A minimum of three layers of acrylic paint can be applied to the canvas for the most basic paintings. However, you can add numerous additional layers to achieve your desired look as long as you know the right process.
You must apply a primer before starting, lay the base layer with the right type of brush, and let it fully dry before applying new layers. For the consecutive layers, choose your colors, brushes, and paint consistency carefully.
The final layer is for adding details, smoothing edges, and applying more color to complete your artwork.
Let’s dive in and find out more about layering acrylic paint, the tools and materials used, and how many layers an artist might typically apply.
Is It Okay to Apply Multiple Layers of Acrylic Paint?
Yes, acrylic paint is highly versatile and you can apply multiple layers of it for your preferred effect. The number of layers of acrylic paint used for a canvas can vary depending on the desired outcome.
Two or three layers is the lowest limit whereas the higher limit can be ‘as much as you need’. But make sure you don’t overpaint or the canvas may lose its absorbency.
Acrylic paint is highly versatile and you can change its consistency with a medium. Applying thin layers of watered-down acrylic paint will allow you to create more layers than thick heavy-body acrylics. Speaking of versatility, you can even use acrylic paint as nail polish (interesting, right?).
Getting back to the point, fluid acrylic paint delivers lighter tones and shades while the thicker ones are more opaque and darker in shades. However, we don’t recommend applying 10 or more thick layers of acrylic paint as it might flake off or warp the canvas.
Tools and Materials for Layering with Acrylic Paint
Getting the right tools and materials is the key to perfect layering. From your canvas to paintbrushes everything needs to be sorted out before you start the actual painting. Here are the required tools and materials for layering with acrylic paint-
As you might know, there are different types of canvases for oil and acrylic painting. You can choose any hard canvas made for acrylics. Universal canvases can be used for both oil and acrylic paint.
If you’re applying more than three thick layers, we recommend choosing a stretched canvas. The reason why you shouldn’t use soft and thin canvas is that acrylic paint has a liquid base. Applying multiple layers of it can cause warping or cracking.
So, always go for an absorbing thick or stretched canvas for layering. You can also use 300gsm or greater heavy-weight watercolour paper if you’re going for 2-4 layers only.
Still, if you face difficulties while using acrylic paint on canvas, know the reasons why acrylic paint not sticking to canvas.
Paint Brush Material: Natural Vs Synthetic
When it comes to painting with acrylic, synthetic brushes are the best option. You can wash synthetic brushes for reapplying and layering numerous times. Also, the bristles of this type of paintbrush are soft and even.
Such brushes offer better control and neat brush strokes. On the other hand, natural paintbrushes absorb the liquid base of acrylic paint and become limp. Hence, it becomes very difficult to spread the paint on canvas.
Types of Paint Brushes
You might have a brush set containing varying brushes of different sizes and shapes. Here are the brush types you’ll need for layering.
- Basecoat Brush: As this type of brush is among the largest ones, you can use them to evenly prime the canvas and apply the basecoat. It has long bristles and a large handle which makes it easier to hold a generous amount of acrylic paint.
- Flat and Bright Brush: A flat brush is a must-have for most artists as it has the perfect size suitable for both the base layer and more detailed artwork. 3/4″ flat brushes are the most common ones, but you can go for a 1″ to cover a larger area. Bright brushes are somewhat similar to flats except that they have smaller bristles and handles which make them easier to handle.
- Round Brush: When it comes to painting with acrylic, the round brush is the most popular and handy one, thanks to its ability to create both thick and thin lines. This type of brush comes in different sizes marked by numbers. A #4 round brush is smaller than a #8 and more suitable for creating fine details in the final step of layering.
- Angle Brush: You can use an angle brush to ‘cut in’ on your canvas for filing in and use them for more intricate details like tree branches or thin patterns. Angle brushes are more versatile as you can use them for filling both small and large areas just by changing the angle of holding the brush.
Among the additional tools, acrylic markers and acrylic ink are the hardest to create the final layer of highlights, patterns, and edges. You can use palette knives of different sizes to evenly apply the acrylic paint for the first and second layers.
While layering with acrylic paint, a natural sea sponge can be used to wipe, add, and smoothen the color and texture. You can also create natural textured effects and blend colors with a sponge. Finally, combs, spreaders, wedges, etc., all are different useful tools you can use to layer with acrylic paint.
How to Build Layers with Acrylic Paint?
Now that you know which tools and materials you should use for layering, let’s get into the main process. Below is the right way of layering with acrylic paint-
Phase One: Base or Ground Layer
Laying the first layer right is probably the most important step of layering. The rules for creating the base layer include:
Priming the Surface First
Before you apply paint on any type of surface, prime the surface for better adhesion and even paint application. Gesso is the best primer for acrylic painting. This white substance also helps to cover the blemishes and imperfections on the surface and make it pure white.
However, if you don’t want a pure white canvas, go for a clear or semi-transparent primer instead. You can use a spray primer for easier application.
For brush-on application, take a wide base coat or wash brush, dip it in the primer, and remove the excess by placing the brush on the container’s edge. Evenly apply the primer to the surface and let it dry for about an hour. Apply two coats of primer for the best results. Wash the brush with soapy water immediately after the application so that the bristles don’t gum up.
Using Big Sized Paint Brush
Also known as the ground layer, the first layer of acrylic paint works only as a background for the main painting. So, you don’t need to be precise while applying the paint. A large base coat brush with a long handle will be perfect for the ground layer.
Applying A Thin Layer
If you want to create multiple layers, the base layer must be thin. Thick layers have lumps and uneven areas which don’t allow additional layers to settle. As a result, the paint might flake off.
Moreover, the thin layer will work as a great background which can be used for shading and glazing techniques. A thick layer of acrylic paint looks more prominent and often changes the shades of the main painting, especially when you use light colors for layering.
Mixing A Medium
Acrylic paints need to be thinned out for different effects and ease of application. If you want a matte finish, use water or rubbing alcohol as a thinning medium. For impasto effects and adding texture, use thick layers of acrylic paint that deliver an opaque finish.
As for glazing effects, use a semi-transparent or gloss medium that allows the base layer to show through the additional layers.
Making It Dark
Unlike oil paint or watercolors, you should start with darker tones when it comes to acrylic paint. The deeper layers of acrylics should be the darkest and you can work on the upper layers with lighter hues.
Don’t worry about the base layer showing through as it only adds depth to the painting without overpowering the upper layers.
Letting It Fully Dry
Before you apply an additional layer, make sure the base is fully dried first. It only takes 30 minutes to one hour to dry acrylic paint. If you’re not willing to make any changes to the base, seal it with a clear coat of acrylic paint or any other good-quality sealant like lacquer or mod podge.
Phase Two: Middle Layers
This is the phase where you draw the main outline of the painting and fill it with colors. For example, if you’re painting a tree, this is where you draw the tree trunk, the branches, and foliage without going into many details.
You can apply only one middle layer or 2 to 3 layers depending on your needs. Here are the rules you need to follow-
Apply Gesso If Needed
If you’re painting an object with a light color, consider applying a layer of gesso. This layer will create a plain white spot for the light hue. Otherwise, only the light color might not be able to cover the underpainting resulting in unwanted dark shades.
Use Bright or Round Brush
The middle layers are all about control. You need to have precise control over your brushstrokes so that you can achieve the perfect result. Using a bright or round brush to apply acrylic paint in these layers. Both these brushes are suitable for blending the paint and creating thick and thin layers.
As for the size, you can go with whatever you’re comfortable with. We recommend going for 3/4″ wide brushes for smaller areas and 1″ brights or rounds for larger areas. Make sure the handle is small and the bristles are even as it gives you better control.
Let Each Layer Dry
Remember, layering doesn’t mean applying paint to the whole canvas. A simple dab of paint is also an additional layer. To get the layering right, you need to let one paint layer dry completely before you apply a new one.
Otherwise, two different hues might get mixed and create a whole new unwanted shade. You can thin out the acrylic paint as per your needs.
Phase Three: Top Layers
Here you add the highlights, splashes, additional shades, patterns and other tiny details to complete your artwork. Again, while drawing a tree, you add the veins and darken or lighten the foliage in this stage. Below are the general rules for this-
Use Acrylic Marker or Pointed Round Brush
While adding highlights and tiny details, you’ll need a pointed tool for precise handling. Acrylic markers are a great choice to add touch-ups without damaging the underlying paint. If you’re using a brush, use a thin pointed round brush to easily add the highlights.
Make Necessary Changes
You might have to rework certain areas to create your desired final looks. For this, use a sponge to wipe the paint and a bright brush to blend and reapply the acrylic paint.
However, don’t add too many layers at the top as it can ruin the paint texture and create cracks. It’s important to know when to stop layering.
You should stop as soon as you’re done adding the details. If the paint doesn’t stick and the layers become thicker than 1cm, you’re overdoing it.
When you’re done with the painting, let the paint dry for one or two hours. Allow it to cure for a day and add a final layer of varnish to protect the acrylic paint from environmental factors like UV damage and moisture.
How to Lighten or Darken the Layers?
One issue with layering is that the underlying layer can lighten or darken the upper layer. The change in shade becomes more visible after the paint dries. If you want a lighter shade, add some white paint to the layer. For darker shades, use black, deep blue, or brown color.
As for minimal change, you can add different hues of the same color you’re using. For example, you can darken light brown with a deeper brown hue. No need to apply too much paint as only a drop will be enough to change the paint shade.
Frequently Asked Questions
Typically, you need to apply two thin layers of the primer. You can get the job done with a single layer if it’s thick enough to cover the whole surface.
Canvas is a very absorbent surface. So, when you don’t apply a primer, it will absorb the paint and won’t allow it to glide. It results in a waste of paint and difficulty in moving the brushes. Also, the paint might fake off after drying if you don’t prime the canvas.
Yes, you can paint on canvas without stretching it, but the canvas won’t take much punishment. Besides, it will be difficult to apply water-based paints including acrylic paint on that canvas. You won’t be able to use the layering technique as well.
Overall, how many layers of acrylic paint on canvas you should use depends on the artist’s preferred outcome and the application technique.
While practicing with 2 or 3 layers is suitable for beginners, professional artists may use many more layers to create their desired effect. Ultimately, deciding how many layers of acrylic paint you use on canvas is up to you.