This is a great technique to learn so you can finish a painting in just one sitting. It also allows for better blending and softer edges, which will give your painting a more realistic feel. As discussed below, you’ll want to pre-mix the colors you’ll be using and really analyze your subject to determine lights and darks before you start. Choose a larger canvas size for your alla prima painting so you don’t get hung up on tiny details. An 11” x 14” or 18” x 24” canvas will be fine.
Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
As we talked about before in Oil Painting Methods and Techniques, alla prima is Italian for “at once.” Even though the name is Italian, this method of direct painting was made popular by the Dutch artist Frans Hals in the 16/17th centuries (he was born 1580 and died 1666). Alla prima painting involves completing a painting all in one sitting, or a few sittings, as long as your paint is still wet when you return to work on it (the technique is sometimes also called “wet-into-wet” in reference to the paint).
While it’s a really lovely way to paint, some thought must go into it before you start laying down colors. Oil paint will stay wet for a long time, allowing you to move things around and blend over several hours or sometimes even days, but that same quality can make things turn to mud—by mud I mean brown or neutral colors that you don’t necessarily want—really quickly, so it’s best to consider your painting first then paint it second. For example, if you are painting a face and think the general color of the face is yellow + white and you paint the whole thing that color, any color you add on top isn’t going to be the color you want it to be since oil paints stay wet. If you add burnt sienna on top, you’re not just adding burnt sienna—you’re adding burnt sienna plus your yellow and white mixture. If you add purple, it won’t be purple. Because the paint is wet and purple and yellow are opposite each other on the color wheel, the mixture will just make mud. In order to keep your paints from turning to mud, remember these points:
- Make sure the paint you’re applying is thicker (fatter) than the wet color underneath.
- The thicker your paint, the lighter your touch should be. Pushing the brush too forcefully will blend the paint in with the layer underneath. Dropping it in with a light touch helps it stay on top rather than blending in with the paint under it.
- Don’t fuss! Once you’ve laid in a brush stroke–just leave it. If you keep stroking it instead of leaving it alone, it causes your brush stroke to lose its definition. Once you’ve set down a stroke, leave it alone (unless it’s wrong—then carefully scrape the paint off using a palette knife and try again).
You will premix your paints before you start painting so you have your colors at hand when you need them. Remember that to try and get every color exact is almost impossible—there are thousands and thousands of colors on any one thing at any given moment. Don’t drive yourself mad trying to premix every single color exactly! Alla prima painting focuses primarily on three values—light, midtone, and shadow. Try to match those three tones to the object you’re painting from. For example, if you were painting a blue vase, you would take a stab at mixing the right blue midtone using your palette knife or a brush. After you’ve mixed the color, pick up some of it with your knife or brush and hold it up to your blue vase. It’s the right color when the brush seems to disappear into the background. If your color doesn’t match yet, compare the color you’ve mixed to the color you’re trying to replicate. What does your color need? Is it too warm or too cool? Does it need to be brighter or more neutral? Keep mixing until you get the right color. Remember your color theory! Once you get the right midtone color, you can add white to make it lighter and a dark neutral or the complementary color to get the shadow value.
Paint on a toned surface. Tone your canvas first with a neutral color like burnt umber or raw umber. Squeeze a little paint onto your palette and mix it with your solvent until it is runny. Brush this on to your canvas then use a rag to rub it in. If it’s too light after you’ve done this, you can add more of your thinned out paint and do the process again.
Why a toned canvas? It’s too hard to gauge tonal relationships when the surrounding color is as light as it gets. Same thing goes if the background is too dark.
Start painting dark to light. When you begin your painting, start painting in the shadow areas first. It’s easier to lighten an area that’s dark than it is to darken an area that’s light. If you add white during the beginning stages, you’ll never be able to get a nice, deep darkness.
Work large to small. Start with the most general areas first. If you’re painting a portrait, don’t start with the eye. Start with the general tones of the face. Squint your eyes to see shadows and light better and don’t get hung up on details. That will come towards the very end of your painting. Start with your biggest brushes, then use your medium sized-brushes to refine smaller areas then at the very end, you can use small brushes. But still, try not to go too small. The point with alla prima is to be gestural and loose. Nothing is going to be a hard, exact line. You’d be amazed at the level of detail the human eye can perceive from a few, well-placed, broad strokes.
Watch this video of Zimou Tan painting alla prima and you’ll see how he paints in the darks first, very broadly—then works continually smaller and smaller, lighter, and lighter until the portrait is complete.
Even though he’s not working on a toned canvas, he does start to put in some color in the background relatively early on, before he starts any detail work. You can see he is using a fairly large brush (look at it in comparison to the size of the canvas). Notice how once he begins refining the portrait, the tones don’t really change since he established them in the beginning of the painting. He’s simply adding more paint and making his marks smaller and smaller as he goes along.
PLEASE don’t think you need to paint like this right away. I don’t know Zimou Tan personally, but I’m sure he has been doing this for many, many, years. Some artists reach their peak at a young age while others take a lot of time to mature. Don’t judge yourself too harshly. Remember what Michelangelo said on his deathbed: I am still learning. It’s not a race, it’s not a competition. Enjoy the process. If it were easy, everyone would be a master, but it’s not. Keep doing it because you love it—that’s exactly what made all the great masters great. Giotto tried and tried and tried to master perspective. He sort of got it. But his discovery led to other artists working at it and perfecting it.
Every stroke counts in alla prima. This sounds scary, but don’t let it intimidate you. Just try to make your best guess with every daub of paint you lay down. The point here is to really, really look at what it is you’re painting. You should ideally spend more time looking than you do painting. I like to think about this economy of brushstroke as the “lowest common denominator”—1/2 and 4/8 are equal but one expresses itself in 2 parts and the other in 8. The one in 2 parts is no less accurate than the one in 8 parts, it’s just cut up into bigger pieces. Apply this to your painting and try to be accurate and economical with your brushstrokes.
Carefully consider your strokes and paint choices. You can always go back if you don’t like something you’ve done, but try to get it as close to right on your first try.
The direction of your brushstrokes is also very important an can help to animate the painting. They imply movement and emphasize the gesture of your hand. Look at any van Gogh painting to see what I mean!
Remember that shadows are not black. Shadows are just areas where the light is being blocked. This does not mean they’re black or brown. Shadows are cool colors, so make sure you have some cool tones on your palette before you start working. If your entire palette is warm, you’ll have a tough time making things look dimensional.
Warm tones come forward, cool tones recede. Remember your color theory when working alla prima. Put some warm colors and some cool colors on your palette before you start working. If it helps you to remember which are which (sometimes it’s confusing), consider putting your warms on one side of your palette and your cools on the other side.
Stand while you paint. This is so you can keep backing up and looking at both your subject and your painting to make sure you’re getting things right. If you’re sitting too close to your canvas, it’s easy to get into sniggly little details instead of looking at the overall picture, so by the time you’re done, you’ve got one really great looking grape while the rest of the cluster looks like it’s floating in space—at an angle. Trust me, you need to be able to stand back to really notice the things that are happening in your work.
If you need to sit, use a hand mirror to look at your painting with your back facing the painting. This optically doubles the distance you’re seeing your painting from. Back up enough so that you can see both your painting and the still life setup at the same time so you can analyze the differences between the two and see where you need to work on your painting.
Squint your eyes. Doing this will help you focus on major shapes and values instead of getting caught up in small details.
Edges are either hard or soft. When two contrasting shapes meet, they produce an edge that is either hard or soft. Make a note of which edges are which and try to match your brushstrokes to what you’re seeing. This will add more visual interest and tension (don’t worry, tension is a good thing) to your painting.
Add highlights last. Shadows and darkest elements first, then midtones, then once you’re happy with those, proceed to your lighter colors. Highlights should be the very very last thing you add—once you’re happy with everything else.
Open an art book with good reproductions of impressionistic painting and find one painting to study. Look at it up close so that it breaks down into a beautiful, abstract arrangement of colors. Now set up the book and step back from it—a remarkable illusion should occur. Those abstract swatches of color will arrange into a representational painting.
If you don’t have access to art books (either at a book store or a library), you can look online. Try WikiArt.org and search for the term “impressionism“.
These two paintings, by artists 200 years apart, will show you the potential of alla prima painting. They are masters—inspiration to keep working on the technique!
Watch this 13-minute time-lapse video of a 2.5 hour session of alla prima:
Although David Jon Kassan is not starting with the darkest darks, he is leaving those areas blank as he identifies and paints midtone values. If he were to paint them with the same flesh tone he is using on the cheeks and forehead, he’d never be able to get them as dark as they are when he finally paints them in (I’m looking at under the nose, specifically). Sometimes—and I’ve done this plenty of times—while painting alla prima, it’s easier to paint the parts you can identify clearly first. I know, I’m contradicting my earlier statement of “paint the darks first” but not entirely. Sometimes you’ll identify the shadow first (e.g. “Oh, that’s clearly cerulean with a touch of raw umber”) so you’ll paint that first. Other times, you may identify a midtone first—“that thigh area has a lot of green tones”—so you’ll paint that first. Kind of how the guy in the video is skipping around his canvas—he’s identifying and painting the colors he’s seeing as he sees them. You don’t have to start at the top of the head and work your way down. You can start by the left eye and move to the mouth then the neck then the right eyebrow—wherever you feel confident in the painting, go there. Don’t neglect everything else though and don’t get hung up on detail work. That’s not what this is about.
Look at a close up of one of Frans Hals’ pieces:
Can you see how loose his brushstrokes are? He’s not going back and refining everything to be perfectly smooth and I think this is an important lesson. You can let people see your brushstrokes. They are as personal to you as your fingerprint.
Here’s the actual painting:
(Historical note: This painting was looted by the Nazi party during WWII and retuned to its rightful owner in 1999. It along with 249 other paintings were absorbed into museum collections in the years between WWII and 1999 when they were finally given back.) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/278106.stm
Here’s another example by American painter George Bellows:
Loose brushwork. Now look at the whole painting:
Crazy, isn’t it??
The most important thing about painting alla prima:
What do you have to lose? A few hours, a cheap canvas and $2.00 worth of paint. Don’t fret thinking that this will never go into the National Gallery. Don’t worry if no one likes it. Don’t worry if you don’t like it. It’s all part of the learning process. It’s hard, I know, but the more you mess up, the more you learn about what works and what doesn’t.
I found this quote recently I think might help you as you start to paint your alla prima painting, whatever it may be of:
“The greatest fear in the world is of the opinions of others, and the moment you are unafraid of the crowd, you are no longer a sheep, you are a lion. A great roar arises in your heart—the roar of freedom.”
Be a lion! Don’t worry about how it looks in the end. Don’t worry about anything. If you’re happy while you’re doing it, that’s what matters.
Set up a still life for yourself that you will paint in the alla prima method. Make it simple—you don’t need a lot of stuff going on to make it interesting. In fact, pick out one piece of fruit. An apple, a pear, a fig, a lemon—whatever you have on hand—and place it on a white or beige colored napkin. Set it up so you can see it while you’re standing at your easel and light it from one side using a desk lamp, clip-on light, or other light source. You can use any size canvas for this project, but make sure you give yourself enough room to use your bigger brushes and not get too hung up on details, so no smaller than 8” x 10”. A standard 11” x 14” or 18” x 24” canvas will suit this exercise well.
Send us a photo of your completed alla prima painting by using our submission form and it could end up on our blog!