Reports on shows, trends, and more
NAMTA Show 2005: A Report
And a history of one of the
industry's most influential products, Liquitex.
by Various (May 2, 2005)
The "bladder standard."
The National Art Materials Trade Association filled the
exhibition Hall at Navy Pier in Chicago with education sessions on
April 13 and the show the 14th through the 16th. The weather was
perfect with the rain on Tuesday giving way to a stiff wind but
clear skies on Wednesday and every day through the weekend.
Transportation from the show hotel, the Intercontinental on
Michigan Avenue, was handled very smoothly, and there was also a
free shuttle trolley provided by the city. I have been to shows
where the attitude of customers and exhibitors is subdued, but the
tone from the attendees on the first day was as if we were all
headed to a great party.
The art material industry is fairly rarified and I liken it to
classical music. Unfortunately, how many people are really
interested in oil painting anyway? The first program to be trimmed
at any school is the art department, and in the past this may have
contributed to the sense that we were under siege by crafters and
scrapbookers. I have noticed that there were quite a few of the
NAMTA manufacturers exhibiting at the CHA show in February and this,
combined with new leadership, may account for the upbeat mood. If
they are showing at CHA they must also be learning how to broaden
the art materials market so it doesn’t intimidate crafters.
At the packed annual breakfast meeting on Friday, the sense
communicated through the reports by the outgoing President, Steve
Aufhauser (Continental Art Supplies) and the VP/Finance, Tim Hopper
(Holbein) was of the next generation taking over and putting the
house in order. From the numbers the organization itself seems to be
on the right course with adjustments made to ensure future financial
NAMTA has also become a value-added organization with its
recently completed CD, "Art Materials Essential Reference
Guide" that is essentially a comprehensive reference on art
materials and a retail employee training guide, complete with
Q&A and technical data. This was created by Zora Pinney (Zora’s)
and Claudia Myers (Spokane Art Supply). Zora and Claudia are
storeowners who collectively have more than 100 years experience in
the trade. (It is hard enough to keep our businesses thriving, and
stunning when individuals come forward to create a comprehensive
lodestone of information and then make it available to the
At the breakfast meeting Claudia was honored with NAMTA’s Hall
of Fame award. Claudia was the organizations first female
president in 1999. Her acceptance speech also seemed to echo the
theme of a new organizational order taking exhibiting strong,
positive leadership. The new President of NAMTA is Sam Seelig, owner
of SLS Arts in New Orleans.
Another indication that the organization seems to be on the right
track were the meetings held Saturday morning. The retailer
breakfast was packed, and the Exhibitor meeting with the Executive
Director Katherine Coffey was sparsely attended. Out of 200
exhibiting companies there were perhaps a dozen at the meeting. My
sense is that the show went so smoothly on an organizational level,
and everyone was generally happy with sales, that there was nothing
to show up and complain about.
I finally judge a show by the amount of traffic in our booth, and
the first time I glance at my watch when I notice that there are no
customers waiting to talk to me. Most shows have had lunch lags
where it is clear that the retailers are taking a break. During this
year’s NAMTA I had to excuse myself at 3 p.m. even with customers
in the booth. I will not name competitors, but I did see other
booths with new colorful and creative displays and it was clear that
the other exhibitors were enjoying the show as well. I wouldn’t
propose a show "bladder standard," but for NAMTA it was
one of the most positive, well attended shows in years, and it also
reminded me of the years before September 11 when work was fun and
not an uphill struggle. – Midsize manufacturer
Evidence of a bright future.
I did attend the NAMTA show and I must say upfront that I am a
bit biased because I am on the NAMTA board, but I will just report
what I heard. All the board members went down all the aisles and
asked the exhibitors their opinion of the show, and by and large the
majority indicated that it was a strong order-writing show; some
reported that the order taking was better than CHA.
The attendance was up from last year from both the
retailers/distributors and exhibitors. Navy Pier, though a challenge
to get to and from sometimes, has a terrific hall and amenities for
a show of NAMTA's size. As an exhibitor, our booth had a constant
flow of retailers, but never became overwhelming. It was apparent
that the retailers came to purchase.
From several sales managers: "The crafts category might be
growing faster, but art supplies are still the core of our
business." ... "I feel very comfortable with the other
exhibitors – like we’re in this together." ... "This
show is more manageable than CHA, Atlanta. Our products don’t get
lost in the masses of 'other stuff'."
From a couple of dealers: "I can see everything in a
compacted period of time, go back to the hotel & make decisions
tonight." ... "I have time to spend in each booth when I
need to. I don’t feel the rush like CHA."
In addition to the size of the show, I think the work NAMTA has
done as an organization is obvious. It’s become evident that the
organization is thriving due to the diligence and foresight of
several board members. – NAMTA Board Member
The Liquitex anniversary.
One of the highlights of the show was the ColArt celebration for
the 50th anniversary of Liquitex paint. At a huge party
complete with a Chicago blues band, ColArt honored Louise Levinson,
daughter of Liquitex founder Henry Levinson, and Bill Powell's Art
Store in Cincinnati, the first retail store to carry the product.
(Note: Liquitex has been sold at least twice since it
Levinson invented it. ColArt supplied CLN with the following
Fifty years ago, there was no such thing as water-based acrylic
colors. No such thing as acrylic gesso. Or gel medium. Or texture
gels. None of a hundred other products that painters have come to
take for granted; materials that – when invented by Liquitex
beginning in 1955 – fueled radically new expressive opportunities
for the pivotal artists and crafters of the 20th century and beyond.
The birth of acrylics.
By the late 1940’s, two world wars had left the globe
fundamentally altered and the art community was scrambling to find
ways to visually express the shifting psychic and cultural
landscape. The work was visceral and dramatic in completely
surprising and sometimes confusing ways. And, no surprise, artists
were experimenting with new materials to make their conceptual
A few artists (like Morris Louis and Barnett Newman) were looking
for colors that could be made highly fluid and that didn’t have
all the working constraints of oils. There was some experimentation
with new polymer compounds that were early versions of acrylic
colors. But the paint was still mineral spirit- or solvent-based and
required appreciable care when used. What was really needed was a
versatile color that could go from thick to thin and everywhere in
between, that would adhere to anything – from canvas to paper to
metal to wood to plastic – and that would dry quickly for easy
re-working, layering, and masking. And most important, it needed to
be thinned and cleaned up with water.
In 1955, a company in Cincinnati named Permanent Pigments that
had been milling oil colors since 1933 (and run by a man named Henry
Levison, who lived, drank, slept, and breathed artist’s colors)
launched a new product. This new artists’ color was formulated
with an acrylic polymer resin that was emulsified with water, and it
met all of the targets. Levison tried to come up with a name that
captured the essence of the medium and the fact that it could go
from fluid liquidity to heavy texture and everyplace else in
between. The color was called liquid texture. Or Liquitex.
Levison was able to encourage a number of artists to try the
product, but acceptance was slow. There are colorful stories, like
the one about the first traveling salesman for Liquitex, driving
across the upper Midwest in February, looking for art materials
stores and artists to try the new medium, only to find that all of
his samples had frozen solid in his trunk. (The modern range now
includes additives to minimize freezing. Even so, just to be sure,
it goes through as many as 20 separate freeze-thaw cycles to ensure
that the color will be stable even if the worst happens).
Levison advertised and provided samples to artists all over the
country. But acrylics didn’t gain full acceptance in the artist
community until Levison figured out a principle that is still in
place today: great information is as important as great materials.
Based upon that foundation, Levison launched a lecture demonstration
program in which artists offered workshops and lectures on the use
of acrylics to college students and professors. Within a few years,
acrylics were being used consistently in colleges and universities
across the country. And it wasn’t long before Liquitex was being
used by some of the most important artists of the late 20th century:
David Hockney, Helen Frankenthaler, Andy Warhol, and others.
Because of its durability and versatility, Liquitex also became
the medium of choice for large scale public murals by artists such
as Garo Antreasian and Thomas Hart Benton. By the 1970’s acrylics
had been widely accepted by crafters, and the ease of clean up and
absence of solvents fueled the dramatic growth of decorative
painting that continued through the 20th century. It’s fair to say
that without Liquitex and the working properties of water-based
acrylics, 20th century art and craft would have been completely
By the 1980’s, acrylics had become the most popular and widely
used of all painting mediums, surpassing watercolor and oil, both by
a wide margin. The reason? The infinite variety of applications of
acrylics coupled with the spirit of innovation first shown by
The complete list of innovative firsts from Liquitex is too long
to name here. But a few – dating from 1955 up to 2004 – are
The first water-based acrylic paint for artists ... The first
water-based acrylic gesso ... The first acrylic mediums (gloss
medium & varnish, and matt medium) ... The first college lecture
... demonstration program ... The first "glaminate tube."
These tubes (laminated layers of plastic, metal and paper) replace
metal tubes ... The first machine to test for lightfastness and
long-term permanence of artists’ colors ... The first cadmium
replacement (hue) colors ... The first retarding medium for slowing
the drying of acrylics ... The first iridescent colors ... The first
paint to be labeled for ASTM standards, for toxicity, quality and
lightfastness ... The first Super Heavy Body acrylic color, suitable
for sculptural as well as painting applications.
In addition, Liquitex has been a leader in promoting arts
education and in developing programs in support of the arts
(Note: To read previous columns, click on the titles in
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