Oil painting is a satisfying but often intimidating method. As great mediums do, oil painting allows for a wide range of approaches and techniques. Finding that perfect technique that fits your work like a glove takes time, effort, and plenty of paint. Luckily, testing out new techniques has never been easier with an internet full of other artists sharing their approaches and experience.
As a painter who’s long worked with oil paint, the technique I return to again and again to bring out the subtly saturated and slightly intensified look I strive for is the alla prima method.
What makes this method unique and somewhat intimidating to newcomers is encapsulated in the direct translation of the term alla prima, or “at first attempt.” Whereas the more traditional approach to oil requires placing layer upon layer of paint while waiting for each layer to dry before beginning, alla prima is the improv of the art world, allowing for an entire painting to be completed in one sitting.
If you’re searching for a new approach to oil painting that offers more speed, flexibility, and experimentation, alla prima is for you.
To get into the spirit of painting alla prima, it helps to have a bit of background on this technique. Having been around since the early days of oil painting, alla prima has been favored by artists from all different corners of the art world, from Rembrandt to Bob Ross, from De Kooning to Van Gogh.
One of the qualities that make alla prima such a crowd-pleaser is the way it shortens the time required for completing a work of art. If you’ve got the drive, you can take your canvas from blank to beautiful in one sitting. For a medium such as oil that normally requires from days to weeks simply to dry out one layer at a time, the speed at which alla prima lets an artist work in convincing all on its own.
How To Paint Alla Prima
The alla prima technique is also referred to as “wet on wet.” This name betrays what makes this approach both speedy and challenging. Alla prima requires you to get closer to your paint; rather than see it as a tool to place colors where you want them, you’ll need to understand your paint on a much deeper level.
Since you’re placing wet paint on wet paint, brace yourself for a little unpredictability. Some artists prefer mixing their paint on the canvas while others are more comfortable perfecting their mix on their palette.
When you’re starting out, it’s best to mix your paint primarily on a palette to give yourself more control over the colors that result. However, remember to love your paint at the end of the day, even when it seems to be misbehaving. Part of painting alla prima is embracing the challenge of painting upon wet paint.
Color is often more difficult to manage when beginning to paint alla prima. Since you’ll be placing one layer of wet paint upon another, account for this by mixing colors that are slightly more intense than your goal for the final outcome. The color you’ve mixed on your palette will change somewhat depending on the color you place it over on your canvas.
Personally, this challenge is what helps me create the rich and slightly more vivid than natural color palette in my work. I currently work with a limited palette of titanium white, alizarin permanent, French ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, and ivory black.
Try experimenting with color to find what suits your work when using this technique. I prefer French ultramarine to create a rich night sky but I opt for cerulean blue when painting skies in daylight. Phthalo blue-green is often my preference for accents, such as for the green of a stoplight or street signs. The paints I use are produced in Portland, Oregon by Gamblin.
You’ve become one with your paint, but now it’s time to put that paint to work on canvas. When painting alla prima, you’ll find there’s also a difference in your approach to placing paint on the canvas. Whether you work with brushes or with palette knives like as I do, placing wet paint upon wet paint takes a unique approach.
If using brushes, your best bet is to refine as you go, starting with a larger brush to deal with the initial application of heavy paint and tailoring off to a smaller brush as you begin working with less paint and applying details.
In my work, I use only palette knives both to mix and apply paint. I’ve tested most sizes and shapes of palette knives but have settled on using DeSerres 2909 for my current body of work. It’s the smallest knife I’ve used thus far, having a very pointed tip that makes it ideal for details. Using a smaller knife does restrain the level of texture I’m able to create, though my work does still remain highly textured.
If you’re attempting to apply paint without creating too much mixing between layers, use a large amount of paint on your brush or palette knife and lightly pull the tool across the surface.
It’s best to apply thicker paint over thinner paint if you want less mixing on the canvas.
You know how to wield your brush or palette knife and your paint is prepped—on to the fun part. Alla prima is not a technique meant to be coupled with meticulous planning. A loose under-drawing either with pencil, charcoal, or thinned paint is all you need in terms of planning.
When beginning a work, I start with a light pencil sketch based upon my reference photo and go straight into painting from there. You may want to apply a toned background with one color before beginning to paint, as it can help add a certain hue to your overall work. I previously started with a light wash, but now paint directly on the gessoed canvas.
Don’t spend too much time prepping when working alla prima. When you’re tempted to over-plan and create a masterpiece of an under-drawing, just remember the meaning of this term—at first attempt.
Refer to this step-by-step guide as you work so you don’t get lost in the details.
Create your simple under-drawing.
Mix your paint and begin filling in major areas first.
Start adding in darker tones and completing your background.
Begin applying your details with impasto strokes.
Start removing excess paint as needed. This can be done by scraping away paint with a palette knife or dabbing paint with a cloth.
Once you’ve added the necessary paint to your canvas, begin mixing as you need.
Apply the last details followed by highlights to your work as at the final step.
The reduced control over color that alla prima painting involves can be difficult to adjust to at first. One practice of mine for keeping my colors on target is to regularly refer back to my reference photo to assess my color and tone.
I even place small dabs of paint onto the photo itself and squint while examining it. This can help you see whether the color you’ve mixed matches or has changed in the way you’re aiming for.
Painting alla prima shouldn’t cause you more restrictions and anxiety over your work. At its core, this technique is meant to free you from many of the more tedious parts of oil painting. Alla prima was favored by impressionist painters specifically for its more casual and spontaneous style that more easily allowed for capturing temporal impressions of the world, such as a setting sun.
Above all, don’t forget to connect with the spirit of alla prima and allow its more intuitive, uncontrolled nature to bring out new levels of expression in your work as I’ve found it does so beautifully in my own.