Alla Prima Still-Life Oil Painting With a Limited Palette
What Is the Alla Prima Painting Process?
Alla prima is an Italian term that literally means “at the first." Its definition is a painting completed in one session by applying the paint wet-in-wet. This is my favorite way of painting, but it did take me a while to feel comfortable with it.
The tricky part about wet-on-wet is that you risk that the different layers of paint mix on the support while you paint on, which can end up with a muddy look. A direct, unfussy application of brushstrokes will avoid this problem. The great advantage of this style is the freshness and spontaneity of the finished artwork.
The painting process can be divided into the following steps:
1. Start with a toned support.
2. Wipe away the lights.
3. Draw with paint.
4. Create a loose underpainting.
5. Add strokes to fill bigger shapes.
6. Add details and texture.
When I hesitate, I do not paint.
When I paint, I do not hesitate.— Jean-Paul Riopelle
How to Minimize Paint Blending
When working alla prima, the blending of paint on the support should be kept to a minimum. Do so only with very specific aims in mind.
- For example, I blend paint when I paint a sky because I don’t want hard edges in it, especially at the beginning stage of the painting.
- In still life, though you want some lost edges, try to apply brushstrokes and leave them alone.
- Don’t go over correcting them or blending. Spend a little more time making sure you are mixing the correct colors. Then, apply it and let it be.
- If a color is totally wrong, you can always correct it later on in the painting. In the beginning, have no fear of mistakes—just keep applying your carefully mixed paint.
Time Lapse of a Two-Hour Still-Life Painting Demonstration
Step 1. Tone the Support
Before you get started, you may want to tone your canvas or board with a ground color. The choice of color is up to you. I like to use a warm color like Burnt Sienna or the color of the main elements of the composition. You can pre-paint the tone with oils and let it dry, or even use acrylic paint.
- Spread the paint thinned with solvent, but don't let it be too runny. In the video below, my paint was a little too runny for the smooth gesso board.
Step 2. Wipe Away the Lights
With a rag, wipe off the areas that are going to be your lightest lights. This will get you started placing your objects and establishing the proportions.
Step 3. Draw With Paint
I like to limit my drawing to a few lines of reference. I do this with thin paint using a color that has enough contrast against the ground and is somehow representative of the final color of the object. I also like to vary the color of the drawing depending on the object.
- For example, if I was drawing a bunch of grapes, I'd vary the drawing color every few grapes, inspired by the different light or reflections on them.
Step 4. Underpainting
Most artists create a tonal underpainting of one color to establish the darker areas. This is done with thin paint. The goal is to place the main elements of the composition, and it's a good starting point for your darks and lights.
The monochromatic underpainting will be your guide as you mix paint colors and provide a reference for the value or tone of the paint.
While I think the monochromatic system is fine, I like to do the underpainting with a thin version of the local color of each object.
Step 5. Alla Prima Oil Painting
Finally, you can start applying thicker paint to create the local color of objects.
- Mix the colors you need on the palette, trying to avoid color mixing on the support.
- Apply fluidly, without rubbing the colors in or dabbing too much.
- In the beginning, use bigger brushes. Apply direct, sure strokes and let them be.
- Ignore details. Instead, apply broad areas of color.
It’s ok to add paint medium or thinner to the paint, but don’t make it too runny. Keep in mind the fat over lean rule.
What is the Fat Over Lean Rule?
When painting with oils, it’s important to remember that thinned paint dries faster and contains less oil. Oil paint dries by oxidation, with happens when paint comes in contact with the oxygen in the air. During the drying process, the oil in the paint expands a little at the beginning and shrinks later on.
- Lean layers of paint don’t expand as much, so if they are applied on top of fat layers, the expansion of the lower layers will make the upper layers crack. This is why you want to apply thinned paint first and oilier paint later in the process.
Step 6. Add Details and Texture
Once you have all your main elements blocked in, you can switch to smaller brushes to add details, highlights, and texture. Pick and choose the details that are most important for the composition.
- Avoid overworking the painting by adding too many small strokes. Try to preserve the freshness.
- Apply relevant details with precise brush marks. You may also use painting knives, scrapers, your fingers, or any other tool that could be suitable to get the effect you are after.
Many times we destroy our work by going back over it again and again. I tell my students, the more strokes it takes, the more mud it makes.— Sandra Meyer
About the Limited Palette in This Painting
- When choosing the colors to use in the painting, I used the color wheel to help me pick.
- I knew I wanted a yellow for the pepper and a red for the tomatoes. I saw a tetrad color scheme that was just perfect.
- Tetrad: Four colors that form two sets of complementaries on the wheel.
Tetrad Limited Palette Used in This Painting
Hue on color wheel
Tubes of color used
Cadmium yellow lemon
Cadmium Red Light
Winsor Green Phthalo + Radiant Green
Zinc White and Titanium White
Burnt Sienna (belongs to the red family) I used this for toning and to darken and dull when needed.
How I Chose the Colors
Looking at my color wheel, I focused on the tetrad schemes. There is an upper disc on the wheel that rotates, and you can create color schemes based on the diagrams in the center. For the tetrad, you either follow the indication of the square or the rectangle.
I chose the square with one corner on the yellow because it allowed me to maximize the colors that were most suitable for my composition.
Enjoy the Process!
I don't consider myself a master artist, but I enjoy sharing what I know with others. I wrote this guide hoping that it will help beginner artists in their creative process, not because I believe I “know” how to paint.
I hope you found it useful and enjoyable. Happy painting! : )
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Robie Benve