Alla Prima: Tips on Mastering Immediate and Fresh Oil Painting Technique

Strive for this oil painting technique, direct painting or alla prima, if you are after a quick, fresh and spontaneous look in your paintings. I particularly like this technique and have stuck to it for many years. It feeds my instant gratification!

Alla prima (also known as “direct painting” or “wet on wet” oil painting) is an Italian term which means “at first”. Using this technique, you complete entire paintings in one session or two without waiting for the paint layers to dry completely.

Frans Hals, "Buffoon Playing A Lute"

Frans Hals - Buffoon Playing A Lute

The alla prima oil painting technique was pioneered by Flemish painter Frans Hals (c.1582-1666). Before that, most oil painters used under-paintings for a consistent look. Since then direct painting has become a popular technique among many modern painters.

The Impressionist movement made extensive use of this oil painting technique and is responsible for much of its popularity.

The charm of alla prima is that it retains the fresh and spontaneous feelings that come as you paint. It seems the most intuitive way to paint.

You start the alla prima process using thinned oil paint for drawing. Then you place spots of colors all over the painting to fill it in. Sometimes you may complete a direct painting with just one layer, and other times you may use more than one.

When creating realistic paintings, you will need to know the value relationships in your subjects and how to mix colors to match.

An alla prima “session”, in my opinion, can stretch anywhere from two hours to even a day or two—as long as the paint is still wet on the canvas as you work (hence the term “wet on wet”). That is one of the lures of this oil painting technique: you can make changes but still retain a fresh feel. It also saves you from the painstaking work of creating an under-painting.

Direct painting is a deceptively simple oil painting technique.

It usually takes a few layers to complete the painting, in which case it is easy to overfix the paints, which can look labored and weak. This is the stage where many beginners give up, but if you press on, you can master alla prima and create works with the amazing freshness and spontaneity that only wet on wet can provide.

To help you on your way, here are some time-tested tips to keep in mind as you work:

  • Tone your canvas or support first.

    A middle tone color will do fine. If you are doing a landscape, you will find that grayed pink, orange, or red will complement your painting well because these are complementary colors of blue and green.

    I find when I paint on white surfaces that it is a struggle to fill up all the white gaps among the brush strokes, and the starchy white is glaring and distracting. Also the white background makes it harder to judge the tones of the colors correctly.

    I recall one day I was painting outdoors in the sun on a white canvas. I worked hard to get the colors right , but when I brought the painting indoors, I was horrified to see that they were way darker than intended.

    So save yourself some trouble and work on a toned surface when you do direct painting.

    Claude Monet, "Flatbreads"

    Claude Monet - Flat breads

  • Plan where you will place colors in the painting.

    Also, at the same time you are planning the color placement, you must keep in mind the tones you will need. You can't separate these two. When in doubt, always get the tone right, and you won't be too far off.

    Once a color is laid on, it will affect any color that is laid on top of it. If the color on top is darker than the colors underneath, they will become lighter and chalkier. To make it darker, you will need to heap more dark paints over it. Most of the time, the result is that the colors just end up muddier and never achieves the tone you want.

    Hence, work from darks to lights when doing an oil painting. Reserve your very lightest areas for last and don't “contaminate” it with darker colors unless you have a good reason.

  • Mix your colors on the palette, not on your canvas or supports.

    Doing so will ensure that your brush strokes, once on canvas, will convey a more immediate and spontaneous effect rather than looking overly labored.

  • Use your arm to move your brushes for a bold stroke.

    We are accustomed to drawing with our wrists. When done on an oil painting, the result is often a timid-looking painting. Lock your wrist and create a bold, confident stroke. Big movement is better than tiny twitch of your hand.

  • Look for big shapes and big patch of colors.

    Start with your big brushes and end up with the smallest.

  • Load your oil brushes with copius amount of oil color.

    With this particular oil painting technique, don't skimp on the oil paints. A bold brushstroke needs more paint than you think!

  • Use drying painting medium in your paints to slow down drying

    This tip is only useful when you want to extend the drying time so you can make later changes. Also use the “fat over lean” rule to prevent your paint from cracking later as it dries.

  • Don't be afraid to redo weak areas.

    If the brush strokes look labored, wipe them off with a piece of paper towel or scrape it off with a painting knife and start again. No big deal.

    Each time you do so, you can start fresh, but if you keep on piling more paint on top or drag paint all over the place trying to fix the problem, you are in for a losing battle. It won't work! I speak from experience on this....If

    John Singer Sargent, with all his expertise, required numerous attempts to achieve the perfect alla prima look in his painting...well, it will probably take me even more tries.

  • Take frequent breaks

    Rest your eyes, stretch your body, and then come back to tackle those brush strokes. When you are beginning, limit your painting time to one or two hours and see how much you can accomplish. Sometimes it is hard to know when to stop.

    If you push yourself too far, you will often over work the painting and ruin it. If the painting needs more work, you can always come back to it, but if you do too much, there's often nothing to do but scrape it and start over.

At first glance, direct painting sounds like a simple oil painting technique, but as I mentioned above, this is deceiving. Behind each perfect brush stroke comes years of drawing and painting experience.

Even a master like John Sargent Singer had to practice his strokes with oil sketches many times in order to make the final work look free and effortless. He would repaint a work over and over again if the brush strokes did not right to him.

So, do not be disheartened just because things don't look right the first time you try it.

Keep going! The rewards of this oil painting technique are worth the trouble.

For a more in-depth instructions on this direct oil painting technique, click here. If you like what you see in the video clip above, then this is also the resource to learn how to oil paint the alla prima way!

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