Canvas Layering Techniques

In the previous post, we talked about how forgiving canvas is. It’s for this reason canvas is now my favorite surface to work on. If you mess it up, you can use canvas layering techniques to cover your work and start over again.

While experimenting with abstract calligraphy on my first canvas, I found that when I began covering up my first layer with black spray paint, that layer was showing through. Of course, I could have kept applying more spray paint to mask the base layer entirely — but I thought it looked cool.

A thin layer of spraypaint on top of a calligraphy composition

The black layer on top was thin enough to let the work underneath shine through. However, it was dark enough that I could still apply a new layer on top without visually muddying up the composition.

From there, I went crazy layering my canvas over and over again and was able to achieve some excellent results. In this post, I’ll share my process in hopes that it helps inspire you to develop dynamic canvases of your own.


There are no hard and fast rules when it comes materials. Use whatever intrigues you the most. Personally, I enjoy paint markers and spray paint the most.

Spraypaint cans and markers

Paint Markers

There are a number of art supply brands out there like Montana, OTR, Grog, and Molotow. These companies manufacture heavy duty pump markers capable of handling tough pigment. My favorite is Molotow. Compared to the other brands listed, the quality of the nib and the consistency of the pigment is far superior.

The markers come in a number of sizes. I’m partial to the 627HS, which has a broad 15MM nib. This nib is tough and can produce many different types of strokes. They’re absolutely Perfect if you’re into gothic scripts like I am.


Any type of spray paint will do, but I stick to Liquitex brand. Liquitex spray paint is of the same quality as any other artist paint. However, it is extremely low odor — to do the degree in which I use it indoors to layer my canvases.

Canvas Layering

As it turns out, you can buy black canvas as well as white canvas! After experimenting with both, I’ve found there’s not much difference in the end product when it comes to layering.

Black and white canvases

On the other hand, if you’re trying to work on a dark background, the black canvas will save you the up front hassle of painting the canvas.

Initial Layer

My process begins with putting down an initial layer. In this particular canvas, I’m planning to have a centered abstract blackletter composition with some space around the edge. This composition will go down on a future layer.

White marker composition on a black canvas

Middle Layers

Since there will be space around the edges of the canvas, I want some ghosted layers to show through. The first couple of layers I put down will act as these ghosted layers.

In between each layer I put down, I apply a light coat of spray paint. Once again, this allows the subsequent layer to show through, but it’s still dark enough to put another layer on top of.

At this point, I like to make a mess. Using short bursts of spray paint, shaking, splattering, smearing, or blowing paint, I grunge up the piece which adds texture to our ghost layers.

white splatters on a black background

Before laying down one final coat of spray paint and adding the final composition on top, this can be a good time to introduce color (particularly if you’re working exclusively in black and white).

The final coat of spray paint will mute these enough to set them back in the final piece, but still allows accents to shine through here and there. This can be a nice visual aspect in the final product.

The Final Layer

Once I’m happy with all of the canvas layering I’ve done, I’m ready for the final composition. I generally use rulers or a T-square to map out my composition area. As I mentioned earlier, I’m leaving some space around the edges of the canvas to “frame” the composition.

Here’s a video of the entire layering process and final composition:

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