Building Layers Using Acrylic Paints

No matter what I’m painting—whether it’s a forest scene, a seascape, or a portrait—I’m always building layers of paint. Moreover, no matter the style I am working in, from more impressionistic to semi-abstract, layering is the foundation of my painting technique. In what follows, I’ll share my technique of building layers using acrylic paints.

In this previous post, I’ve described my painting process from the first rough sketches to the final highlights. When describing this sketching stage, I’ve used the term “wash”. This is a painterly technique that refers to sketching out the main colour values of a scene: the lights and darks and sometimes specific tones or colours. A wash lays down the composition of the painting, including the larger shapes. By loosely sketching the main lines and values of a scene, I can, at this early stage, assess and potentially amend the proportions of the composition before delving too quickly into the details.

A wash treats the entire surface of the canvas equally by putting down the first layers evenly. This builds a strong foundation for the work. Here are two images of the “wash” stage of my latest work in progress:

I work with acrylic paints, which are versatile. When diluted with a little water—be careful not to over dilute—acrylics can give a transparent result, similar to that of watercolour paint. Alternatively, when applied to a surface directly and generously, acrylic paint can provide a result similar to an oil paint – thick and opaque. Acrylic paints dry quickly and are thus easy to work with. I like to apply the paint in thin layers, straight from the tube, to ultimately achieve an opaque result overall. However, I do not want my brush strokes to be too visible. I want the colour application itself—the blending or colour blocking—to create visual interest and texture rather than the surface of the painting itself to be textured (raised off the canvas in any way–this can be achieved using a variety of mediums and/or thickly applying paint).

Detail of my painting, “Berry Passage”.

As I progress in my painting, the layers shift from semi-transparent to opaque. Working in layers—slowly building my scene over the whole canvas—keeps my painting fluid. It keeps my options open. I assess the work as a whole as I go. I step back from the easel. I come back again and make changes. It is only in the last stages that I put down the thickest layers of paint. At this point, I know I won’t be making any significant changes, though the final marks are some of the most important. There is a certainty and confidence in these finishing marks, usually highlights.

Detail of my painting, “De Haan Large Forest”.

The technique of layering adds depth and a richness of colour. For example, I am currently working on a commissioned seascape in which the layering plays a central role. In this painting, I used a 1.5-inch brush to put down light layers of colour. Using a thick flat brush allows me to put a thin layer of paint down while evenly covering a large surface. This simultaneously creates a smooth effect and depth of colour in the work; what I am going for to describe the sky and sea in this case.

Detail of the layering technique, work in progress.

I like the effect of the blending I was able to achieve with this brush. Although it is possible to put colour on top of colour directly, I sometimes let the paint mostly dry between layers. This way, I’m not mixing the colours, but letting them show through in some parts and disappear in others. If I’m trying to achieve a more transparent look to a layer, I will only add a little paint to my brush. This creates a dusting of a fresh colour over the last layer.

In contrast to the above example of my work-in-progress seascape, layering looks a little different when I’m painting light coming through leaves. Instead of working with a large brush to sweep colour across the canvas, I’m working with patches of colour. Sky blues peek through branches. Light shinning between and through leaves calls for some greens to be very light, yellow, or semi-transparent. Pale yellows and opaque white highlights are the last layers.

Detail of my painting, “Villers Abbey Forest”.

My method of layering involves patience and experimentation. Building layers is a balance between working towards an idea of an expected result and staying open for new things to happen. Like so many aspects of painting, the experience of building layers with patience and curiosity applies to other areas of my life. Working in layers has instilled in me a sense of flexibility: to add, to retract, to try again, or to try differently. Different stages in the work call for different approaches. With a knowledge of how the paint works, some predictability and planning is possible, but each painting is unique and unforeseen events happen along the way. This is how I build my layers using acrylic paints and I look forward to continuing to grow and experiment!

Thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “Building Layers Using Acrylic Paints

  1. Laura, these are beautiful. Particularly the first one in your blog, the layering of colors is really beautiful. You do amazing work and it is wonderful that you have this blog and share your insights.

  2. […] I can put down my wash—a first indication of the image to emerge—with little commitment. By building layer upon layer, I continue to make decisions throughout the entire painting process. In contrast, the fine tip of […]

  3. […] Spray the paint. Use a light layer of paint so that the stencils don’t bleed […]

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