Nancy’s Painting Blog

How to Paint with Layers – in Acrylic and Oil

To capture rich depth and atmosphere I use layering techniques, one over the other, visible in both of my paintings above and below.

 

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

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.

 


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.

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.


Below is an example to create an acrylic painting using five separate layering steps.

1st layer – apply a background                                     2nd layer – add white

3rd layer – add yellow                                            4th layer – vary the range of color

5th & final layer – blend colors for soft edges to create volume

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Layering steps for the lemon painting example above

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

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

3. Here, for the third layer, add yellow over the white for the lemon.

4. For the fourth layer, a strategy for varying the colors is applied rather roughly. 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. The fifth and last layer uses 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.

 


 

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:

Watch my TV painting demonstration, creating a waterscape in seven layers, from HGTV’s That’s Clever. Click here to watch.

For more great tips on using acrylic read about my course The Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting.

Study with me online or in person. More info here.

16 thoughts on “How to Paint with Layers – in Acrylic and Oil

  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.

  2. 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 .

    1. 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

  3. 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!

    1. 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

  4. 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

    1. 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!

        1. 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/.

    1. 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

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