Painting in Layers

I’ve been only painting in one layer (aka “Alla Prima”) and so far I feel like it’s been a 50/50 chance of whether my paintings turn out the way I want them to, so I thought I would try doing a painting in multiple layers for a change.

There is a rule to follow if you don’t want your painting to crack and that is “fat over lean”. What that means is whatever layer you are painting should have more oil (i.e. is fatter) than the previous one. This is because when oil is drying it moves slightly when there is a change in temperature until it dries. Therefore, if the layers above harden before the layers below, the movement of the lower layers will cause the hardened layer above to crack. For this reason in the first layer I significantly thinned down the paint with solvent (in this case water because I am using water-soluble oil paints) until it was almost a watercolour-like consistency. The second layer was done with a little bit of water, the third without anything added, the fourth with a stand oil based painting medium, and the fifth with stand oil.

This painting is based on a picture of this dress.

Layer One

Layer 1

This layer fulfills the same role as an underdrawing so that I have a more solid idea of where to place my paint in the subsequent layer. I used Burnt Sienna, traditionally the earth colours (Umbers, Siennas, Ochres) are used. The advantages of using the earth colours is that they are the cheapest and tend to dry quicker. I went over some areas with Titanium White to give me a better idea of what to paint because it got too messy in some places.

Layer Two

Layer 2

The purpose of this layer is to solidify the drawing and to put down the values (i.e. light and dark) without having to also worry about colour. This layer is a grayscale painting done in Ivory Black and Titanium White, from which I mixed a set of grays. I mixed 10 grays but that was probably too much. I think 7 would have been sufficient. In Rennaisance art the skin would be painted in green but I decided to keep it simple with just black and white.

Layer Three

Layer 3

Now that we have a good idea of the drawing and values of the painting we can focus on colour. Following the general rule of going from simple to complex I used a fairly limited palette. The colours were: Iron Oxide Red, Yellow Ochre, Cerulean Blue, Burnt Umber, Ivory Black and Titanium White. Even with opaque colours the gray of the layer below seems to dull the colour so more layers are neccessary.

Layer Four

Layer 4

I used more colours, adding Prussian Blue, Indian Yellow, Cadmium Red and Primary Magenta to my palette. I went into full detail using my smallest brush at this stage. When I finished this layer I felt that I had achieved the level of colour saturation I wanted so I decided that only one more layer was needed for corrections and glazing.

Layer Five

Medieval Dress

In this layer I used glazes of Indian Yellow in the highlights to make them warmer and Prussian Blue in the shadows to make them cooler. I also added a thin glaze of Prussian Blue to some of the hair to shift the colour slightly. A glaze is a transparent colour that has had enough medium (in this case stand oil) added to make it very see-through so that it shifts the colour of the layers below rather than replacing it.

To conclude, this way of painting takes much more time but the end result is worth it for me. The layered approach means that with each layer you can correct any mistakes of the layer below and for a beginner like me that is a huge advantage over alla prima. Afterall, alla prima is about showing virtuosity by getting each brush stroke, choice of colour and value right first time and I’ll admit I’m not at a stage in my painting where I can do that.


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