Alla Prima Painting Tips (wet on wet)

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What is Alla Prima Painting?

Alla Prima and premier coup painting are Italian and French words meaning ‘first attempt’. A word used to describe a painting that is meant to be started and completed in one session only. Doing one session paintings is an incredible way to learn how to paint. You learn what you are doing incorrectly right away. So, before wasting any more time on the same painting on which you are repeating the same mistakes, you instead start a new one for your next painting session with the new found knowledge in mind. Over time, you are able to build your skills in a more strategic way.

However, I would be remiss to only point out alla prima as just an excellent way to learn painting or way of practice. There are also incredible works of art that were done alla prima that hang in the worlds most prestigious museums and galleries. Take for example the works plein air paintings of Corot done during his younger years in Italy. And not to mention the premier coup works by Edwin Dickinson. There are thousands of other great alla prima works too numerous to be mentioned in this post. That is all to say that the premier coup is something to be held in high regard – a skill to hone and aspire to be able to do well.

A Few tip tips on Alla prima painting

Below you will find the top 7 essential things to keep in mind as you do some alla prima painting! If alla prima painting is new for you, this will be an excellent helpful guide. If you do have some experience, then look at these as great reminders. After all, we all have to constantly remind ourselves of what we need to improve on no matter the endeavor.

1. Simplify

Edgar Degas, Self Portrait

Your English teacher probably told you that it is far better to be able to write clearly with as few words as possible than be unnecessarily wordy. So is the same case with painting. It is far better to be able to simply state what you are painting than add in a lot of detail that just detracts.

It may sound easy or simple to simplify something, but it most certainly is not! Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician once wrote, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”. It takes great thought, time and effort to be able to pare down a work (whether a painting or piece of writing) to its essentials. It is harder to say the same thing in fewer words than to use many. I like to compare writing to painting as I find it to be a helpful illustration for simplifying in painting.

Now…How does one exactly simplify in alla prima painting?

So, to simplify basically means to go after the essential elements of what you are painting. Essential elements would be value (light and dark), color, temperature, and geometry. Do not allow yourself to be distracted by small miniscule details. Details can sometimes be SO tantalizing, but don’t go after the bait. There are also ‘simplifying tools’ that help us to see what we are painting in a different way – these can be incredibly helpful!

In the above self portrait by Edgar Degas you can see how there is a wonderful simplicity about the painting. There is no fussy and unnecessary attention paid to details. Instead, there is absolute clarity with what is dark, light and mid tone. Looking at paintings with a strong value structure can help guide you in how to simplify your painting.

Squint your eyes

Squinting your eyes is one of the best visual ‘tools’ in simplifying what you see. When you squint your eyes you will more easily be able to see what you are painting in a simplified way – especially value. Continually squint your eyes throughout your alla prima painting session.

Try to see what you about painting in an abstract way. By that I mean to look at what you are painting in terms of light and dark, color and shapes. When you change your mindset to see the world like a painter, your ability to simplify exponentially increases.

2. Focus on Values

Sandra, Edwin Dickinson

Value is one of the most important elements in painting. If the value in a painting is wrong but the color entirely off, the painting will still work. However, if the colors are wonderful but the value is off, then the painting will not work.

So, focusing on value first is key. In alla prima painting you have a limited frame of time in which to work and thus want to be able to focus on the essentials. Making value a priority while you work will increase your chances of making a successful painting.

A helpful trick for seeing the value of what you are painting more clearly is to use a red transparent plastic sheet. The colored sheet makes everything monochrome so it is easier to pinpoint what and where the groups of ‘darks’ and ‘lights’ are without getting distracted by color. Another tip is to use your turned off cellphone screen as a black mirror. Looking at the reflection of what you are painting on a black screen does a similar thing as the aforementioned red transparent sheet.

In the above painting by Edwin Dickinson you can see there are strong structures of value. He was clear about what was light and what was shadow. Try to find shapes of shadow and light in your own work.

3.Think of the big picture

Self Portrait in a Fur Hat, Edwin Dickinson

It is important to keep the ‘big picture’ in mind throughout your alla prima session. Make sure that you are capturing the feeling of light in your piece. See that the dark values are dark enough and that the big shapes of light are there. Do not get overly involved with details – these are not important especially when doing an alla prima painting. Focus in on the important big picture elements.

One of the easiest ways to make sure you are focusing on the big picture elements of your piece is to take frequent steps back from your painting and view it as a whole. If you only view your work up close you will not be able to correct yourself and is an easy way to fall into the hole of focusing too much on unnecessary detail.

In the above portrait by Edwin Dickinson you can see there is complete rejection of detail. Instead, Dickinson only paid attention to the effect of light and color – what is most important

4. Have Plenty of Paint Ready

Try not to be stingy about the amount of paint you avail yourself to. Having a healthy amount of paint on your palette is important in alla prima painting! If you just mix tiny mounds of paint you will be struggling most of your session to continually remix more colors.

You already only have a limited amount of time in an alla prima painting session. You do not want to waste it on struggles related to thin paint or needing to continually remix colors. Just mix and use a lot of paint. Not only will you be happy that you did so, but one tends to learn quite a bit more when using a decent amount of paint.

I understand that paint can be expensive, but you will be wasting it even more if you only paint thinly. It will hold you back!

5. Paint With a Sense of Urgency

Painting with a sense of urgency sometimes comes naturally when for example doing a painting of a sunset or sunrise. In these situations the light changes so quickly one does not have the choice but to work quickly. I find that I sometimes do my best work when in a situation where urgency is required. It makes you focus entirely on what you are painting without distraction.

Whether you are working on something where your motif is ever changing (like a sunrise) or a still life that remains constant, the fact of the matter is that alla prima painting is a one session painting. The time of a session could vary from 30 minutes to 4 hours depending on what you are painting.

So, whatever your motif is, it is important to work with a sense of urgency as you only have your one session of time. However, do not hurry as you paint! Just try to focus and pace yourself as you work.

6. Scrape, Scrape and Scrape!

Evangeline, Edwin Dickinson

I LOVE to scrape paintings… This might sound counter intuitive – why would you scrape away what you worked so hard to put down? Let me explain.

But first – what does scraping even mean? Simply put, it is when a palette knife is used to ‘scrape’ your painting – typically meant to take only a superficial layer off.

Scraping has innumerable benefits. When you scrape a part of your painting it takes away the unnecessary detail and lets you work afresh with the essential elements in place. So, what a scraped painting leaves behind is the ‘big picture’ you want to go after. In addition, it can help you to unify your painting more.

I almost always do some degree of scraping in a painting. It might just be a particular area or sometimes even the entire painting. It might be scary to try at first – but just try it!

7. Loosen up your alla prima painting

Try not to paint too tightly when doing an alla prima painting. If you work tightly you for one will probably run out of time to complete your painting before your session time is up. More importantly however, an alla prima work is meant to have some gesture and life to it.

Loosening up however does not mean to not be precise. It is important to be as precise as you possibly can. You can be dead on with value, color and geometry (to a certain degree) while working ‘loosely’. Working more freely means to free yourself up more and trying to work broadly while focus on the ‘big picture’ of the piece. Try to relax a little bit without loosing a sense of urgency!

Thank you for reading the post! I hope that you learned something new

If you haven’t already – Grab my FREE Color Mixing Guide for help with color mixing techniques in your painting!

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