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Jill Nathanson
Elixir, 2020
Acrylic and polymers with oil on panel
102.9 x 186.7 cm (40.5 x 73.5 in.)
Courtesy of the artist and Berry Campbell Gallery, New York

The word layer is often used to describe a technique or oeuvre. As much as its literal abstractness, it is used in diverse contexts; an artist may create depth in their painting by stacking multiple layers of colors on the canvas; or an art critic could write that a sculpture by an artist reflects various layers of memories from childhood.

In the past, when painting was the main medium to visualize reality, it was important for artists to create 'depth' in their works. Painters piled up multiple layers of colors on a plain canvas in order to demonstrate the three-dimensional world; giving life to an object or subject they were depicting.

Duccio di Buoninsegna
Madonna and Child, c. 1290-1300
Tempera and gold on wood
Overall 27.9 x 21 cm (11 x 8 1/4 in.)
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In art history, tempera (a technique of painting with pigments mixed in egg yolk or glue) and oil paint was widely used for layering technique. Tempera allowed the building of layers to produce desired tone, depth and quality by repeating the “painting and drying” process. The use of the tempera technique dates back to Ancient Greece and Rome; during the 15th century in Europe, oil paint replaced tempera as the principal medium used for painting. Oil paint became preferable over tempera partly because it gave thicker and more dramatic detailed layers of light and shadow.

Camille Pissaro
The Little Country Maid, 1882
Oil on canvas
63.5 x 53 cm (25 x 21 in.)
© Tate, London

In Modern art, layering began to include materials other than paint. It started to describe mixed media, which employs more than one material to create artwork, or a collage, a method used in works which sticks together materials such as paper, photographs, and fabric on a surface.

“Creativity is that marvelous capacity to grasp mutually distinct realities and draw a spark from their juxtaposition.”

Max Ernst

Max Ernst
Butterflies, 1931
Cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper, cellophane, and pencil on paper
50.2 x 65.4 cm (19 3/4 x 25 1/2 in.)
© 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The interpretation of layering however, is not limited to the traditional technique or materiality, but it extends to philosophical complexities in artworks and this is not only a recent phenomenon. For example, there’s a myth in the Bible describing that Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar sent his general Holofernes to conquer the Jewish city of Bethulia. Judith, depicted as a beautiful young widow, saves her people by slaying Holofernes, winning a victory for the Israelites.

Different artists interpreted the same myth from their viewpoint, every layer of the painting in relation to their thinking process, and creating their own identity. Artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Caravaggio, and Gustav Klimt portrayed the myth from their own perspectives. Sometimes Judith is a heroine as a power of female virtue, while some focused more on her fatal beauty.

Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1620
Oil on canvas
146.5 x 108 cm (57.7 x 42.5 in.)
© The Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy

Gustav Klimt
Judith I, 1901
Oil on canvas and gold leaf
84 x 42 cm (33.1 x 16.5 in.)
© Belvedere Museum, Vienna, Austria

Also in Contemporary art, there are different ways artists layer their work. Angel Otero creates frenetic swirls of layers upon layers of vibrant oil paint and other materials, depicting everyday objects such as beds, plants, and couches. The layering technique Otero uses is not only with the medium he uses, but his paintings are also of memories associated with objects, time and space. In The Fortune of Having Been There , the items in the works are tied to childhood memories, particularly of Otero’s grandmother's home in Puerto Rico.

Throughout art history layering has existed in different forms and has been approached in various ways; it bridges time and space, past (memory) and present, present and future (desire), or virtual (hope) and reality (frustration). Through connecting these narratives, each layer creates unique visual language while developing a genre of art.

Related categories


Mixed Media






Oil Painting

Works on Paper


Diaspora / Migration



Painting Study

Searching for Identity

Dense Composition

History/Historical Approach

Acrylic Paint

Smooth and Flat Surface

Oil Paint

Textured Surface

Tracking Memories

Fluid Brushstrokes

Tempera Painting


Op Art