How Many Layers Should An Oil Painting Have

Oil painting is one of the most popular art forms across the world, and there are several factors that contribute to its popularity. The slow drying time of oil paint allows the painter to create depth and textures by manipulating the paint and utilising the extended time to make additional changes to the art piece.

As the layers dry and more paint is added, the colours begin to interact with each other, and a final composition is reached. So, how many layers of paint should an oil painting have?

How Many Layers Should An Oil Painting Have?

Since there are not many hard rules in art, the number of layers an oil painting should have varies greatly depending on the type of paint used, the techniques incorporated, and the intended outcome of the art piece.

For most oil paintings, artists use between one and seven layers of paint, with an average of five layers of paint per painting. 

Let’s look at some of the variables that affect the number of layers an oil painting may have. 

  • Type of Oil Paints 

While oil paints have remained fairly unchanged over the last thousand years, there are a few new products and forms that have made oil paints more versatile. The kind of oil paints used and how they are layered on the page will determine the number of layers needed to achieve the desired effect and complete the artwork. 

  • Traditional Oil Paints

Traditional oil paints are made from finely ground colour pigments suspended in drying oils. These paints usually have a buttery consistency that can be mixed smoother with a palette knife. The texture of the paint, such as its transparency sheen, drying time, and thickness can be altered by adding mediums or solvents. 

Traditional oil paints are applied to the canvas in layers that gradually get thicker as more layers are applied by adding more medium to each subsequential layer. 

  • Water-Mixable Oil Paints 

Water-mixable oil paints are similar to traditional oil paints without the need for toxic solvents to thin the paint. Water-mixable oil paint may be a bit stringier or fluid than traditional oil paints; however, they are safer to work with due to the lack of heavy fumes associated with many mediums and solvents.

There are special water-mixable oil painting mediums also available to manipulate the texture if desired. Finally, the cleanup process is much simpler and only requires soap and water. This makes it is much more efficient than traditional oil paints.

Water-mixable oil paints are a great option for beginners as it requires fewer supplies and eliminates the science of mixing the paint with mediums or solvents. 

  • Alkyd Oil Paints 

Alkyd oil paints contain alkyd resin which is often used in the mediums to speed up the drying process. This is another oil paint that does not require mixing with a medium.

It is also recommended that if you start an artwork with fast drying oil paint, it is used throughout the layers.

If you do have to switch to another kind of oil paint, make sure to use the ‘slow drying over fast drying’ technique. This means that the fast drying oil paint is used in the first few layers, while the slow drying oil paints are used in the outermost layers to prevent cracking. 

  • Oil Bars 

Oil bars, also known as pigment sticks, are solid crayon-like bars composed of colour pigment, oil, and wax. They can be used to draw directly on the canvas, and the strokes can be thinned or made more fluid with solvents and oils. This is another great tool for beginners as it simplifies the painting process by replicating crayons – an art form most enjoy children growing up. 

Techniques For Applying Oil Paint

There are several techniques and guidelines to consider when creating an art piece with oil paints that determine how many layers of paint your artwork will require. 

  • Alla Prima 

Alla Prima is an oil painting technique that refers to painting ‘wet-into-wet.’ This means that the colour pigments are not only mixed on the palette but also on the painting itself. The colour pigments are applied alongside each other and mixed together. Essentially, the entire painting is completed before the paint dries and forms one really thick layer. When using this technique, it is important to consistently use the same medium or solvent throughout the painting to ensure even texture and drying rates. 

  • Layered Painting 

Layered painting is the most common method of creating an oil painting. This technique requires layering several levels of paint onto your canvas, with sufficient drying time in between each of the layers. There are several guidelines to ensure your oil painting is stable and does not crack over time. 

The first rule is the ‘fat over lean’ rule. The goal for each new layer of paint added is to be more flexible than the layer before it. This is achieved by adding more oil medium and drying oils to each new layer of paint. This will prevent your oil painting from cracking. 

Similarly, the ‘thick over thin’ rule recommends that with each new layer of paint, the mixture gets thicker. Thin layers of paint have quicker drying rates than thicker layers, so it is important to start your oil painting with thin layers first. Ensuring your paint dries correctly between layers will prevent unnecessary stress and cracking. 

The final guideline is ‘slow drying over fast drying’ oil paint. Although it is strongly advised to stay consistent with the oil paints on a painting, that may not always be possible. If you do have to switch oil paints, the rule states that slow drying oil paints go over fast drying oil paints. Again, this will prevent the stress of different drying rates of paint between each layer. If the top layer of paint dries faster than the layer of paint below it, itwill stretch and crack. 

By following these guidelines, you will apply the correct number of layers that your oil painting needs while also protecting your painting from cracking.


While there are no hard rules on how many layers your oil painting should have; however, the more layers you add, the messier and more unstable your oil painting becomes. If you follow the guidelines and remain between one and seven layers of paint, your oil painting will remain stable with great results for years to come.