Saturday Studio: Layers Upon Layers

Naomi Vanderleest, Education Assistant

As it starts to get colder outside, layers will become essential. Layers also play an integral role in paintings: some artists use layers to cover up mistakes, while others like Austin Cartwright use layers to tell a story. Cartwright is an abstract painter based in Fort Wayne and his process involves building up layers of paint and then scraping away at them. Look at this painting below. What color of paint do you think he started with?

Austin Cartwright, American, b. 1984. What Else Do We Have To Hold Onto. Oil on canvas, 2021. Loan from the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Cartwright says that his paintings represent the human body because of the way it can transform. Similar to how marks are left behind from Cartwright scraping away and layering paint, scars are left behind on the human body. It can be difficult to see the layers of paint through a photograph, though. Below is a close-up of What Else Do We Have To Hold Onto. How do you think these marks were made?  

Austin Cartwright, American, b. 1984. What Else Do We Have To Hold Onto. Oil on canvas, 2021. Loan from the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Looking closely at paintings can help the viewer understand the artist’s process. When creating a painting realistically it can be difficult for us to see the artist’s technique (they don’t want visible brushstrokes to take away from its realism). While looking at What Else Do Have To Hold Onto, we know exactly what the artist did: not only because the artist has shared this information but through the layers of paint he left behind. Today, we’re going to think about the process of painting. Let’s create our own abstract painting using scraping! 

You will need:

  • Acrylic paint
  • Paintbrushes (the more sizes the better)
  • Palette knife, a plastic knife would work too
  • Heavyweight board or canvas (thin paper might tear when layering paint) 
  • Cup for water
  • A hairdryer, not necessary but can help you dry layers faster before adding more paint

Once you have acquired all of your materials start by selecting your first paint colors. You could choose colors that you like or colors from a certain category, such as warm and cool colors. Next, start applying small dabs of paint onto the paper (you can always add more later).

 Next, using a paintbrush or palette knife spread the paint across the paper. This will help us build up layers of paint. You can spread the paint in a variety of directions or in just one direction, whichever look you prefer. Look at Cartwright’s paint strokes for inspiration! He uses a variety of directions. Once you have areas of color, apply more small dabs of paint on top of them. Spread the new paint that you applied and decide what areas you want to scrape away to show the old layer underneath it. 

Repeat this step until your painting emerges. When that happens is your decision! Below, I have included pictures taken throughout my painting process. Do you see what choices I made? Do you think I should have stopped earlier? Why or Why not?

After completing my painting, I really want to complete another one and compare the two works! Have a friend or family member create a painting with you to compare and contrast them.

Here are some tips and tricks before you create your own masterpiece: 

  • If you select a variety of colors when they mix you will get a darker color. To prevent this start with light colors and then incorporate dark colors. 
  • When layering your paint save the biggest globs for the end, that way thick paint won’t mix with any other layers.
  • If you allow the paint to dry before layering more paint it won’t mix and you will have brighter colors.

Once you create your own work, think about your process.  Would you want to create another? What would you do differently next time?

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