How to oil paint in layers

Girl in gray painting for article on how to oil paint in layers

Painting in layers presents a problem for the beginning painter. Eh, who am I kidding, it presents a problem for most intermediate painters too.

Who Should Paint in Layers

First, let me discuss who should be painting in layers?

I hate blanket statements, such as “All people”, but I will say just about every beginner should start out by learning to paint in layers.


There are so many benefits to painting in layers. I’ll list some that come to mind

  1. You separate the problem of tone from color – thus making painting easier
  2. You can have multiple layers of paint working together in your finished picture – thus a richer color effect
  3. You can focus your mind on one thing at a time – thus making painting easier
  4. You’re less likely to make “mud”

I think many people get stuck on painting in layers because you haven’t been shown how to do it, why you do it, and…this is a biggie…

It’s not just about painting 1 layer and then another layer and another…the physical part of applying the paint…

it’s about doing it with your mind, your thinking process.

I don’t believe in a systematic way such as 5 layers and you’re done. I have never seen any evidence that this was done in the past. Hey, Titian used to put thin layers on his paintings again and again. History says, sometimes 30 or more. But, don’t take that to mean he was systematically going through a 30 layer process in all parts of the painting. This just meant he was a perfectionist with his refining glazes, veilings, scumbles, etc and sometimes he did it 30 times in certain parts of a painting to get the effect he was after.

For Landscape Too?

landscape oil sketch

Should you paint in layers for landscape painting?

Yes…for landscape, still life, people. Whatever it is. Learn to paint in a layered approach and as you advance, you can bend the rules you learned and make the layering process more in your thinking than in your actual application of paint.

If you’re “poo pooing” this because you saw someone paint in their sky in one very thin layer on some “special wet white” – then, yes this probably isn’t for you. You can do it that way but if you are trying to get an old master look in your work, you won’t ever achieve the effects you’re after.

“But layering is too hard and takes too long…”

I have heard that reasoning in the past.

Even more modern painters such as the impressionists painted in a layered approach, especially when they were learning. Renoir went back to it later in life because he realized it was the best way to achieve the color effects (like the old masters) that he wanted to.

Remember, painting is about painting on top of paint – whether the paint underneath be wet or dry, you will always layer paint over paint over paint.

In my opinion, this is one of the biggest hurdles for students to overcome.

Note: This is one big way that painting is different than photography. A photograph is not layered. It is one layer of ink on paper. Also, because of the layered nature of painting, you can achieve a better look to your paintings when you paint from nature. Nature is not colored inks in one layer. A person’s skin, for example, is layers of skin on top of muscle, fat tissue, bone, with blood underneath, etc. A bunch of layers playing together that we see in real life. In that way, painting will always be more “real” than a photograph.

The How To

head in oil underpainting

First, I am going to assume you have followed some of my instruction, if you’ve seen it, as far as preparing your canvas so you are not painting on a stark white canvas. That, believe it or not would be the first layer.

Then, when you begin you will need some type of drawing. By a drawing I mean outline marks so you know where to start applying your paint. Not what you would think of as a “layer” but it is one indeed. Oh, and you don’t have to wait for that to dry.

Like, I will cover in a second, a layer doesn’t have to mean a dried layer.

Next, you focus your thoughts on tone and drawing. The actual paint colors you use is not overly important at this stage. What is important is how you are thinking. You should be thinking of “building” your picture. Some people do this in only 2 colors. Some people do this in washed out variations of the final color. I won’t get into that right now but know that you should not be worried about the final colors now. Forget them for the most part, you can fix or change them later.

Note the head that I painted in the image above in greenish tones. I did not concern myself with trying to “get it all done” because I know that painting is done in layers. As I go on I will add things, modify, make corrections, and colors, etc.

If you paint slow, you can let this layer dry and re-do it to make any corrections you need. Using the veilings approach I teach in many videos and tutorials, you can unify areas of your tonal layer that are to contrasty (is that a word?) and then go paint and paint into them again.

There is no set rule. You don’t have to get this stage done in only 1 layer.

If you want to spend 3 layers on just the tonal values, go ahead and do it.

When you are satisfied, you can start adding the accurate color layers on top of this

Wet or Dry?

Believe it or not, you can add the more final colors on either wet or dry “underpaint”.

People think the old masters waited until everything was dry. I’m sure some of the time the underlayers were. But, not always. No way, no how!

There are stories of incredible speedy painting by such painters as Rubens, Tintoretto, Luca Giordano…and others.

For a second, forget that these people were artists. Think of them as businessmen fulfilling contracts. They had a product to make and it had to be done by a certain date. They could not always wait around for long drying times. They knew their mediums so well (or experimented) that they came up with mediums that would have the underlayers of paint set (but not dry – as oil paint really takes years to technically dry) so they could then paint overlayers over these “set” underlayers without any real mixture between the two.

In this post, there is hardly enough time to go into detail about the difference in how to add color layers depending on if the underlayers are wet or dry, but just know that it can be done both ways.

Don’t you add colors by glazing?

You can, but that’s not the only way and…many times…there is a misconception about glazing.

First, let me say this now. Do not think you paint your pictures in gray, glaze transparent color over it and it’s done.

That won’t work. You’re not tinting a photograph.

Glazing can be in varying thicknesses and it can be varying degrees of transparency.

It is perfectly fine to paint the finishing color layers in covering paint using your underlayers as a guide. No glazing needed.

With some practice and guidance, you will learn how to create great color effects just from varying the thickness of paint in your overlayers. With your underlayers beneath, you’d be amazed at the variations you could get by doing something such as if you were painting a face and you had the underlayers in grayish skin tones and then mixed a stronger skin tone for your top layers and simply applied it thinner or thicker in certain areas.

I’ve been teaching painting for over 20 years and I don’t believe in the “just plow along and learn by your mistakes approach.” I believe in showing you methods and procedures that you can use over and over again. I also believe in teaching you how to think like a painter so you can solve your own problems.

How to paint in layers may seem confusing at first, but I have gone over it in detail in my video course, oil painting formula.

oil painting formula pic

It’s video training that I call the oil painting instruction I always wish had been around when I was a student. I’d love to send you a copy on DVD or I also have an online version where you just log in and you can start learning by watching the videos right away.


  1. Hi Ethan,
    I have not done much oil painting, but have engaged in various art forms. I have been on your mailing list for some time now and I think this post is the best I have seen. I like the flexibility of your presentation based on your awareness of the difference between basic principles and rules. The “rules approach” seldom affords genuine vitality because it fosters a mail-it-in mentality which unduly focuses on getting to the end result without the inconvenience of having to be fully engaged in the process..The PRINCIPLES APPROACH requires the artist (or person in any field who would cultivate true mastery) to show up and be fully engaged in the PROCESS, and to pay attention in the moment. It requires a clear intention coupled with a flexibility about how that intention will be achieved. Goethe (1749-1832) said, “Many people hammer all over the wall believing that with each blow they hit the nail on the head.” In my opinion, you nailed it! Thank you for your illuminating post.

  2. Hi Ethan,
    I’m really anxious to take your classes! I like what I see from your e-mails. You are the kind of instructor that interests me! I hate “slap paint on” instruction. I had never done background painting until I saw you do it —WOW, what a difference. It totally transforms the depth and the whole picture. I’ve had more compliments on what I’ve done since I started doing what you said than any time before Several people have made a comment about how much depth I’m getting in my pictures. So, “Thanks” Pat.


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