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Layering as Metaphor in Art Therapy

by Lauren Fallat, MA LPC ATR-BC

Today’s topic is on the art of layering as a therapeutic means to expressing and embodying the intricate layers to our lives, emotions, thoughts, actions/reactions. As an artist and art therapist, I have come to honor and appreciate the multi-faceted elements that make up each of us as individuals and unique human beings with individualized and nuanced stories and experiences. My first introduction to layering as an art form was through the process of painting. With paint, often there are layers that build upon each other, with each layer creating more depth and dimension, highlights and shadows, as well as color tone and gradations. In a collage, you can add layers through the process of overlapping images, covering up and uncovering layers to create a reveal. Layering can occur with drawing, as you add different textures through patterns and line quality.


What about layering is therapeutic? From my own experience, in using a mixed media approach- that is in combining drawing materials, paint, stamping, fiber, string, pastels, and photographs- one is able to portray a human process of integrating different parts of the self into a whole image. From a visual standpoint, in witnessing the layered product, one is somehow validated by the relatability of the overlapping parts. It feels good to reflect on how this visual representation of a process connects to what it is like to develop personal layers overtime- layers in our relationships with ourselves and others, layers within our own belief system and values.


The process of layering has a therapeutic component as well. Being able to on one hand make choices about what areas are seen or unseen, hidden or revealed- there is a level of control that one is afforded. One also experiences the visual changes that occur when an alteration or addition is made- how one or more parts affect the whole. An image layered with just black and white becomes altered when a red square is added. The image reads and feels different and somehow that resonates in our own lives, when things seem black and white and yet we cannot ignore whatever that red square represents for us- it calls for our attention.


There is a depth to layering that is achieved. Drawings and paintings can seem flat- often you may feel or think that you understand what is in front of you by seeing it at a surface level- here are the symbols, this is the color scheme and move on. Adding layers of colors, textures, shapes, patterns- it encourages curiosity and a desire to see further- to explore the page or the canvas. Layering calls your attention to the details and becomes this adventure in finding the nuances that exist on the image in front of you- to be layered means that what you see on the surface is not the full picture. In this way, to layer is to also call attention to the unique quality and character of the artist. Your choices as you layer become represented in the images and words that surface as well as in the elements that you choose to subdue, minimize and cover.


Within the layering process, there is also a potential for revealing. The idea of “lost and found” comes to mind, in which perhaps in one area of your artwork you have covered up an element that is not longer in sight, yet through the revealing process, you can “find” it again by peeling, scraping or uncovering its layer from underneath. I can decide to peel away layers as I go. Maybe I’ve added blue and red paper on top of each other, but I can rip or remove parts to uncover the canvas or surface underneath. Consider what it is that you need to be uncovered or revealed and how that can be incorporated into your own artwork. To show something of yourself, perhaps a feeling or a thought, can be a vulnerable process. With art, you can experiment with this process in an indirect way. Show the shape or the line or the darkness without it being concrete or transparent to how it relates to your life. Allow yourself to experience what it would be like to continue covering, hiding and layering parts, pieces and elements of your design.


What you can use to layer:


  • different papers that you have cut, ripped or salvaged from different resources

  • drawing materials

  • acrylic paint and painting mediums

  • fabrics/textile scraps

  • yarn/string/felt/wool

  • tissue paper

  • adhesive (glue, tape, sewing materials, stapler)

  • surface paper or canvas, wood board

  • nature objects (sticks, pebbles, stones, leaves, flower petals, needles, dirt, sand, shells, moss)

  • sponges and rollers (for painting)

  • paintbrushes


How do you start and what do you do?


  • Allow yourself to choose a surface to serve as your foundation. Consider what you might want this surface to represent.


  • Consider playing around with different ways of adhering papers and objects to the page. Consider how placing tissue paper over an image can reveal part of the image underneath. Consider how it feels to place an image or color onto the page and then completely cover it up so that it cannot be seen.


  • You may want to challenge yourself to use three different layering techniques. Maybe you are covering the surface with paint and then oil pastels that you scrape away and then gluing papers on top. Consider how you want to cover the surface.


  • Do you want each layer to be visible or will your top layer be the final visual component? Will there be interactive elements, where papers are able to be moved or bent back to reveal what is underneath?


  • You can use the dry brush technique with your paint brushes to create different textures across your page and overlap these markings in different layers and directions.

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