Alla prima is the simplest practice of oil painting, describing the completion of a painting in one sitting and in one oil paint layer. Alla prima can be exciting as the painting seems to evolve in minutes instead of over several days. A finish akin to the Impressionist might be the end result.
|Painting in alla prima in oils|
However, there is always the danger of the paint looking ‘fussed over’ and fiddled with if one area doesn’t work out. The painting ends up losing life. How can the artist retain that freshness and vibrancy that defines alla prima art technique?
Problems with Alla Prima Painting
The artist might be disappointed with the end product of a landscape painting or portrait when it seemed to be going so well during the alla prima painting. Colours suddenly appear fussed over and lifeless and brush marks no longer inform on light and shadow, but seem to exist for its own sake.
The following practices might cause an unsatisfactory painting completed in alla prima.
- Working on a white ground causing the artist to go over areas already painted in a bid to correct the tonal balance of the painting.
- Illustrating detail such as individual leaves or the texture of bark instead of implying detail by generalizing what is seen in front.
- Using fine brushes.
- Not including essential pigments within the palette, causing dirty colours.
- Using black to darken colors.
- Getting overwhelmed with visual information in front causing a similarly chaotic-looking painting.
- Working on one area at a time in a sequential manner.
My Youtube clip below shows how I completed a potentially fiddly scene containing lots of shadows and detail in alla prima.
Reasons for a Painting to Loose Life
The worst culprit to an alla prima painting that lacks life if fussing over an area. Fussing over a painting can be due to several culprits.
Guess working an area of the painting because the visual resource supplies insufficient visual information, causing the artist to become unhappy with an area and fussing over it.
A poor composition that appears unbalanced or possessing a blank area that needs filling in. The artist might be compelled to stick a tree or house within the painting that ultimately does not appear to belong to its surrounding.
Any other reason for working over an area again.
How to Paint Alla Prima in Oils
|Alla prima painting in progress|
I believe any painting completed in alla prima allows a limited number of brush strokes before the painting becomes stifled by an affliction of too many. An overstated painting that appears to have brush marks that serve no purpose will counter the fresh impressionist painting sought after. The following painting tips might help put right this problem.
Make every brush mark count. Don’t mix a color or apply paint unless it serves a purpose. Is it going to suggest sunlit grass; dappled shadows or merely to fill in a gap?
Oil Painting with Life
|How I painted this Lakeland bridge|
in alla prima
Generalize what is seen in front. This means cutting out irrelevant detail and seeing the painting as a series of basic colour/tonal shapes rather than areas of lots of leaves and blades of grass.
Don’t work on the painting starting from one corner, view it as a whole throughout. The clip shows how I worked on various areas of the painting simultaneously rather than from one corner. Each tonal area was balanced up with its neighbor and fitted together like a jigsaw. A good visual resource and composition will prevent working over an area again if the artist is unhappy with it.
Fussy Looking Trees in a Painting
The painting could easily look overworked as lots of detail can be seen. The trees for instance casts complex-looking shadows on the ground. The secret is to generalize each area into patterns and shapes without viewing them as ‘shadows’ or ‘trees’ as such The brickwork in the foreground consisted of just 3 colors and simple brush marks that from a distance imply detail. This is a defining feature of impressionist art.
Tips on Alla Prima Technique
The secrets to a good alla prima painting are to generalize what is in front and to make very brush mark count. This means making accurate visual judgments first-off. Carefully mix each color before laying down the paint and to plan the painting ahead. This prevents having to work over an area again whilst the paint is still wet. This is bad for alla prima. Applying a toned ground prior to painting will also help the artist make more accurate judgments to color and tone. Lastly, avoid very fine brushes designed for illustrating every twig, except for the final touches of a painting.
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