What is the Alla Prima Painting Technique and how to apply it

Alla Prima Painting Frans Hals

The alla prima painting technique (also known as prima painting) is aimed at completing the picture as straightforwardly as possible. Translated from the Italian, alla prima means all at once or simultaneously. That also captures the essence of this technique: the completion of a painting in one sitting.

Alla prima painting stands in direct contrast to the layering technique, which uses many layers applied in a glazing process to achieve a final result.

This article is about why, how, and for what reason the alla prima painting technique is so popular. We’ll look at the benefits and uses of the method and discuss commonly used paint mediums, the origins, and some tips for your own prima painting.

Advantages and applications of the technique

The application of paint using the alla prima technique is very direct, instead of painting individual layers, letting them dry and only then painting additional layers on top.

With this technique, the motif is completed within one painting session before the picture has dried and cured. That also means that there is no need for an underpainting or detailed retouching. Usually, the motif is refined and worked out in one painting session until the work is complete.

The advantages of the prima painting are an extremely straightforward way of painting, the resulting speed, and the high degree of spontaneity, temperament, and movement that is expressed in such works.

This technique is therefore particularly suitable for images of a transient moment that shows a certain point in time:

  • In landscape painting, prima painting can be used to depict the mood of a certain incidence of light before it changes.
  • This technique is also used when a live model is to be painted. Only if the picture is painted quickly in this kind of situation can the posture and expression of the model be reproduced within a reasonable time frame in one sitting.

Suitable mediums for an Alla Prima Painting

In a stricter sense, the alla prima painting is the ultimate form of the wet-on-wet technique in which the works are to be completed within one sitting.

For this reason, prima paintings are predestined for slowly drying painting mediums such as oil paint. Acrylic paint, on the other hand, must be mixed with a drying retarder to prevent it from drying too quickly.

In a broader sense, however, alla prima works with pastel chalks are also imaginable, which are completed within one painting session. As the pastel sticks are a dry medium, many works are completed in a rather short time, which is why the use of the term Alla Prima is debatable in this context.

Famous painters that used the technique

The first painter to make this painting technique popular in modern times was Frans Hals, a Flemish painter born in the 16th century.

Before that, most Renaissance painters used very elaborate underpaintings and applied several glazed layers of paint on top of each other to complete a work. Therefore, the layering technique is also known as the Old Master technique.

Frans Hals, Malle Babbe, 1633-1635

Nevertheless, we should not forget that Alla Prima was probably already used in ancient times for painting en Plein air and the depiction of live models. Frans Hals was ultimately the one who ventured to resort to this technique at a time when the majority of paintings were stringently constructed works created in several sessions over many months.

Hals’ works served as inspiration for some 19th and 20th-century Impressionists. A similarity in the painting technique can be identified quite clearly.

Tips for your alla prima painting

  • Work on an already toned painting surface. That will save you the tedious priming of the white surface. The most suitable colors are light grey or earthy tones, as their appearance in the picture looks natural.
  • Prepare your colors and be aware of where to apply which hue. You can use a graphite pencil, charcoal, or a thin layer of paint to draw outlines of the subject, which will help you to contextualize the essential elements and proportions without impairing your wet-on-wet session.
  • Use a drying retarder if you work with acrylic paints. If you want to paint larger oil paintings, you should apply thicker paints with a higher oil to pigment ratio after the thinner paints with lower oil content, so that the paint can dry evenly.
  • Start with larger brushes and change to smaller and smaller brushes as the details in the picture become more delicate. Be careful to cover the large areas with a lot of paint. Use a large brush to make fast, bold movements.
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