Alla Prima – The Perfect “In The Moment” Technique

wet  on  wet
wet on wet (Photo credit: paladinsf)

I always used to paint layer upon layer to build up a painting. While this is a lot of work it certainly renders a beautiful finish, but recently I have been experimenting with the Alla Prima technique and have discovered some remarkable things – not just about the amazing immediacy of the finished painting, but about life too!

Before I reveal my insights to you, I want to quickly explain the basics of the Alla Prima technique. Fundamentally, it was started by the Impressionists who wanted to paint their subjects in one sitting. They painted landscapes on plein air excursions or simple still lives in their studios, or even figurative studies of people, but they did these paintings in one sitting and worked wet-in-wet. The term Alla Prima comes from Italian, meaning “At the first,” “At once” or “On the first attempt”. It’s also known as ‘direct painting’ or the French term au premier coup (at first stroke).

Because the painter working on an Alla Prima painting is trying to work fast to complete the entire piece in one sitting whilst the paint is still wet, he or she is obliged to translate what they observe of their subject as directly as possible. The second challenge is that the colours easily become muddy and therefore the painting benefits from an economy of strokes – each one meaningful and precisely intended. This not only prevents the piece from becoming overworked, but maintains a fresh vibrancy and the immediacy of the brushstrokes serves to exude the very soul of the subject being painted. A simple jar, an egg, a fruit or a person lives on the canvas.

So, when I set about learning these pointers and applying them to a few exercises I set up, I noted the following observations:

  • One learns to clear one’s mind and trust one’s instinct.
  • There’s a greater immediacy to the work.
  • Fewer colours worked better than more.
  • I had to keep it simple.
  • I had to be really specific at the onset at what I wanted to portray – no dilly-dallying to change later as I had sometimes been proned to do before.
  • Limiting my time taught me to work even quicker and fresher than before.
  • My brushstokes were more deliberate and each one made more of a statement individually- no random guesswork.
  • My edges were more varied with less effort – because I have always used the “squinting” method of determining my lights and darks and my edges, i.e. if when squinting my eyes I see an edge is sharp, I paint it sharp and if it’s fuzzy or vague, I paint it so, but before I used to check and recheck my edges at the end of the painting, even with the squinting method – now I didn’t need to! (It’s perhaps because I didn’t need to trust my instinct as much as I had all the time in the world and could come back to it tomorrow.)
  • I learned to eliminate unnecessary detail.
  • I appreciated the experience of painting a simple subject from life more than from a picture, although one can relay a photo in an Alla Prima painting too.
  • The work is far more painterly than the blended layer upon layer method.
  • The textures created through the thicker application of paint are more intreresting.
  • The tendency to over-blend is minimalised.
  • You learn to paint the very light itself.
  • The statement “a picture says a thousand words” is even more appropriate here because the story is so simple, but it is dynamic and more potent somehow in its simplicity.

All these reasons have made me excited about this technique, and I want to practice and practice until I master it, but what excites me most are the life lessons I have acquired from painting this way too.

Life Lessons I’ve Realized From This Technique

It sounds so dumb I know, to say I have determined a few simple teachings to apply to life from a painting technique, but I declare it to be true! Think I’m crazy if you want, but I’ll share them with you anyhow…

  • To live more in the moment.
  • To do things “at once’ – not procrastinate and/or be long-winded about them.
  • Trust one’s instincts.
  • Less is more – less detail and less time spent portrays a bolder, deliberate statement with more punch! Why warble on and on and show them everything including the kitchen sink if you don’t need to?
  • The darks make the light more beautiful.
  • Be bold.
  • Express yourself with confidence.
  • Lose the arbitrary! Why complex one’s life with random stuff?
  • The seemingly non-important objects in the world also have an interesting story or message to relay
  • One bold statement is stronger than a hundred mumbled words.

Unfortunately, I can’t upload my painted exercises today as I am currently without a camera, but I shall soon. However, for you to understand the effects of this wonderful technique, I am posting a few examples of some very successful works by well know Alla Prima painters. Let me know what you think!

By Pamela Blaies
By Pamela Blaies
By Richard Schmid
By Richard Schmid
By Quing Huang
By Quing Huang
By Nancy Medina
By Nancy Medina

3 Replies to “Alla Prima – The Perfect “In The Moment” Technique”

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