7 Rules for Layering Acrylic Paint on Canvas


In this article, you can learn how to paint using the 7 rules for layering acrylic paint on canvas.

So you know the secret to creating beautiful art with acrylic paints?

In a word, that would be layering. This might sound a bit confusing, especially if you’ve been working with watercolors or oils for a while.

Understanding this amazing medium is essential to achieving the desired vibrant, bold, and wholesome look you see in the works of the greats. Artists like Alwin Cranshaw, Robert Motherwell, and the incomparable Banksy are all masters of acrylics.



Why Is Layering Acrylic Paint Desirable?


Acrylics are a cross between watercolors and oils. Acrylic paints could be thinned with water, and the whole painting would appear as translucent and matte as a Winslow Homer painting. Alternatively, they could be mixed with a plastic medium and render glossy works, just like a prime quality Monet.

Acrylics could also be used in a layering manner unique to this medium. These fast-drying paints that were created in the 1930s and commercialized in the 1950s as a medium for illustrators. A wash you just applied would dry in a few minutes, and you can’t rehydrate it.

That’s why working in layers was devised. It was the only way to complete a painting, but that wasn’t a setback. Working in layers was observed to make the painting more nuanced, dynamic, and full of light.

Soon, artists discovered plenty of tricks to wield exceptional results from layering acrylics.



Layering Acrylic Paint on a Canvas



Acrylic paint is a special coloring medium that comes to life as you add more layers of paint. Beginners are often shy with applying successive bold layers. And the painting usually comes across as anemic and lacking in gusto.

Layering the acrylics has some techniques though, and the more familiar you become with the basic rules, the more



Rule #1: Use Gesso for Priming Your Canvas



The very first layer on the canvas should be an acrylic gesso. This is a thick material that seals the canvas and covers up any micro defects in the fabric. It also maintains the integrity of the paints and protects your artwork for years to come.

Technically, you can apply your paints directly to the canvas, and I have certainly done that a number of times. However, it’s more of a special effects method than a comfortable way of painting.

Priming a canvas isn’t just for professionals, and it’s not a hassle at all to do. You just get your biggest brush, dip it in the gesso to load it generously with the primer, and move it across the canvas. Wait for the gesso to dry, then sand it a little for a perfectly even surface.

There are several types of gesso, but the most popular of them by far is the white gesso. There’s also a black gesso and a clear gesso. In addition, you can blend any of them with acrylic colors before priming the canvas.

Most of the time, artists use a smooth-finish gesso. But some prefer to go a little wild and add marble powder to give it some ‘tooth’.

You can apply a single layer of gesso or multiple layers, and each layer could have a thick or watered-down consistency. Furthermore, you can layer it thick in some spots for a more textured and three-dimensional artwork.



Rule #2: Cover the ‘Ground’ with a Broad Brush




Did you ever look at a painting and feel that the light shines through its different elements? A Turner is often full of light, and you can rarely tell how he manages to create all that filtering brightness.

Darkness could also have a tangible presence in painting, the way a Goya scene feels. Seascapes, lush gardens, and even simple portraits can benefit from such deep layers as well.

The background layer, or as it’s commonly known the ‘ground’ can always add depth and mood to the simplest compositions. A thick or generous layer of a base color should do wonders for your art. Alternatively, you could paint the ground with a complementary color to make the next layers pop!

Some of the all time favorite ground colors include burnt umber, raw sienna, and cobalt blue. You can mix them up with titanium white and them with water for a perfect wash.



Rule #3: Block in the Basic Shapes


Outline your drawing as a composition of basic shapes. You don’t need to get into the details at this moment, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

That’s actually one of the perks of acrylics, you can do over anything. Compare this to the unforgiving watercolors and you’ll see how valuable this option is. And it’s not just a good thing for beginners, professionals make good use of that trait as well.



Rule #4: Start at the Top


Acrylics dry out quickly, but not enough to avoid a smudge if you hand touches a part you just painted.

It’s thus recommended to start at the top, and move downwards. This way, you’d have much more flexibility to move your hand and your brush on the canvas. By the time you finish a segment and move to the one below it, the upper one would be left alone to dry properly.



Rule #5: Paint Dark Before Light


If you’ve been working with watercolors or oils for a while, then you automatically go with the lighter tones, then add the darker ones as finishing touches. This is not the case with acrylics, so you might want to get used for a reversal in your technique!

The deeper layers should be the darkest ones. Once you finish them, they dry up, and refuse to be hydrated again. The next layers are thus fresh covers, that only let a hint of the ones beneath them show through.

The final layer should be the highlights and sparks of reflected light. This is sometimes applied while drawing in oil pastels, but in a less stark manner.



Rule #6: Draw Quickly Before the Paint Dries!


The quick drying trait of acrylics is a blessing mostly, but occasionally a curse! If you’ve mixed a special color and left it a tad too long, you wouldn’t be able to use it. And mixing the exact same combination might not always be feasible.

The same applies to each layer you’re painting. You need to give it an evenness and a sense of continuity. You can correct and paint over anything, but still, try to maintain a unity for the individual layers you’re painting.

Misting the palette or canvas as you work could extend the validity of the colors. Especially, if you’re painting in a room where the humidity is low. You can also cover the colors with a wet cloth. And as a last resort, mix up a larger blob of color. This should give you more time as well.



Rule #7: Seal it with a Glossy Layer



Finishing off with a glossy varnish or a matte sealant takes your artwork to professional status. It throws in a touch of glam, protects the painting, and adds years to its life.

This is an optional step, especially, if you like to go over your work several times. Then, it would be better to relegate that step to a later time, or forego it altogether. The glossy varnish layer is worth a try though!



Conclusion – Acrylic Paint Blending and Mixing


Painting in acrylics is enjoyable and rewarding. It’s a tolerant, forgiving medium, that often gives great results. The important thing is to take advantage of its strongest points, and deal with its more challenging aspects.

The previous 7 Rules for layering acrylic paint on canvas cover the fundamentals and more. What you need to do right now is get your brushes, canvas, colors, and create some art.

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