintings as *synthetic polymer and pigment*. A trend is a trend. Trends are trends and have social reasons, perhaps more than having to do with accuracy. My blog post a simple observation + an invitation for artist feedback on whether they would label their paintings as such. I did receive feedback on this. My blog post auto-feeds into my LinkedIN group also named Artist Marketing Resources where many commented.

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    • Luba says:

      Alright, fair enough. Explain then why synthetic polymer is more accurate, when it is an umbrella term in the art supplies industry?

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    • Luba says:

      That’s fine, I understand that since I am also an artist, but I feel that “acrylic paint” or “acrylic polymer emulsion (or dispersion)” is a more widely accepted and understood term. I’m waiting to hear back from Golden Artist Colors on that one, just for curiosity sake.

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    • I have used pigment dispersions for several years purchased from Guerra pigments NYC, and I have also use dispersion agents purchased from Sinopia. Dispersion agents help the dry pigment powders to become better mixed with the paint binding medium. The way you use the word *dispersion* tells me that you do not understand what it means. You continue to miss the point I have made repeatedly–that what an art store calls inventory is besides the point. I give up on this conversation. Please don’t leave any more comments.

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  10. Luba says:

    Also, I Googled “Synthetic Polymer” and this is what it came up with, smack dab on Wikipedia’s website:

    The paint type known as Emulsion in the UK and Latex in the USA is a water-borne dispersion of sub-micrometre polymer particles. These terms in their respective countries cover all paints that use synthetic polymers such as acrylic, vinyl acrylic (PVA), styrene acrylic, etc. as binders.[3] The term “latex” in the context of paint in the USA simply means an aqueous dispersion; latex rubber from the rubber tree is not an ingredient. These dispersions are prepared by emulsion polymerization. Such paints cure by a process called coalescence where first the water, and then the trace, or coalescing, solvent, evaporate and draw together and soften the binder particles and fuse them together into irreversibly bound networked structures, so that the paint will not redissolve in the solvent/water that originally carried it. The residual surfactants in paint as well as hydrolytic effects with some polymers cause the paint to remain susceptible to softening and, over time, degradation by water. The general term of latex paint is usually used in the USA, while the term emulsion paint is used for the same products in the UK and the term latex paint is not used at all. Paints that cure by oxidative crosslinking are generally single package coatings. When applied, the exposure to oxygen in the air starts a process that crosslinks and polymerizes the binder component. Classic alkyd enamels would fall into this category. Oxidative cure coatings are catalyzed by metal complex driers such as cobalt naphthenate.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paint

    So, there you have it. A synthetic polymer is an umbrella term which could mean acrylic, vinyl acrylic (PVA), styrene acrylic, etc., To be extremely specific, an artist painting with “a paint that is a synthetic polymer with pigment in it” is painting with acrylic polymer dispersion (or emulsion) paints, or simply acrylic paints.

    If you, as the artist, know for absolutely certain that what you are using in your painting is an acrylic paint, why not just state it like it is so that the people handling the art afterwards can have peace of mind if the art ever has to be examined, restored, re-sold at auction, or appraised?

    We may not know exactly, point form, what paint Jackson Pollock used because acrylics (in their early stage) were evolving quite rapidly, so “when in doubt, write synthetic polymer” for historical reasons. Today, we know what we are using, and what our paints are made out of. I say, make it easy on yourself and others and list the medium by the manufacturer’s, and industry standard, description: Acrylics, acrylic paint, acrylic polymer dispersion or emulsion, etc. 🙂

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  11. I also run an acrylic blog called The Feather Artist and I have to say, after attending numerous art shows and after reading this article, I am DETERMINED to make a good name for acrylics. Oils are so praised and esteemed but bottom line, acrylic paint can do anything oil paint can do! And it can create “fine art” just as well, if not better than oils. Most people wouldn’t even know I paint with acrylics unless I told them – they all just assume they are oils. And to think someone may look down on my paintings just because of the word “acrylic” makes me kind of sad, but all the more determined to change the sterotype….Having said that – it is time to get back to work! 😉

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  12. thefeatherartist says:

    I also run an acrylic blog called The Feather Artist and I have to say, after attending numerous art shows and after reading this article, I am DETERMINED to make a good name for acrylics. Oils are so praised and esteemed but bottom line, acrylic paint can do anything oil paint can do! And it can create “fine art” just as well, if not better than oils. Most people wouldn’t even know I paint with acrylics unless I told them – they all just assume they are oils. And to think someone may look down on my paintings just because of the word “acrylic” makes me kind of sad, but all the more determined to change the sterotype….Having said that – it is time to get back to work! 😉

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  13. Part of the problem is not so much what is correct, but from a certain kind of buyer that I and many other artists have run into, acrylic means junk, lower status to oil. Not sure why, is really annoying. We may know that acrylic has almost the same pigments available as oil ( I think a few pigments do not work in oil, and a few not work in acrylic, but mostly overlap with same). I used to hear there was an oil look, or oil looked different. Then started looking very close at every chance in galleries and museums. Did not see it. Even saw 2 very similar large paints by Wayne Thiebaud at show, one acrylic, one oil, nope, similar.
    Asked him about why he did both, just was better for whatever his work style or needs were at the time.

    I DO think there is a look that people THINK is oil. And I’ve painted acrylics that people kept insisting to me I was wrong, it was oil. That is always funny.

    I’ve also found out from enough openings that many do not know what paint is, so we do need to explain more.

    But the extreme, oil is great, acrylic sucks attitude of some buyers, not really sure what to do about that.

    Then again, have had people come in looking for glicee as something better. So I agree with LUBA, in why change, it might be more correct? And I agree with MARIEKAZALIA in perhaps the damage is done, and why should we hold ourselves back because of some wrong branding image that might be impossible to fight against.

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    • Dear Matthew Seigel, Thank you for you long informative comment. When I think of negative opinions of acrylic paint as prejudice (pre-judgement), then, like all prejudice, educating will create change. I own this blog and wrote the blog post article, and my name is Marie Kazalia (aka MARIEKAZALIA). The goal of the blog post was to receive feedback and bring in more information. Since you are very informed and apparently connected to some top artists, such as Wayne Thiebaud, who I heard speak when I was a student,perhaps you would like to write a blog post article of about 200 words and a few jpeg images and a link to your site. I’d be happy to publish your article on my blog and share it widely on social media. Best wishes
      Marie Kazalia
      email: MarieKazalia@gmail.com

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  14. sunnychapman says:

    I went to the new painting show at MOMA yesterday- The Forever Now. All of the not-oil paintings were labeled synthetic polymer, the word acrylic was nowhere to be seen. I finished a painting today and I’m saying they’re synthetic polymer from now on, people seem to feel acrylic is not as good as oil.

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  15. yes, in two hundred years time when my work is famous it wont matter if its oil or an acrylic just that its a WLLWALT I TELL YOU!
    That I now live in benefit poverty in my old age and paint on hardboard does not matter for my fortune will be with me some time shortly or at least sometime in the next two hundred years.
    FOR I HAVE SEEN IT IN THE CARDS, tea leaves and I CHING!
    Yes when Im dead, I can hardly wait: vunderbar!
    (written to accompaning sound of isane giggling)

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    • That’s not the point. Dirt / mineral pigments are natural as were early paint binders–oil, gum arabic, egg emulsions. Fine art acrylic paints are synthetic and have only been used by artist since 1949/49 in the brand name Magna paint. Jackson Pollock and other Abstract expressionist artists used Magna. More types of acrylic paint became available in the 1950’s.
      Since acrylic paint has only been in wide use by artists for about 60 years, no one knows if acrylic paintings will last for centuries. It’s commonly known that oil paintings and egg tempura and frescos last for centuries because many painted centuries ago still exist.

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  16. I have been using artist’s acrylic paints fro 50 years and there is no sign of deterioration of any sort. They remain flexible and with the same lovely colors. They clean with mild soap and water and there is not the health hazard that goes with oil paints and those solvents.

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  17. Marie, thanks for offering the opportunity to share some quick thoughts on this topic. First the labeling of Acrylic paintings as Synthetic Polymer Paints has been the policy of both MoMA and the Whitney for at least 40 years. This couldn’t be more inappropriate for their level of knowledge of synthetic polymers. I can understand why artists may want to reinvent the name, but using a name that simply adds to the confusion is quite unfortunate. The acrylic dispersion polymer (and that is the accurate chemical name) is one of the most durable, flexible and lightfast polymers available today. This includes both natural and synthetic polymers. The enormous group of synthetic polymers includes a good deal of plastics that are used for many other purposes, but many do not require the sort of performance that artists demand and have caused significant failure in mixed media works.

    I’ll be short here, but would certainly appreciate any comments. Linseed Oil colors are beautiful, but there is no need for a competition amongst permanent artists mediums. Just as an aside. Any artist doing an oil painting on an acrylic ground might also be required to list it as a mixed media piece according to some of your readers comments. Acrylics are now 70 years old. Eventually we will stop this silly debate and value the work and the important legacy they have created. Best, Mark Golden, Golden Artist Colors.

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    • Dear Mark

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’d like to invite you to write a guest blog post for Artist Marketing Resources on the topic of longevity of acrylic artist paints and mediums and how you think artist should describe their materials to their collectors when they use acrylic paints and mediums. I’d be happy to feature your article, and photos and links are always good to include. If interested, my email address is: mariekazalia@gmail.com Marie Kazalia

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  18. I used acrylic for 20 years and like most artists also experienced the comment of acrylic being a lesser medium, less noble than oil, etc…etc…. always the reference to the old masters using oil and me smiling about the fact that acrylic did not exist at the time and their logic is flawed.

    That said each medium offers different feel and should be appreciated for what they are and not compared to each other. That someone calls it acrylic or polymer…..it is a plastic, it is not the name that will change the chemical structure of the paint.

    As far as knowing how long acrylic will survive, the company Golden has done some pretty good work in proving that it will have a long life. I did not take a chance I now use encaustic…….over 2000 years. The reason behind my choice is the fact that I want to reduce the use of plastic, my tiny contribution to the planet.

    Very interesting post and comments.

    Michelle

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    • Hi Michelle

      I appreciate your comment. While exhibiting in a gallery artists may encounter a type of snobbery in the labeling language for the work, and
      to please gallerists and potential buyers/collectors it may be wise to avoid the general term “acrylic” and instead be more
      accurate in the description of the materials by using other terms as mentioned in my article. There are many types of plastics and acrylics and
      artists work in many materials. Artists who hand-grind raw pigments into oil mediums are creating a superior quality paint compared to many
      prepackaged tubes or cans of oil paint with additive and fillers that are available in art supply stores.

      So in the description of the materials of a completed painting there is an opportunity to let buyers know that you are knowledgeable and informed. When I see a painted labeled “oil” for instance, I think, no it’s not, that’s not oil, it may be oil paint. But a label of just “oil” seems not only inaccurate but lazy and overly jaded or even disinterested and I don’t particularly wish to engage with the artist. The labeling indicates a certain type of artist and where they are at in their career and quality of their work. I can read any label description without actually seeing the artwork and know pretty much what to expect and so can others.

      The point of my article is–If you can help yourself professionally with more professional labeling then why not?

      As someone pointed out, Andy Warhol used acrylic paint but didn’t use the word “acrylic” in his descriptions –1960’s,1970’s, 1980’s to today. Warhol was and continues to be known for his business skills elevated to an art form. Any artist can learn from a true master of success and follow his example.

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  19. Pingback: Learn How to Art: What is Acrylic Paint? | Monica Heilman

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