All About Layers in Mixed Media Art

Using super heavy matte gel

Last updated on June 20th, 2024 at 03:09 pm

layers graphic

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Layers of different materials and supplies are what makes mixed media art different from other styles of art.

shrek layers gif

You may not layer like an onion or parfait, but you get the idea!

One thing I didn’t realize when I first started doing mixed media art was that you can’t slap just any old thing onto your paper or canvas and call it a day. In order to work with layers, I had to learn two important things!

  1. Materials matter!
  2. The order matters!

Basically, a mixed media artist has to learn how to get the layers in the artwork to play nice together. That means thinking about what materials you are using, and what order you put those materials onto your canvas.

It really is the difference between creating an amazing piece of mixed media art and . . . a mess.

mess meme

So let’s take a look at these two important “rules” about using layers in your mixed media works so you don’t have to trial and error it like I did.

Working With Materials In Your Mixed Media Art Layers

Here’s what I’ve learned about materials used for layering:

  • Paper layers: make sure the paper is smooth with no bubbles or air pockets before the glue dries. It’s a real pain to scrape up paper or try to figure out how to work with a big wrinkle or bubble after the glue dries. It’s much easier to make sure nothing funny is going on while the glue is still wet! This is also why I recommend Mod Podge over gel medium for glue. Mod Podge pulls the paper tight to your art surface as it dries, making your life much easier! For more on my thoughts about glue in mixed media art, check out My Favorite Mixed Media Art Glue is . . .
  • The type of paper matters! I’ve used all kinds of different paper on my art, including wallpaper, scrapbook paper, cardstock, vintage letters, and specialty papers. Some paper takes a bit of finessing to get it right. Cardstock is very thick. You have to make extra sure it has plenty of glue. You also might have to work extra to smooth it down to the surface so there are no air pockets. Old paper often crumbles or tears since it is fragile or extremely thin. Sometimes this makes a nice effect if that’s the look you’re going for. Just be prepared to be very gentle with old paper if you don’t want it to tear or break apart. Vellum seems like a good idea, but it’s kind of a pain in the butt. Vellum is a transparent paper that can have a really nice “seamless” effect if used on your artwork. But it is nearly impossible to get smooth. No matter how much glue I use, or how smooth I try to get it, it wrinkles and bubbles something fierce. I’ve even found that I can get it smooth and it will wrinkle as the glue dries! Very annoying.
  • Heavy materials need good glue or adhesive! Use a glue meant for adhering heavier weight objects. You don’t want your pieces falling off the canvas or art after it’s finished. It’s kind of like that macaroni art we all made as kids. Macaroni glued to paper with Elmer’s glue seems like a great idea. Until all the macaroni falls off after it’s been hanging on the fridge for three weeks and the dog ate the hard macaroni (and the glue). I like super heavy gel medium from Liquitex. (That’s my best recommendation). I’ve also used Artist’s Loft Gloss Super Heavy Gel and Liquitex Modeling Paste.
  • Experiment with how your glue looks when it dries and be sure you’re okay with the look before throwing it on your artwork. Nothing worse than having a glossy clear glue showing that you have trouble covering or hiding when you didn’t want it to look that way!
  • Weirdest tip ever! I use weird found objects, like insects. If you want to try this, my best tip is to watch out for those fragile, crumbly wings! Butterfly, dragonfly and moth wings want to break, so just be extra careful. Lay a layer of glue down first, place the insect carefully on top (tweezers are handy for this!) Use a gentle stamping motion to apply glue on top instead of a rubbing motion.
  • Glitter can hide many sins! (Is this a life hack, too?) If you choose to try using glitter, know that sprinkling it over your wet Mod Podge or heavy gel medium will hide the glue. But you can also use paint, ink, or another object like tiny beads, small dried flowers, yarn, ribbon, or sequins, too. Just experiment until you find what works for you. Also, you don’t have to hide the glue if you don’t want to.
  • If you use a tiny material that you have to pour over glue or adhesive like fine glitter, tiny beads, etc., lay your art on a larger piece of paper first. This way, you can catch the excess. Let the glue or adhesive dry completely and then use a soft brush to brush away any excess material that didn’t stick. Then you can use a container to dump all that excess into and save for later! This way, you aren’t getting this stuff all over your workspace since the paper corrals it, and you aren’t wasting supplies.
  • You can repeat layers! If you want to layer paper, then glue, then more paper, etc. – go for it! You can choose to build up layers in one area but leave other areas layer-free. It really is all up to you! If you use 3D objects, you can apply some, then use paint or ink over it, then apply more 3D objects. It all depends on your preference, the look you’re trying to achieve, and your own personal style.

Why the Order Matters When Layering Materials

Here is the other important tip I have for you regarding layers! The order you apply some materials really matters. Mixed media materials and supplies are so varied! You have to learn about different mediums and how they work together based on what they are made of. So, here goes: Fat over Lean. This is an art rule that has been followed ever since the Old Masters. A good explanation of this principle lives here: Fat Over Lean at Some specifics about the order of materials that I’ve discovered while doing art (read: making mistakes) follow:

  • You can mix and match with: acrylic paint, watercolor, watercolor crayons and gesso. This means you can apply any of these over the other with little trouble.
  • If you use gouache, know that it is “workable” for a long time, possibly forever! This means if you go back over it, you can pull some of the gouache up. If you weren’t expecting this to happen, you could be very disappointed! So use only gouache, or use gouache last.
  • Oil paint cannot be used under other mediums! Because it has a slow dry time and most other mediums dry very fast, having oil paint under other mediums can cause cracking and other disasters. This is one rule it’s best to stick to! Oil paints go on top of other mediums.
  • Oil pastels are a material that you have to know a little about. According to most information, they never actually completely dry. So, along with oil paints, oil pastels tend to follow the old art adage “fat over lean.” Basically, materials with less oil to pigment ratio need to be kept underneath materials with a more oil to pigment ratio. So, you can use oil pastels easily over pencil, color pencil, watercolor, acrylic, etc., but not in reverse order. Oil pastels go on top of other mediums.
  • Spray and distress inks. I love inks! I love to use them to create my backgrounds. Most regular inks dry and stay put – but spray and distress inks are a different animal. The first time I used spray ink, I was horrified when I painted over the top and the color of the ink bled through! I was only horrified because I didn’t know they did this and I had to figure out how to fix my mistake. Now that I know, I just use it to my advantage. I also don’t spray in areas I want to layer without the underneath layer showing through. To only spray in certain areas, cover the area you don’t want spray ink on with paper towel or paper. Tape down with masking tape if you’re worried about the ink seeping under the paper. Once you spray and it dries, just take up the paper and keep working. If the spray ink areas get wet again, the ink will mix and move around. You can apply medium or fixative over it if you want to be sure your spray inks won’t come back to life like the zombies they are.
  • Some ink pens, paint pens, markers and pencils will not want to draw or write over the materials you have already applied to your surface. This is frustrating, especially if you like writing words or adding doodles on top of your layers. Or you like outlining. Nothing is worse than a pen or marker skipping or getting gunked up and refusing to write. Experiment with the pens and writing instruments you have so you know which ones will write over other mediums and which ones throw a tantrum. Posca pens write over most things, as do Sharpies. Specialty writing instruments might be touchy, so test them first, or make a cheat sheet where you use the pens/pencils/markers over various things so you have a handy reference sheet for later.

Layers are fun and give your artwork a lot of depth and style, but they can be very tricky if you don’t know much about the materials you’re using. I had to experiment a lot before I learned about the best layering techniques. I hope this article helped save you all that time and headache!

Tell me about your favorite layering techniques and materials below. I am always learning and looking for new information. Also, did this article help you? Please let me know in the comments!

Jaime Leigh Thanks for Reading

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4 thoughts on “All About Layers in Mixed Media Art”

  1. Thanks! I am a beginner and am looking forward to learning the techniques of this medium. Very helpful as I have some spray i k I’m excited to try and would have totally messed it up if I hadn’t read your article!

  2. This is such great information and insight!! You will save me hours of time and frustration as I begin changing up my art projects with layering!
    Thank you Jaime!!

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