Technique Tuesdays: Alla Prima

Technique Tuesday Alla Prima

What is it?

Alla prima, also called “wet-on-wet” and “direct painting,” is a very popular method of painting in which the artist applies paint to the canvas essentially in one sitting (“alla prima” is an Italian phrase that translates to “at once”). One way to better understand the technique is to examine the alternative way of painting. For a long time since oil paints rose in popularity in the fine art world, paintings were completed in a rather slow and deliberate manner. First, an underpainting was created (stay tuned for a look at underpainting on an upcoming Technique Tuesday post!) and from there, layers of paint were carefully built up and allowed to dry in between applications. For some works, this process could mean it would take several weeks or even months for the painting to be completed. In contrast, alla prima painting involves wet paint being layered on wet paint, typically with only a brief sketch rather than an underpainting to guide the rest of the composition. Alla prima paintings are typically completed in one session, though some artists will later return to an alla prima work to make adjustments. Though the traditional method of using an underpainting and building up many layers of paint with time for each to dry is still one that is widely used, it was not until the Baroque era that artists began to explore the expressionistic and practical advantages of alla prima painting.

Examples from art history:

In contrast to the very deliberate, layered painting methods of fellow Dutch Golden Age masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt, Frans Hals made use of the alla prima method of painting as a way to explore realism with a more free and expressive touch. While the style was seen by some traditionalists as sloppy and not appropriate for fine art painting, many began to appreciate the energy and vitality that alla prima painting could give a work. Later, in the 19th century, the Impressionists took up the practice of alla prima painting too, both for the vivid expressiveness it imparted as well as for the fact that the artists of that movement were painting things that they wanted to capture right in the moment. Impressionists began seeking to capture the scene before them by translating the quick impression of light and color, rather than painstaking focus on perfecting the forms or composition. They began to paint life around them–people walking along the street, the effect of the sunrise, dancers in practice, people at a party or a luncheon. Since these scenes could not be staged and slowly painted in the studio, the practice of alla prima painting became especially popular with artists like Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and many, many others.

alla prima collage
(left) Claude Monet, “Impression Sunrise”; (middle) Frans Hals, “Malle Babbe”; (right) Edouard Manet, “The Luncheon on the Grass”

Examples from Principle Gallery:

Many of the artists that we show at Principle Gallery use the alla prima painting technique. Some, like Lynn Boggess, use this method because it is effective for quickly and expressively capturing the scene before him while he paints on location. Others, like this month’s solo exhibition artist Kevin Fitzgerald, use alla prima when painting smaller studies that they will use as a basis for larger and more involved works later on. When we hold live painting demonstrations at the gallery, such as the Face Off events each summer or solo demonstrations like last year’s with Teresa Oaxaca, the artists use the alla prima method to quickly create their beautiful paintings and capture the essence of the subject in the moment. We are thrilled to have Teresa Oaxaca back again this year for another live demonstration in May, followed by a live demo with the incredible fellow Principle Gallery artists (and a former teacher of Teresa’s) Robert Liberace. Be sure to mark your calendar for May 15th and May 29th to view some incredible alla prima painting right here in the gallery!

pg alla prima collage
(left) Lynn Boggess, “28 April 2014”; (middle) Kevin Fitzgerald, “Gulf Coast Dawn”; (right) Teresa Oaxaca, “Alla Prima”

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