Do you want to paint with more confidence? To paint looser and with expressive brushwork? If you are a fan of Impressionist painting, like the painting above by Claude Monet, then the answer will be an emphatic YES! But you cannot achieve these goals if you keep doing the same thing over and over. In this article I want to introduce you to the alla prima painting technique as a way to make a breakthrough in your painting.
How can alla prima painting help you paint better and more confidently?
One of the biggest hurdles that art students have is developing confidence in their painting. Another is how to avoid overworking a painting. Can you relate to either of these? I know that I spent years struggling with these issues. I thought that to make a fine art painting I had to focus on realism. Unfortunately this approach did not excite my imagination at all.
Then as I explored outdoor painting more I came to appreciate the alla prima approach and the effect that it had on my painting style. The alla prima technique became popular during the era of the Impressionists out of necessity more than anything else.
The idea, behind alla prima painting is that it is a direct painting method. A painting method that aims to complete a painting quickly in one session. To make full use of the alla prima approach a confident artists will paint:
A small painting support will be a benefit because this allows the artist to complete the painting fairly quickly. Using a big brush and bold brushwork A small to medium size painting can be completed within an hour, or perhaps two hours.
This is generally the amount of time to comfortably complete a painting. Any longer and you risk getting fatigued and start making mistakes or getting distracted.
Necessary for Outdoor Painting
This approach became popular with Impressionists because often they painted outdoors, direct from nature,
Due to the quick changing light artists had to paint quickly to capture a spontaneous moment. It's not long before the sun has moved and shadows have moved and the whole atmosphere has changed. So you can avoid the problems with a rapidly changing landscape by adapting the painting style to one that is more reactive to the scene.
You observe a light effect or composition and then act promptly. Painting In a spontaneous way interpreting and putting down, paint and colour and getting the essence of the scene. This approach usually can lead to either disaster or a painting that is fresh, energetic and filled with happy accidents.
When the painting goes well it is one that delights the artist and also the collector. It can be difficult to achieve a similar result with a long and considered approach in the studio
Free Up Your Painting Style
What I have discovered is that painting with this technique is that it is extremely liberating. It is fun and challenge too. Sometimes quite exhausting. When I have painted in with this approach I have discovered that I sometimes get quite exhausted by the end of the painting. Sometimes I feel quite breathless from the exertion of reacting and making decisions on the spur of the moment, getting the paint on quickly. All of these things require concentration and observation. For the artist this is a massive learning experience. Also an ideal way to train yourself to learn what is necessary in a painting without overworking the subject.
Simulate the Experience in the Studio
Outdoors is an experience where nature dictates that you have to move quickly. However in the studio, which is a more friendly and predictable environment, artists can quickly get dragged into painting a long and laborious painting. What I sometimes do is set a timer and try to complete a painting in the studio within a set time. In this way I can try and mimic the effects of outdoor painting, without getting sidetracked with details.
In this demonstration below I have set out to complete the painting in about 40 minutes. As you will note from the painting it is free from small details but much has been suggested using light and shade and colour.
For the most part, I've used one brush. A large size eight flat bristle brush. Then I moved on to a smaller round brush for some of the small details on the figures. However, the brushwork still remained loose because I've used a bristle brush in all cases. I'm also using a fairly small painting surface.
So there was never an instance where I felt tempted to get out a tiny brush and do minor details. You'll also notice that shapes are fairly large, even on the face of the figures. I have not attempted to paint eyes or a nose or a mouth. I was more concerned with the light and shadow planes of the faces and light and shadow planes of the colours on the figures themselves.
Learn to Observe
That is more important. The ability to observe planes of warm and cool and light and dark shapes. Because to make full use of this technique you need to observe shapes and not lines. It's the placement of shapes in a correct proportion that determines the drawing of a painting. Not about how to place colour within lines.
all of these lessons learned in trying to complete a painting like this within a set time train you to observe like an artist. Once better observation has been achieved you can keep practising the technique to refine the approach, but the result is always going to be a loose, energetic and spontaneous reaction to the scene itself. In the end, you'll end up with a far more pleasing and authentic painting.
Learn to Use Colour
I also find that this trains me to use colour more adventurously. Since I'm not overworking and getting muddy paint.I find this technique helps me to keep the colours cleaner. You will learn to put down shapes in the form of colour notes rather than trying to blend colour and end with colour that has lost its vitality.
How to use this technique in the studio?
Firstly, use a limited palette of paint. As I've always said a few colours of warm and dark primaries and white will
teach you far more about colour mixing than using tube colours for every possible colour out there.
Secondly, use a large brush for most of the painting. A number eight, long flat bristle brush for oil painting is ideal If you want to paint an impressionist style painting.
Then, set a timer on your smartphone and give yourself a realistic time. If it's something that's new to you, you could use an hour and just go through it and see what you can achieve. Put on some music, have a relaxed environment. Try not to feel any pressure. This is simply a learning experience and treat it like that.
Then go for it and simply have fun. Try to squint to see shapes, put down the colour for that shape and move on. By following this approach you'll be able to cover the painting panel very quickly. And then you can reassess.
Maybe you need to make some minor corrections and adjustments. That is fine. If something is very badly stated, you can always scrape it away and go over it again. But don't do this very often. It's better to make your mistakes. See what they are, understand them and then start a new painting. It's by this steady step by step approach of trial and error, that you actually learn how to paint with confidence.
So try the alla prima technique and persist.
The first one, two or three occasions may be stressful. You may think that you're wasting your time and your paint. But be assured that you are making an investment in your painting skills that will pay you back tenfold over time. The only way to break out of the predictable mould of the beginner painter is to push on and practice and improve your style, step by step.
So watch the video, then have a go. Pick your own subject and start painting.
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Malcolm Dewey: Artist. Country: South Africa