Why Is Oil Painting Done In Layers

The idea behind capturing a rich depth and tactile variety in paintings lies in its layering techniques. One layer is applied over another until the final effect is achieved. Doing this also adds texture and subtle colour shifts with quantifiable depth. While the concept is simple, it may be difficult to accomplish for painters who don’t have much experience. Layering techniques may differ, and there are many opinions about what is best.  

What is a painting layer?

At the base of a painting, canvas, or whatever substrate you end up painting on, whether that is cardboard, wood, or panel, we have our base.  This is considered your starting surface.  From here we can begin to layer – starting with a background, then a background of the feature image, then adding in details as you get to the upper layers.

It is similar to building a pizza, first you have the big pizza pan, next the big plain dough with little details, then sauce, cheese, and other smaller toppings. Each layer has its own qualities and purposes.  

If we transfer the analogy of building a pizza to painting, we can add different materials or techniques individually one at a time, over the previous layer. For example, if you were adding bits of paper or added materials, you would want to do this in a single layer, then allow it to dry before adding the next layer.  

Each individual layer can be applied using the simple rules of oil painting: fat over lean, thick over thin, and slow drying over fast drying.

Additionally, a layer can be over only part of the surface or covered completely. In oil paintings, a layer can consist of a singular dab or paint, involve thicker overlays that cover the entire surface or just part of it. The purpose of waiting for a layer to dry before building the next layer is to prevent smearing or blending. If you are using colour blends, you may choose to apply a layer before the previous layer is completely dry.  

You may choose to apply a primer or gesso over your substrate, it can make the surface white and help the paint to adhere in a stronger way.  Doing this means that before you even start painting you have already applied a single layer onto your surface.  

Advantages Of Layering In Oil Painting

One advantage of working with layers is that the oil painting can be developed in steps, and you can focus on each layer at a time, instead of trying to accomplish a full painting all at once in a singular wet layer. 

Layering can seem confusing, but you can consider it as something that adds flavour, shading, or a new technique to your painting.  

How do you layer with oils specifically? 

When layering with oils, you will need to try and make sure that you are applying a new layer of paint that is more flexible than the one below it. In order to do this, you can start off with a first base layer of oil paint that is mixed with solvent like a wash. 

Next, you can choose to either let that layer dry, or while it is still wet, you can apply oil paint with a little less solvent. Oil mediums tend to be quite thick, and therefore less flexible. Your layers should start with thinned oil paint in lower layers, then fattened oil paint in the medium and upper layers.

When you begin to work with layers, it is helpful to think of transparency. What do you want to be seen between the layers? Applying each layer thickly and opaquely results in a crusty surface. As a result, make sure that each layer continues to be visible in some way through the new layers. Each layer will then have a presence, even if it is small or subtle in the final image.  In other words, each layer should be applied in a way that allows the underlying layers show through. You can allow for more transparency in your working layers by adding clear mediums to the paint colours.

Try these steps if you are just starting to learn layering with oil paints:

  1. For the first layer, a thin opaque layer can be applied with a hard edge to delineate the foreground from the background.
  2. Use a darker colour to form the shape of the subject of your painting.  If you were painting a fruit, for example, you may start with a darkest shade of the fruit.
  3. Add your main colour over the lighter colour for your subject.  
  4. Next, plan a strategy for varying the colours of the subject, that allow for textures and shadows. These colours can be applied rather loosely. Instead of trying to get smooth gradients at this point, focus on mixing and applying a wide range and variety of each of the colours of your subject with the colours you originally chose for your background.
  5. The final layers should use the same variety of colours applied in the previous step, but adding hints of paler colours, such as white, focusing on the finer details for a more realistic and three-dimensional appearance.  

See also:

Final Words

We hope that this article has been helpful in providing you more information about what layering is, how it is done with oil painting, and some good tips and tricks that you can use to start practicing this technique. Remember to browse our blog for more information, and find tips and tricks that will help you on your painting journey.