How to Paint with Layers – in Acrylic & Oil

by | Dec 25, 2017 | Blog | 24 comments

To capture rich depth and atmosphere in my paintings, I use layering techniques, applying one layer over another, until the final effect I want is achieved. My paintings shown above and below are created this way using multiple layers.


The process of layering while painting makes it easier to add surface texture, subtle color shifts and a tangible depth. While layering is a simple concept, it can sometimes be challenging for painters. That is because layering techniques differ depending on which painting medium you use.
 
To best understand layering, let’s start with the idea of an open faced sandwich.
The process of layering while painting makes it easier to add surface texture, subtle color shifts and a tangible depth. While layering is a simple concept, it can sometimes be challenging for painters. That is because layering techniques differ depending on which painting medium you use.
 
Painting image of ocean with birds

Sea, Mist & Birds, 44″ x 36″, acrylic on panel

 
To best understand layering, let’s start with the idea of an open faced sandwich.
 
 

What is a Painting Layer?

Think of a sandwich! At the base of the sandwich we start with a slice of bread. In painting this would be our canvas, or whatever substrate we decide to paint on – cardboard, wood, panel. Let’s not count this as a layer, but just call it our base or starting surface.

sandwich as example of painting layers
 
From here we can begin to layer, adding our sandwich toppings separately, in the order of first mayonnaise, then lettuce, on to the tomato slice and lastly sprouts. Each of these count as a separate layer. So in this example, we could say the sandwich has four layers.

In another scenario, if we mixed all four of these sandwich ingredients (except the bread) in a blender we would end up with some type of tapenade or pesto. Spread that on the bread and this would all count as only one layer.  Make sense?

So now let’s transfer this analogy to painting. We can add different materials or techniques individually one over the other, by waiting until one layer is dry before applying the next. Each layer could be the same technique as before, or a different one. In addition, a layer doesn’t have to cover the surface in its entirety. A layer can consist merely of one small dab of paint, or can involve thick overlays covering the whole surface. A technique does not have to be applied over the whole surface to qualify as a layer. Sometimes I may paint in only one small area and then need to wait until it is dry, before applying something else without smearing it.

I usually apply a  primer or gesso over my substrate before I paint. This makes the surface white and also helps adhere the paint to the substrate in a stronger way. So that means before I even start painting I have already applied one layer onto my substrate.

As an example, let’s say I create a painting all in one day using oil paint. Since oil paint stays wet for lengths of time, I could theoretically paint all day working wet in wet, and essentially finish the painting using just one layer.

Since acrylic paint dries more quickly then oil paint, I usually use multiple layers with acrylic and extend my painting process over the course of a day or more.

 

Painting Example Using 5 Layers

Step 1 – First Layer – Paint a Background

Step 2 – Second Layer – Paint White under Brights

Step 3 – Third layer – Paint Brights Over White

Step 4 – Fourth Layer – Plan Color Variations

Step 5 – Last Layer – Soften Edges & Blend Colors

 

Step Details to Paint This Lemon Painting

1. For the first layer, opaque colors of green and purple are applied touching with a hard edge to delineate foreground from background. Let that layer dry.

2. Use Titanium White, which is very opaque, to paint the shape of the lemon. This will keep the yellow color of the lemon crisp and bright when it is applied next. Yellow without the white underneath, is not opaque enough to cover over the background colors sufficiently.

3. Add yellow over the white for the main lemon color.

4. Plan a strategy for varying the colors. This can be applied rather loosely. Instead of trying to get smooth gradations at this point, focus on mixing and applying a wide range and variety of each of the three colors: green, purple and yellow. Prior to this, the flat evenly applied colors do not help to create volume and space, but varying and shifting the colors will.

5. Use the same variety of colors applied in the previous step, but this time the focus is on blending them carefully for a more realistic appearance.

 

Advantages to Layering

One advantage to working in layers, as demonstrated above, is that each layer can focus on obtaining one goal at a time, instead of trying to accomplish a full painting all at once in one wet layer.
Layering offers another way to develop a painting in steps, but is not always necessary or desirable. For example, sometimes I like to work wet in wet instead of separate layers. Pouring is a good example. Sometimes I like to pour an acrylic color out onto a canvas, then while it is still wet pour another color over it so the colors merge and puddle up together. While still wet, I can keep adding colors, mediums, and anything else I want until I feel it is finished. In this case I have created a painting all in one stage and in one layer.

One reason the term layering may be confusing is that just about every painting technique, process and medium I can think of deals in some way with layers. A layer can be very broadly defined. For example, a layer can be something wet or dry that you are then applying over something else that is wet or dry. Instead of using this very general definition, in this article I am offering something a bit more definite while still trying to keep it simple and usable. Please know, though, that this term is used in many different ways.

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. Continuing to layer, you can now apply oil paint mixed with mediums (oil mediums are fatty and therefore more flexible). In other words, you work with thinned oil paint in lower layers, and can fatten the oil paint up with mediums in upper layers, but not the reverse.

With acrylic you do not need to plan carefully like you would with oil paint layering. Any acrylic medium or acrylic 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. Lots of flexibility!

This means you can start with any form of acrylic – diluted or undiluted, plain or mediums added, and then add more acrylic products over it. This can be while a layer is still wet or dry, applied very thickly or thin, poured or brush applied – 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).

When layering it is helpful to think of transparency. If you apply every layer thickly and opaquely this will result in a very crusty surface. If that is not your goal, then I suggest to make sure that each layer continues to be visible in some way all the way through new layers, so that each has a presence, even if small or subtle, in the final image. In other words, each layer is applied with a sensitivity about letting the underlying layers show through. Allow more transparency in your working layers by adding clear mediums to the paint colors. If you are using opaque paint colors, leave some areas uncovered revealing parts of the underlying layer.

 

Additional Resources:

Video demonstration creating a painting with layers

Find Out About Nancy’s Classes

 

Featured course

complete guide to acrylic painting

Bring your visions to life on canvas! From your first brushstroke to your ultimate masterpiece – this course has it all.

Featured Course

Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting


Bring your visions to life on canvas! From your first brushstroke to your ultimate masterpiece – this course has it all.

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24 Comments

  1. Celine

    Hi Nancy your paintings are breathtaking I have been mesmerized by your water paintings. Thank you so much for sharing your approaches. I was wondering how you go about getting the amazing frothy effect – it’s hardto describe it – sort of transparent waves. are you also using a transparent medium with the acrylic with layers? How do you get such a beautiful and delicate pattern? It reminds me of lace, or tradiional chinese paintings of faraway mountains

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Celine,

      Thank you for your kind words about my paintings. It makes me very happy you like them. I have a video that shows how I paint my waves. It is part of my larger course The Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting. I also have another blog article that has information on my waves and clouds. You can find it here: https://nancyreyner.com/2020/06/28/painting-ocean-waves-with-glazing-techniques/
      At the bottom of that article I just linked, are a few other articles that have additional information. Hope this helps!

  2. Liza Moon

    I really have appreciated the simple diagrammatic, (as well as the sandwidge verbal illustration, ) way you have shown layering. I am new to playing with paint and needed simplicity to help me along, Thank you,

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Liza, I’m glad you liked it! Thank you for your comment!
      Nancy

  3. Anna

    Hi Nancy! Thank you for your interesting article😊 I’m just puzzled how people blend their acrylics so well. I even started some classes on this, which did help me alot. But my personal experience is my acrylic will be dry by 2 minutes at least, if I’m guessing. So unless I blend it the minute I put it on my paper, it’s likely going to be too late. And it’s really hard to do that tho if you’re trying to do details, or a large area. If i take any time to try to do the details, my paint might be to dry to blend😢. This is one of the reaosns I’m thinking of trying oil painting, as it would give me so much time to work with the colors i
    I mix, and the whole picture, and blending it together. Instead of each part drying as I do it. Then having to try to mix the exact same color again if I still need it for the painting, which is really hard to do😅

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Anna,
      The trick to blending acrylic paint is to keep them from drying too fast – just like you mentioned. There are several ways to do this, so it sounds like you just haven’t heard about them! You’re in luck as I have a Youtube video you can watch for free on blending acrylics right here: https://youtu.be/wRGveV6HfoI
      May I also add that I have a DIY course on acrylic painting that covers everything – and I mean everything. The blending video I just mentioned is just one of the 30 videos in that course. If interested here’s more information on that: https://nancyreyner.com/acrylic-techniques-landing-page-1/
      Hope this helps get you blending those paints easily!
      Nancy

  4. Stefan

    Another clearly explained and highly practical contribution. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      You are very welcome! Glad you liked it!

  5. Tanya J

    How about watercolor tips?thank you.

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      In my opinion watercolor is not meant to be applied in layers. Applying acrylic in layers is best, while using watercolor in one wet on wet layer is best. That is because a layer is one application of wet over another application that has dried. Watercolor is resoluble. This means when you apply a wet layer over a dry, the dry one will soften and be affected by the wet. There may be some layering that you can do with watercolor. I suggest checking out Golden’s new watercolor QOR website with lots of great info. https://www.qorcolors.com

    • Jay

      I’ve known a few artists who have mixed watercolor and acrylic (sometimes mixing the paints right out of the tubes, in fact). I don’t know the whole of it, but there were alternating layers – washes- glazes of acrylic and watercolor (and watercolor pencils and graphite…). The results are otherworldly, magical, fantasy, vivid, ethereal dreamscapes. I keep finding that many of my visions and dreamscapes are asking for that basic look & feel. I’ve no clue how to get there. The closest I came – in one particular experiment – yielded results that were definitely nearing the vision…until the chemical disaster. 🙁 I’m looking for really watery veils, where you can really see through each layer, and the colors are nuanced and you basically feel like you can see the progression of the work, and at the same time stand in wonder and want to dive in. The one thing I DO know is that the paintings my friends did – of which I spoke earlier – ended up basically disintegrating wherever watercolor had been applied. (No frame or varnish or sealant). I’ve read that sometimes acrylic mediums can help mitigate some of the problems in doing acrylic over watercolor, then watercolor over acrylic, and so on. Any insight? Thank you!! The art world is so blessed by you! I stopped painting – stopped most everything creative – for a long long time. Your book, Illumination, is helping me find my way back. When I have some money again, I’m getting Perfect Paintings. Thank you! Aloha!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Jay,
      Glad you are not giving up on your painting dream! To get the look of mixed paint and mixed mediums, use acrylic paint like watercolor by adding lots of water to fluid acrylics or fluid acrylic inks. You can get the exact look of watercolor with acrylic, yet the final result is permanence instead of the delicate water-soluble nature of watercolor. Then you can also use acrylic to replicate gouache, oil, wax, and any other medium out there. In other words, when used with knowledge, acrylic can become all the other mediums. It’s that great! You can easily add drawing mediums into acrylic layers while wet, and also when dry. You can seal delicate drawing materials using acrylic mediums in a spray as a sealer. Acrylic also provides specialty binders that will create a paper surface you apply onto canvas or wood or any other surface. If you ever feel inclined I created a comprehensive DIY course for acrylics that covers all these amazing ways to use acrylic, instead of thinking of it as just paint. It’s called The Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting. Read more here.

  6. Clint Laurel

    Impressive and at the same time informative article. I would like to try these tips myself.

    Reply
  7. Krysia Gallien

    Hi Nancy, I’m still hoping to dive into the adventure of painting in layers over gold leaf. My medium is acrylic and I am on a panel. Now what? Do I create transparent layers to give the mist effect! Do I tilt or pour?
    How do I keep the beauty of the gold but successfully add layers! I’m ready!

    Thank you for your beautiful art.
    Krysia

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Krysia,
      By all means DIVE in! And yes as you said, its an adventure! The best way to keep the beauty of the gold while still adding layers and the image you desire, is to stay aware of transparency. As you apply layers they can be transparent, translucent, or opaque. Those are your three main choices. Before starting to paint over leaf I like to create a strategy. For instance, I’ll decide on a particular painting to keep 30% of the leaf uncovered with paint, 20% covered with opaque paint, 20% using very transparent glazes, and the remaining 20% using more translucent or partially transparent applications. By the way, my book Acrylic Illuminations has a whole section on ideas for overpainting gold using layers. Have fun!

    • Krysia Gallien

      Hi Nancy,
      Regarding the mist effect:
      Cannot seem to get the little ridges when I apply the titanium wash over medium. Mine seems to create cracks instead.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Krysia, I do not use this technique alone to create my mist effect. I use several techniques altogether. The wash of Titanium White over a glossy surface will create some waves, and will not give you an overall mist. If you use the Titanium White in a wash (dilute fluid paint with 80% water) over an absorbent surface then you will get a nice overall mist effect. If you have a glossy or semi-glossy surface (so this is NOT absorbent) then you will not want to use a wash, and instead mix Titanium White in a glaze (add 80% gloss medium to the paint). Apply the glaze with a rag or brush. Do not add water into the glaze, or medium into the wash or you destroy the purpose of both ways to create a mist. Hope this helps. For more details and a video demonstration I highly recommend my course The Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting, available on my website under the “painting classes & instruction” section, or here is a link: https://nancyreyner.com/acrylic-techniques-landing-page-1/.

    • Krysia Gallien

      Thank you, Nancy. I’ll try it. I just bought your gold leaf video.

  8. Lizeth

    Nancy,
    I pray you get to see my message! I am a stay at home mom of three and have found a passion for painting as I “try” to teach my girls of the arts as I am also homeschooling (4.5 year old and 3 year old). I have found a love for the type of painting that is layered as depicted by your painting at the very top of this page. If my goal is to learn techniques to paint like this, is there a particular book or video that would help me develop this form of art?

    Thank you kindly!

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Lizeth,
      Thank you for your comment. Your girls are lucky to have you as their mother – encouraging their creative side! I believe my book Acrylic Revolution would be enjoyable as well as informative for you and your girls – all ages and levels of experience will benefit. Here is a link to purchase it with a good discount from Amazon: https://nancyreyner.com/books/
      Thanks again and enjoy!
      Nancy

  9. Cher

    Nancy,
    Your paintings are absolutely wonderful, very original and creative. You are a born artist. I work in the library so have bought all your books for our collection, and it never stays on the shelf for long. However this thing called layering – I have struggled with it and my painting does not look anything like yours. Looks muddy and ‘worrisome’. Like I have tortured it to death.
    Would it be possible for you to put up a video demonstration, using one of your paintings like ‘Reflective Sea’ as an example? Or, do you have any suggestion as to how I can work magic with layering .

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Cher,
      Thank you for your kind words on my work. I am so happy to hear you are offering my books to your local library. I agree that layering, although a somewhat simple concept – one thing over another – can prove to be a bit challenging. The key in layering is to think about transparency. If you think about each layer adds something different to the painting, YET still allows part of the underlying layers to still be visible, the end result will be more satisfying. What often happens is that each layer is very opaque and covers what’s underneath in total, so the end result feels crusty or overly textured. I do have a video demonstration of how I create my paintings in layers in my new course The BEST Acrylic Painting Course. For more information on it here is a link: https://nancyreyner.com/the-best-acrylic-painting-course/
      Thank you for your comment!
      Nancy

  10. Fiona Geiser

    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.

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      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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About Nancy

Nancy Reyner is a professional fine-art painter with over 30 years experience using a variety of mediums including oil, acrylic, watercolor and mixed media. She has appeared on television for HGTV’s “That’s Clever,” and authored several best-selling painting books with F&W Media. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM. Read more.
 
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