Painterly Painting

I’m often asked what the term in my artist statement alla prima means.

It’s Italian for “at once.”

I painted “Jug and Friends,” for example, all at once, in a two-hour time-span.

I painted it directly, seamlessly, or, as the Germans say, aus einem Guss—literally, “from a single source.”

Oil painters have been painting this way since the 17th century. In the 19th century, the Impressionists more or less perfected the technique.

“Jug and Friends”

Painting alla prima means you put blocks of colors onto the canvas more or less as you perceive them in the subject. Then, before the paint can dry, you introduce details, lights and accents by adding extra layers of the colors, often mixed with white.

Painters also call the approach “wet-on-wet,” because none of your paint has been allowed to dry.

When you paint alla prima, you don’t, by definition, stop and wait for paint-layers to dry. You plow on.

You can work fast and spontaneously with all-wet paint and—Bob Ross-like—finish a painting in a single episode.

But there’s risk in painting alla prima. You can easily put too much paint on your canvas; and you can overmix, turning every color a muddy, poopy gray.

You compensate for the risks by starting with thinned-out paint, applying thick paint—paint coming straight from the tube—only in the late stages. Painters call this painting “thick over thin” or, more graphically, “fat over lean.”

You also compensate by mixing your paint on your pallet, because once your mix hits the canvas, it should stick.

Quite often, however, your paint sticks and you hate your brushstroke.

Turner, “Fishing boats off a wooden pier, a gale coming in”

Then what do you do?

Short of throwing out the painting, there are two choices: either you decide to embrace the “happy accident” and leave your brushstroke as is—often the case—or you pivot, scraping off the paint with a paper towel or pallet knife. In a pinch, your thumb, pinky or index finger will also do.

The work resulting from painting alla prima—if it’s any good—feels loose, vivid, harmonious and intuitive, or, as critics like to say, “painterly.”

Chemist and art historian Arthur Pillans Laurie’s 1932 handbook Simple Rules of Painting in Oil praised alla prima painting. Laurie wrote:

“Repainting should be as much as possible avoided. Direct, simple, solid painting is best. Stiff oil paint laid thinly, with no overpainting, on a white or tinted ground, retains its brilliance. Compare, for example, Turner’s sketches in oil with his elaborately finished pictures.”

Direct, simple, solid.

Now that’s my kind of painting!

NOTE: “Jug and Friends” can be yours for only $140. I’ll ship it framed and ready to hang.