Some Thoughts About Painting Alla Prima by David Lussier

Alla Prima is an Italian phrase that literally means ' In one go'. It is is a wet on wet approach to painting whereby the artist is applying wet paint to previous layers of still wet paint. Modern Alla Prima is often referred to as Direct Painting and/or the wet into wet technique. This is an approach that is best suited and coveted by the plein air painter who wants to approach the idea of finishing a painting, wet into wet in a single painting session of 1-3 hours. Learning how to paint efficiently in this manner is very freeing and allows confidence to grow in leaps and bounds. I will never forget the long hours spent trying to tackle an 8x10 canvas in one session. I remember vividly that excited eureka moment, when I was able to come up with a sensible method of Alla Prima that worked for me and my 3 to 4 hour long sessions to finish that small canvas dropped down to about half the time. I was told a story about the late Rockport painter, Harry Ballinger and how at one point it would take him a few hours to paint a 16x20 canvas. He found that he got it down to about 2 hours on a regular basis and he expressed to another painter that he wondered what he used to be doing during that extra hour. Maybe I was napping he exclaimed!

With Alla Prima, everything is being painted all at once and therefore allows a command of the overall picture. We are not finishing one area and moving on, we are painting value, color and shape and allowing all parts of the painting to come together at the same time. This approach to painting allows for a certain boldness in handling that can bring out an inspired response. The fundamental idea is to start in a generalized manner and work towards a finish by laying brushstroke on top of brushstroke. As much as we want spontaneity to be the end result, planning and organization prior to placing the first stroke on the canvas are key to achieving this.

The best results can happen when we allow ourselves enough available paint on our palette right from the start. From this palette of colors we can then mix up piles of paint that best express the colors and values of our subject. The idea is to mix up more paint than you think you need and plan on using it all. We want sufficient quantities of color mixes so that there is enough paint to load the brush and deftly place color over color. Big shapes first and then building smaller shapes on top of these big shapes. If we load our brushes poorly, without enough paint, it will just lift the paint underneath and we end up muddying the painting. We want the vibration of color that happens with layer upon layer of color over color, brush stroke over brushstroke.

We want to use the biggest brush possible so that we think in the biggest shapes possible. A larger brush forces us to simplify. Simplifying our subject is the best thing we can do for ourselves in an attempt at success. Smaller brushes can be helpful as we progress into smaller shapes, but the best results come from only using two or three brushes. If we are not juggling brushes, we have a better chance of allowing spontaneity to come through. 

Here are some words that we think of when describing Alla Prima painting: spontaneous, confidence, rapid, inventive, certainty, brushwork, clever, inspired, texture, speed, impasto. Some day I am going to write these down in large letters and tape it to my easel.