Student Resource

Layers Coursework Guide

Many artists use layers in their work – from layers of paint to layering digital images. There are also layers of meaning in artworks, so let’s peel back some of them to help with your coursework.


Hidden layers

The traditional technique of oil painting often uses a series of layers to build up an image even when the final painting looks completely smooth and finished.

John Singer Sargent worked on his painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose for over a year, and friends watching him paint it every evening for a few short minutes when the dusky light was just right, recalled that many mornings it would look as if he’d scraped the canvas down, trying to find exactly the right luminous feeling for the composition.

John Singer Sargent
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6)

Painting in acrylics often uses a similar technique, though the layers dry much more quickly. Laying down a base can make colours stand out, while a final layer using bold dark outlines can really bring dynamism and movement to flat colours. Wassily Kandinsky’s Cossacks (1910–1) uses subtle layers of paint to bring his abstracted scene alive.

How to Paint Like Kandinsky

Visible Layers

Rather than being a technique, however, sometimes layers can be the subject of a painting themselves.

British artist Maria Lalic made over fifty paintings in her series History Paintings. The paintings initially look like monochromes (paintings of one single colour), but a closer look reveals the paint layers beneath the surface. The edges of the canvases are left unpainted, so the build up of layers can be seen from the side. She made each one in a similar way, priming with  acrylic gesso, then adding multiple layers of thin glaze paint made of different pigments to build up the final colour. She always brushed from left to right and kept the canvas horizontal. The paintings are named for the pigments she used to create each canvas.

The paints used in this series all relate to a paint chart Lalic found in 1994, which was printed by paint manufacturers  Winsor and Newton. They had made categories of colours based on when different pigments  were developed. They divided them into six eras – ‘Cave’, ‘Egyptian’, ‘Greek’, ‘Italian’, ‘C18/19th’ and ‘C20th’. The ‘Cave’ era had only four colours in the chart, while more and more colours were added as time passed, and technology for creating pigments improved. Lalic painted each colour on the chart, mixing and layering up the pigments to create the final pieces.

‘History painting’ usually refers to a type of large-scale European painting, often of a scene from the Bible, from mythology, or a historical event. However, Lalic’s work, instead of representing history through painting, actually tries to present a history of painting itself, through a chronology of pigments.

‘If we look at the colours that were available to someone in the cave era, say ... There are four coloured pigments from that period and they’re so resonant with what that life was situated around – fire and earth, carbon black from fire, and from the earth yellow, red and chalk. It says so much about a particular culture and civilisation ... I think I’m simply excited by recognising a time and place through colour’ (Maria Lalic in Fortnum 2007, p.34).

Thick paint layers

Other painters have used paint in thick layers to build up their works. Using a palette knife to smear the paint on, dripping paint from a stick or using other tools to scrape it off or scratch in to it can create a range of effects and feelings. Artists can create an atmosphere related to the natural world, recall the softness of flesh or simply revel in the qualities of glossy dripping paint.

Layered Processes

Sonia Boyce OBE’s From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born ‘Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction uses layers of photographs, photocopies, paint, crayon and pen to build up the work. MAde in 1987, Boyce herself is the 'English born Native' in the title. Boyce wanted to explore the relationship between her own self-image and the Black stereotypes offered by a white British society through the mass media. She hoped that using photographically-reproduced images would make us more aware of the power of the media in how we see others and ourselves.  She included images of herself, plus white, male Hollywood heroes of the time such as Tarzan and Rambo, as well as racist imagery from popular comics and children’s book illustrations. Boyce was analysing her role as a consumer of media images, and how the dominant culture (white and male) had an effect on her sense of self. Drawing all these connections together took a  different type of process.

I just wasn’t drawing any more. I was bringing these elements together but I wasn’t trying to make drawing the vehicle through which they became a piece. The photographs were done in a photo booth and I then did collage bits around it – the leaf that’s on the right-hand side was a leaf which I just sewed on and the fabric was photocopied and cut into strips. It was really a case of making a composition with various bits that were taken from various places and then the figure of Tarzan and of the natives (sorry I can’t find a better way of saying that), were literally traced from the comics and then laid on. Then, the whole piece was photographed and I worked on top of that with paint.

Collaborative Layers

Indian photographer Gauri Gill worked with indigenous artist Rajesh Chaitya Vangad from the Warli community to create this layered work. Gill’s original photograph shows Vangad himself looking out to a mountain considered sacred by the indigenous Warli community. She realised that all the stories and traditions from this area of Maharashtra in western India were absent from her photographs. So she and Vangad negotiated a collaborative process through which her photographs are transformed when they become the surface for Vangad’s drawings.

Vangad lives in the mountainous area depicted in the photograph, and the Warli paintings he creates are considered a folk art form. The Eye in the Sky explores the challenges faced by indigenous communities as their environment changes due to the climate emergencies and natural resources are used or damaged. The work traces the arrival of modern technology and the relationship of the Warli to the city: birds and other flying creatures give way to aeroplanes, and traditional symbols of everyday village tasks – hunting and cooking in a landscape of rivers and foliage – transform into a cityscape. It also shows the draw of the city as people pack up their belongings and move to the urban landscape.

Gauri Gill, Rajesh Vangad
The Eye in the Sky (2014–16)

Peeling back layers

What happens when you create layers and then then reveal what’s underneath? Shozo Shimamoto’s Holes was made by pasting together sheets of newspaper with a glue made with flour and water. Shimamoto was interested in actions in art, and this work shows the traces of his actions in piercing the surface of the painting. Was it destructive or creative?

Shozo Shimamoto
Holes (1954)


Sculptural layers can also be made up of objects. Stacking familiar things up can make us think about layers of history or time - like layers of rock building up on top of each other.

Veronica Ryan used hundreds of avocado trays collected over many years from grocery shops to create this work. Ryan often works with seeds and fruit and recycling has been an essential part of her practice. She relates this to own history, recalling her mother explaining when she was a child that flour sacks, made of a robust yet fine quality cotton, were used and embroidered to make pillowcases.

Tony Cragg’s Stack works are made from random objects and materials, which he has stacked into a regular geometric cube. This combination of order and chaos invites us to look at the man-made detritus he’s collected and see it almost as a geological record of our impact on the planet.

Tony Cragg
Stack (1975)

Cildo Meireles’ Babel is a huge circular tower made from hundreds of second-hand radios stacked in layers. The radios are tuned to different stations creating a cacophony of layered, continuous sound. When too much information is layered, is the meaning lost?

Cildo Meireles
Babel (2001)

Found Layers

Sometimes layers of everyday materials can bring about some surprising combinations. These juxtapositions can make us look again at the background of daily life that we often ignore.

Gabriel Orozco took the lint from tumble dryers – the fluffy felty residues left in the filter after drying a load of washing. He created twelve prints from these layers of lint. Using the dust collected from clothes and bodies allowed Orozco to think about what layers of dust can do to our perceptions of objects.

‘They are twelve skins of dust, leftovers from textile fabrics and from our bodies: they contain human skin and hair ... Dust tends to cover the image and convert it into an object. Dust converts the window into a wall. Dust is space but not a landscape. There is no illusion, just the illusion of an illusion. And this is a book. When it is open, like any book, dust flies away, and when we read it, like any book, we read an image in spite of dust.

Other artists have found layers or the marks of layers in their environment. How does moving these to the gallery space change what we think of them, or the attention we pay to them?

Collage and Assemblage

Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Primitive (2009)

Rather than just finding them, found images or objects can be layered to create new meanings

Mimmo Rotella
With a Smile (1962)

I was literally spellbound, and even more so because at that time I was convinced that painting was finished, that something new had to be unearthed, something alive and modern. So in the evenings I began to tear the posters, ripping them from the walls, and take them back to my studio, creating compositions and leaving them exactly the way they were, exactly the way I saw them. That is how the décollage came to be.

Mimmo Rotella

Artists from the early twentieth century began experimenting with printed materials in their artworks. Later artists began to see the potential in layering images together to create surprising or unexpected new images or objects.  Pop Artists began to use advertising images to create new meanings from the bright flashy images now available everywhere.

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