Nancy’s Painting Blog

What is Layering for Painting?

Layering for painting is a simple concept yet is thrown around a lot in the painting world, and can get very confusing. It is used to refer to multiple concepts and can have different meanings depending on which medium you are using to paint. Here’s my take on layering for painting.

To make this really simple, let’s start with the idea of an open faced sandwich.


Starting at the sandwich bottom with the slice of bread, in painting this would be our canvas, or whatever substrate we decide to paint on – cardboard, wood, silk, etc. This bread, or substrate, does not count as a layer. It is our base or starting surface. From here as we add each item separately, like the mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and then sprouts, each of these items is a separate layer because each is separate from each other. So we could say this sandwich has four layers.  If we took all those four ingredients (except the bread) and put them in a blender we would have some type of tapenade or pesto. If we spread that on the bread this would all count as one layer.

Same as in painting. Whatever we put onto our substrate counts as a layer. And each separate product, material and process counts as a new layer. For example, I apply a  primer or gesso over my substrate before I paint. So that means before I even start painting I have one layer already applied to my substrate. From this point, if I use oil paint, and create a painting all in one day with the oil paint, that is my second layer because oil paint stays wet all day, so anything I do that day will all be mixed up into that one wet layer.

If I paint with acrylic, however, I usually use multiple layers in a day.

First Layer – Background colors                                Second Layer – adding white

Third Layer – adding yellow                                          Fourth Layer – varying color ranges

Final Layer – blending hard edges

Using this simple painting of a lemon as an example, my first layer is the background using green and purple colors. I let that layer dry, and next applied white paint in the shape of the lemon so that when I apply yellow over it the yellow will be bright and the background colors won’t affect the yellow or show through it.

My third layer added the yellow over the white. The fourth layer I applied a variety of each of the three colors, green, purple and yellow to create a strategy for creating volume and space from the flat even colors. The fifth layer I reapplied those same variety colors but this time blended them more carefully for a more realistic appearance.

By working in layers using acrylic paint, I was able to focus on one thing for each layer, instead of trying to accomplish a full painting all at once in one wet layer.

For example, I could pour an acrylic color out onto a canvas, then while it is still wet pour another color over it so they merge and puddle up together. I could keep adding colors, mediums, and anything else I want to until I decide to stop for the day, and call the whole thing one layer. In this case my one layer is defined as my process for that day – pouring altogether. This is similar to the pesto mixture I mentioned previously for our open faced sandwich.

From these examples, the lemon and the pouring process, it looks like a layer can be defined as something I paint, that then is allowed to dry before I apply something wet over it. But that isn’t always true. Sometimes I can apply a background color and while it is still wet, I apply another color over it. That is called working wet-in-wet. If the second application of wet paint over the first application of wet paint is substantial enough, or thick enough, to still be visible as a separate color, I could call these two wet layers. Uh oh, I’m starting to get complicated…

No problem. We can still make this easy and simple, because hey, art term definitions are never universally agreed upon. This means we get to use the terms any way we want! Yay! Just use my definition as a back up in case you are reading some art recipe somewhere and they start to use the layer word in a confusing manner.

Another reason the term gets confusing is that just about every technique, process and medium I can think of deals in some way with layers. A layer can be broadly defined as something wet or dry that you are then applying over something else that is wet or dry. Wow is that a general statement or what?

Layering techniques will differ depending on whether you are using oil paint, watercolor, encaustic or acrylic. When you paint with oil paints, due to the long drying time of oils, you need to make sure you are always applying a layer of paint that is more flexible than the one below it. This means that you can start off with a first base layer using oil paint mixed with solvent like a wash. Then over that layer (wet or dry) you can apply oil paint without any solvent. Proceeding with overlayering, you can then apply oil paint mixed with mediums (oil mediums are fatty and therefore more flexible).

With acrylic you do not need to be as planned and as careful as in the case with oil paint layering. Any acrylic medium or paint, can be mixed into each other to make wet mixtures, and can be applied over or under any other layer, whether still wet or already dry. This means you can start with a wash or anything else, add products while wet or wait until dry, apply very thickly over very thin and vice versa, pour over a layer, anything! Acrylic loves to stick to itself, so as long as each layer is acrylic, then you can layer it on, over, under. When you start using mixed media (paper, ink, objects, etc – any non-acrylic material) along with layers of acrylic, you want to consider the material you are using and whether it will adhere to acrylic or not, and some other concerns (ie. is it waterproof, or will it smear when coming into contact with the acrylic, etc).

In summary, here’s my basic idea on layering in a nutshell. Strive to have each layer you use in a painting (not including primers and gessoes) to be visible in some way all the way through other overlying layers so that they all appear in the final image. In other words, each layer is applied with a sensitivity about letting the underlying layer show through. You can do this in two ways. Either make each subsequent layer more transparent, by adding more mediums to the paint, or if using an opaque paint, leave some areas uncovered with the opaque paint revealing parts of the underlying layer.

For more information on layering using acrylic I recommend my video Acrylic Revolution: Watercolor & Oil Effects with Acrylic Paint. For even more assistance check out my online painting course, Painting Excellence, for four weeks of daily assistance, feedback, inspiration, techniques and ideas. Any medium, any style. For more info: http://nancyreyner.com/painting-excellence/

2 thoughts on “What is Layering for Painting?

  1. To: Nancy Reynor
    I started painting a year ago after I retired from a long career as a research scientist and college teacher. I wish you had a workshop light for amateur painters. I add C.A.S. AlkydPro impasto medium to any oil paint to speed up drying to about 2 days. I recently purchased all three of your books (perfect, revolution, illuminations) and I had so much fun analyzing the entrances and exits for my paintings. Also, once I turned my paintings placing the “heavy boring layer” at the bottom, the paintings came to life. I have learned not to rush finishing a painting. It is amazing the stages that my paintings go through until I finally decide there is nothing else that I want to add. Thank you for sharing your extensive experience and insights.

    1. Hi Fiona,
      Thanks for your comment. It must be a lovely change to switch to painting from scientist and teacher. Your comment really made me smile, as I can see you definitely understand the concepts in Create Perfect Paintings. Since you’ve put in a year of painting already, and you mentioned wanting a course, you may be interested in my Painting Excellence course. Click here for more information on the course, however I’d be glad to discuss some of the details with you over the phone or email. It’s a very different type of course, that benefits all painters of all levels as long as you’ve been painting for a year.

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