How to use alla prima technique for portrait study (oil painting) ?

Alla prima painting
This is the process of my alla prima portrait painting study from life. This is how I do a portrait study from life, this article will be from the alla prima technique point of view, meaning this article does not emphasize on the colors or the mixture of colors. The emphasis is more on the technique and how I execute alla prima, meaning it focuses more on the consistency, liquidity and the flow of the paint mixture, paint and the use of linseed oil.
Alla prima painting for portrait: Step 1 – Wetting the canvas
Alla prima oil painting – Step 1
This is an important step, you have to start your painting by wetting the canvas with linseed oil. Use a dry tissue to remove the excessive oil. We do not want the oil to running all over, by treating the canvas with oil, we just want to ensure lubrication. The friction will be less and it will be easy for your brush to run smoothly on your canvas.
Alla prima painting for portrait: Step 2 – Outline of the portrait
Alla prima oil painting – Step 2
I am creating a rough outline of my reference of my muse/model on my canvas using burnt sienna. The reason why I use Burnt sienna is because this particular oil paint is mostly transparent to semi-transparent in nature. And also it is close to the skin tone, so it would easily merge with the rest of the colors later. I am wetting my brush with linseed oil and when the paint in fluid in nature, I use that fluidity to create an outline on my canvas.
Alla prima painting for portrait: Step 3 – Creating a demarcation on the canvas
Alla prima oil painting – Step 3
Now I am marking my presence and absence of light on the canvas. We are doing a rough study, so we  are taking it as gradually as possible. This would help us decide the values as we keep moving forward with the process. Now for this, I would like the mixture to be semi-fluid in nature.
Alla prima painting for portrait: Step 4 – Application of midtone
Alla prima oil painting – Step 4
It is very important to create a midtone and fill the canvas with this color. Why is this step vital ? For the first reason, that I like my canvas to have a lot of oil painting coat on it. Secondly, this will guide me to chose my values on the presence and absence of light zones. Thirdly I like to go by the order from light to dark values on canvas than going in the reverse.
If you are likely to apply dark colors first, you will be caught in a zone. It would become difficult for you to create the values on the presence of light zone. Thereby your painting will be struck within a particular value zone, so your painting may look dark and dull.
Alla prima painting for portrait: Step 5 – Strengthening features & building layers
Alla prima oil painting – Step 5
In this step, what I am going to do is strengthen, tighten and define all the facial features of my subject. How do I do that, I combine one color with the other color (mostly strong dark colors) and just take a thick lump of it and apply using my brush. Only when I take a lump of the color, I will be able to apply it on my canvas and define my features clearly.
Also I am creating a few layers over the midtone on the presence and absence of light zones accordingly. This helps me to move on to the next step.
Alla prima painting for portrait: Step 6 – Highlighting the portrait
Alla prima oil painting – Step 6
As a final step, I will be applying highlight allover the portrait. I will be selecting the spots of highlight before applying my highlight. The highlight should be applied on all the features. I also select the spots on the face such as the forehead, nose, chin and cheek where I create a highlight zone in order to merge the rest of the skin with the highlight and then as a last step, I will be creating a sharp highlight on the portrait. Sharp highlights are very vital in creating the hyper realism effect.
Again, for this technique I would combine my paints and create a mixture without taking the help of linseed oil. Because I want my mixture to be all strong and thick.

Things that you should know before starting an alla prima oil painting

Do I prepare my pallete for alla prima painting for portrait?
Alla prima oil painting palette
I am a naturalist. What I do is I select a few oil paints depending on the subject and load them on my palette. The beauty of alla prima is to allow yourself and your mind to experiment. So for me the whole experiment should start from scratch. So I do not like to keep a few values ready in advance.
Should I prepare my canvas for alla prima painting for portrait?
Canvas preparation is a must for any painting be it. My canvas preparation is pretty specific. I apply two layers of primer and 2 layers of gesso and then treat my canvas with a layer of oil painting. This is a gist of my canvas preparation. However I have written a detailed article on how to prepare a canvas for oil painting.
Do I do a rough layout on canvas before I start off with the alla prima painting?
Alla prima oil painting – Canvas
No, I am more of a naturalist. I am known for my portrait study here. It does not come easy to me, but I have had years of practice and I use a particular technique with which resemblance is pretty easy for me to achieve, so I do not believe in doing an under-painting or a rough outline, particularly when it comes to portrait.
Did alla prima change my thinking?
Yes it has changed my thought process immensely. When it comes to portrait study, I use the same technique for a study from photo as well as from life, so study wise, there is no much difference, because I achieve resemblance the same way in both the studies.
But color and values wise yes, there is an immense difference in my thought process. When someone is sitting in front of you and posing for you, what happens is that, the color of their skin, in the zones of presence and absence of light will start to appear very vividly to the naked eyes.
As you keep doing portrait study from life, these values and colors will keep appearing much more clearer and easier to you. The experience you gain through this will keep influencing your color mixing pattern when you do a portrait study from photo.
Materials that I use for my alla prima painting
I am not very specific about the brands. A bunch of colors that I choose, few of my flat brushes and linseed oil will do.
What to do once after I finish the alla prima painting ?
Simple, allow the painting to rest in a closed room where there is no possibility of dust. Let the painting take some good 3 -4 months to dry, you can varnish it once when it is ready for it. Check my article varnishing an oil painting to know how to varnish a painting. Do not forget to signature your painting, after a few days after you finish the painting. I do not sign my painting right after I finish the study. I allow it to dry for a couple of days before I signature it, because this process would enable free flow of the signature and my the style with which I sign it would look more definite.

Ramya Sadasivam has been practicing art since 2006. She so loves to portray Indian culture, customs, day to day chores of the hard working laborers, happy village life and life of women.

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