Learn all about the alla prima technique. Discover what it is, the artists that famously used it and how to try it for yourself.
What is the 'alla prima' technique?
Painting alla prima involves layering wet paint to the surface and finishing the piece before the first application of paint dries.
It can be a fast and spontaneous way of working. The phrase ‘alla prima’ literally translates to ‘all at once’ in Italian.
This approach has actually been around for centuries. It’s not as old as the Flemish technique—the traditional layered approach—but it dates back to the 16th century. The earliest record of this technique being used was in Jan Van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’. Although it’s clear he didn’t use this technique throughout the entire painting process. The Baroque painter Frans Hals was famed for using this technique in many of his works.
Hals had a loose, painterly style which seems to diverge from the meticulous layered approach other painters used at the time.
Alla prima is a direct painting method, meaning that colour is applied to the canvas as it is perceived from the subject or scene. It encourages the artist to be decisive about the placement of paint, to rapidly put down spots of colour in the right hue, value and form. It takes skill and practice to execute well.
This technique lends itself to painting plein air in short sessions, to capture the essence of the landscape before the light or weather changes. It also makes sense to paint wet-on-wet on a smaller canvas, as it can be completed quicker. Many artists favour the immediacy of this painting method, it inspires the artist to be spontaneous with their brushstrokes, rather than agonising over tiny details.
Which mediums suit painting alla prima?
This technique is most suited to oil painting, but can also be used in watercolour.
It’s possible to use this technique with acrylic too, however acrylic dries fast. So an acrylic painter would either use a medium to slow drying time, use slow drying acrylic paint which can take days to dry, paint in incredibly thick layers or work quickly. Alternatively, you could spray the surface with water to keep it wet. Just bear in mind this will dilute the paint.
Oil paint takes a long time to dry when compared with other mediums. This is why the medium lends itself to this technique so well. The drying time of oil is between two days and one week, depending on the mediums added and how thickly the paint has been applied.
This means that you could complete an alla prima painting over the course of two days in oil. After this point, paint may become more sticky and less malleable.
When using this technique, you don’t need to speed up or focus on how long the painting is taking you. It’s best to paint at a speed that feels natural, and most importantly, to have fun with it.
What supplies do you need to paint alla prima?
If you are using this technique with oil, you’ll need the following:
- A stiff brush, either hog or synthetic. I recommend these synthetic brushes. Get one in the flat shape—this will give you ultimate control with the paint and prevent you from overthinking details.
- Palette knife and palette.
- Smaller round brushes for details.
- A pre-primed surface. Smaller canvases and panels work better for alla prima paintings.
- Oil paint and optionally, a solvent or medium.
How to complete an alla prima painting
Step 1: paint your impression of the scene as a whole
At this stage, you want to focus on covering the entirety of the surface. Start with dark to mid-tones and neutral colours. Harness the properties of your paint. If you have pigments that are darker, fast drying, or transparent like earth pigments it makes sense to apply these first.
Notice the broad and general shapes of your subject and get an idea of how the subject will fit on your canvas. If you thin an earth pigment with solvent, you could draw out the shapes first to establish the structure and composition of your piece.
You’ll be looking to replicate the loose forms from your reference and thinking about the overall effect you are creating with your paint application. You can be quite loose and gestural with your brush strokes at this stage.
Don’t try and replicate every detail of your subject, such as the branches of the trees or the windows of a building. You can worry about these details later. The main aim of this stage is to indicate where the light and dark areas will be and lay down the colours that form the largest areas of your piece. If you look at your subject, you’ll notice these colours will mostly be neutral tones of the hue.
Mix neutral variations of the colour, more so than you may instinctively feel. It’s much easier to increase the saturation of a painting as you go along than to try and tone it down. You can slowly add vivid accents to your subject to make it pop at a later stage.
The oil paint could be thinned at this stage, if you wish, so apply a little solvent such as turpentine or oil of spike lavender to your paint.
You don’t need to apply the paint thickly, as you are not working on details yet. If you apply thinned paint over fatter paint, you’ll inadvertently wipe the paint you already applied straight off the canvas. Always follow the fat over lean rule, even if you’re not waiting for layers to dry in between.
Step 2: add vivid colours and highlights
After you’ve covered the whole canvas with the broad shapes that your subject is comprised of in mid-tone values, you’ll want to focus on applying details and highlights.
Of course, opaque pigments such as titanium white have a high covering capability. As a general rule of thumb, layer opaque mixes over transparent pigments to avoid creating muddy paintings. You can check a colour’s transparency by reading the information on the tube.
Colours will mix together on the canvas and colour values will merge. You will have to account for this when you apply the first layer of paint. When you are placing colours on top of one another, if you don’t want them to mix too much, you will have to load your brush or palette knife with lots of paint to build it up.
Monet is known for mixing his colours straight on the canvas and sometimes not mixing them at all. This can create a vivid yet harmonious effect. However, you can mix your colours ready to apply to the canvas on your palette if you’re not confident in mixing them straight on the canvas.
Remember to vary your brush strokes to create different effects. Don’t thin the paint for this later stage of the process, it’s best to apply it thick and straight from the tube.
If you make a mistake, just scrape wet paint off. Prominent artists are known to use the scraping technique and include it as part of their painting process to create contrast between the thicker more textured areas of the canvas and the paint that has been removed to reveal details beneath.
The best thing about painting alla prima?
Incredibly vibrant and textured works that seem to portray a feeling of movement are often created by using this technique. The results aren’t always going to be predictable painting with this method, but that’s half the fun of it.
Feature image: ‘A Torrent in Norway’ by John Singer Sargent
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