The Advent of Acrylic Dispersion Primers

Today artists take it for granted that some products always existed. This is not the case with acrylic paints, and especially acrylic gesso for artists. While acrylic gesso it is not a true gesso, formally defined as a mixture of gypsum and animal glue with the proper proportion of water to make a hard but absorbent foundation for painting, the term “gesso” is now a part of the vernacular for any ground or primer that is used to prepare a hard surface or fabric substrate that artists use to create a work of art.

Acrylic priming created a revolution in the preparation of painting foundations. Prior to the existence of acrylic dispersion primers, artists had to rely on oil primers for canvas or traditional gesso applied to a solid surface like a wooden panel or hardboard. Both priming methods, before the advent of acrylic priming, provided a uniquely different look and feel for the application of paint. Acrylic primers would change the mindset established by adding a new member to the family of traditional priming materials.

Acrylic primers could be applied with remarkably short drying times as compared to oil primers. They did not require measuring, heating. mixing or the need to gather raw ingredients to prepare.

ARMSC-liquitex-gesso

Container of Liquitex Acrylic Primer

The acrylic revolution came as a result of the introduction of new products in the commercial paint industry. Practically all changes in the art materials world are the result of research and development in the commercial paint industry. The bold step to take a commercial acrylic material and produce paints, a primer and various mediums was the result of one man’s vision.

Since 1933, Henry Levinson produced oil paint under the Permanent Pigments brand based in Cincinnati, Ohio. By 1955 he had taken an acrylic polymer that the commercial world introduced as a source for a new form of easy to use, water-based paint and transformed it into a primer that could be applied to a wide variety of substrates to turn them into a compatible surface for oil or acrylic paints. One of the unique features is that acrylic primers do not contain oil so supports like canvas don’t have to have a sizing coat applied to them in order to prevent the ground from oxidizing and disintegrating the fabric.  

The first advertisement appeared in American Artist Magazine in February 1957 as a one-third-page column. It illustrated the distinctive Permanent Pigment logo and a metal container similar to a modern day paint can showing the product. The ad indicated that other materials containing acrylics form a family of products that would be known to the world as “Liquitex,” a combination of the words "liquid" and "texture." Levinson would have a two-fold mission ahead of him. At this point in time acrylic paints, especially commercial water-based products, were new to the market. Levinson needed to convince his art materials purchasers that this new medium was not a gimmick, but rather the future of paint. Levinson also had to introduce a complete line of products artists would need to create paintings. The term “acrylic polymer” was so new to the art world that Levinson needed to use the term “Latex” in parentheses following the words “acrylic polymer” to educate his new potential audience, even though no true latex was contained in acrylic paint or priming products.

Further marketing and promotion were the first bold steps Levinson and other major manufacturers took to introduce and establish acrylic paints and mediums. For early manufacturers of acrylics, their attempts were a series of triumphs and tragedies. Many earth color literally coagulated in the tube while other colors were soft, creamy and handled with ease. With time and experience, the deficiencies caused by the interaction of pigments with the acrylic binder and other components were all overcome. Today, acrylics provide a stable alternative to other paint systems. Artists have understood and exploited the unique working properties of acrylics to allow them to extend the vocabulary of artistic expression.