Working in layers is easy with acrylic paint. Acrylic is quick-drying and can be layered easily. It can be applied in a variety of thicknesses and transparencies and mixed with textured mediums. Using layers in a painting adds richness, history and depth.

How I start with acrylic layers

The early paint will not always be visible at the end so there is permission to break the blank canvas with random marks, scribbles, words and loose washes of paint without any fear.

It is completely safe to play on the canvas without consequences and exciting to experiment with tools, colours and materials.

In the first layer I prefer to have already chosen a colour palette and tools (to keep me on track) but this is not necessary. Many artists do not limit themselves this way when creating abstract or representational work.

Paint onto wet or dry acrylic layers, blend colours on the surface or add extra water, mediums or textures. Acrylic paint is very versatile so you can experiment freely.

It can take some practice to discover what works best for you. It’s absolutely ok to throw all the things at your canvas in this stage. Even if you get an awful muddy mess, you’re going to paint over it.

Painting first layers of acrylic paint

Why create layers that won’t be seen at the end?

While it’s true that much of the base layers will not be clearly visible in this method I believe they do have an impact.

  • The early layers can set the tone or energy of the final art.
  • It’s an opportunity to warm up and get moving paint around without worry.
  • It gives me something to work with in the next stage.
  • These layers become the depth of the painting, it adds a bit of history and makes it more interesting.
  • Some glimpses of the early layers may still be visible or will affect later layers of colour and texture.

Three stages of layered paintings

I tend to use three stages in my layered paintings from loose base layers, more structured middle layers and final details.

In an ideal world I’d move through these easily and effortlessly. Of course that rarely happens and I often skip backwards and forwards through these steps. Many times I’ve hopped into adding details too quickly, only to go back to the playful stage when it gets too tight.

The importance of play in making a painting with layers

The first layers are playful, loose and unintentional and I have no idea what will happen. Sometimes I like the results and sometimes not. It’s probably better if I don’t because I have to paint over it. I do this until the surface is covered and has lots to look at.

Play cannot be underestimated when creating paintings in layers, it adds energy and interesting effects to a finished painting. I find it too easy to get controlling and detailed very early in a painting so keeping things loose, lively and unintentional is really important for me. A painting with lots of play in the early stages has so much more life.

Acrylic paint on canvas. The messy middle, painting layers with acrylic

The mindful (or messy) middle

The next stage brings in composition and value and is more thoughtful. It can also be quite ugly.

This stage can be many, many layers while I respond to what is already on the canvas and determine areas of dark and light, texture, shape and colour.

I try to keep things loose but it’s not easy, especially if I have parts that I really like. It’s true that sometimes these have to be painted over for the painting to work.

Making adjustments

The last stage is the final edit, the adjustments that ensure all the boxes are ticked. Sometimes the smallest mark, a splash of ink or a glaze of transparent acrylic is the finishing touch. I love this problem solving part and it’s often slow and thoughtful.

Taking photos of the painting at this stage can be really helpful, offering a new perspective. Reducing the saturation to black and white is a great tip for checking the balance and composition. Some artists load the photo into an art app like Procreate and make digital changes to see what’s needed.

I’ve found it helpful to have some sort of checklist of questions to ask myself.

  • What do I notice first and why?
  • What areas of the painting am I not looking at?
  • Is there a clear focal point or composition?
  • Do some parts come forward and some fall back?
  • What feeling does it give me?

I tend to have a spray bottle of water and a rag handy for this stage. I work on a dry surface and try things to finish the painting. If I can see straight away that it’s wrong it gets wiped off and I’ll try something else.

Acrylic paint in layers, making final adjustments

How do I know when it’s finished?

I find it useful to remember that a painting is never really finished, sometimes you just have to choose when to stop.

Some paintings hang around for months never reaching a point where I’m happy with them. Some just never make it. And there are some that I varnish that haunt me in my photos when I see so many things I don’t like in them.

Some artists “just know” when it’s finished, while others will ask for feedback. Some feel they’ve never finished anything. It’s very personal and only you can decide if it’s done. If you struggle, try the checklist method to see if that helps you.

What do I need to paint in layers?

Your painting surface needs to be sturdy. I speak from experience of layering acrylic onto heavy cartridge paper thinking it would hold up. Heavy weight watercolour paper can be ok, I’ve found 300gsm or greater to work best but too much water or heavy paint and it’s going to warp. I’d recommend working on stretched canvases or panels as they can take heavy layers. I started on plywood offcuts from a local wood shop but use what you have.

Acrylic paint is readily available but I want to add that using other media in the layers is something I love to do. Try water soluble crayons, ink, paint pens or even collage to add interesting marks to the layers.

Painting in layers with acrylic is great if you love to experiment and explore paint effects and “happy accidents”. I’d recommend anyone at any level to try it.

Read more about my creative process in How I create a series.

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