Abstract Painting Techniques on Canvas Layers

by Brenda Priddy
Layers improve the appearance of any abstract painting.

Layers improve the appearance of any abstract painting.

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Layers are important for any style of painting, both in acrylic and oil paintings. Layers are especially important for abstract paintings, because the feeling and dimension used in abstract art is typically conveyed with the different layers of paint. You can change the appearance of an abstract painting simply by adding additional layers or changing the appearance of existing layers already on the canvas.


The first layer in any painting should be the gesso layer. This is a white paint that smoothes the canvas and prevents the paint from rotting the canvas over time. This is especially important for oil paints. Apply one gesso layer in strokes vertically. Apply a second layer in diagonal strokes to the right. Apply a third layer in diagonally strokes to the left. Sand the canvas lightly between coats to create a smooth base layer for canvas paintings.

Design Outline

The design outline is equally as important in abstract paintings as it is in more traditional painting styles. You can draw the outline with a pencil, or use a base color of paint to block out the basic shape of the final design. If you use pencil, spray the surface with hairspray after drawing on the canvas to prevent the pencil from smudging. Allow the layer to dry for about 10 to 30 minutes before starting the next layer.


An underpainting is the basis for most paintings, abstract or otherwise. The base painting uses a color tone, such as black and white, browns, blues, greens or another color, to block out the main image on the canvas. The underpainting is the basis for the details added to the painting later and gives the project dimension and the layered look that is prized in abstract art. You can paint up to three underpainting layers of different colors.


Most of the subject painting is done during the underpainting layer phase. Once the underpainting is complete, all that is left is to add details to the painting. For an abstract painting this could mean any number of art styles, from highlighting to extra swirls or dots to shading or adding words on top of the painting. Make sure the underpainting layers are dry before adding the details. If you apply more paint while the base coats are wet, the paint will smudge, and you will not get the sharp appearance that most abstract paintings have.

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