Reasons why alla prima technique is important to achieve realism (oil painting)

Alla prima is an oil painting technique which is nothing but wet on wet oil painting. In other words, it means finishing a painting in one sitting, and it is a practice/technique which is specific to oil painting. This is one of my favorite approaches to doing a painting. The very reason I choose to do alla prima painting is because I love to do portrait/landscape study from life. If you want to do a study from life, you should learn the alla prima technique. With oil you can do a variety of things. Oil is so flexible and it can give you great output.
Gist of the technique
Stretch your canvas to your desirable dimension
Prime your canvas, dry it and keep it ready
Wet your canvas with small amount of linseed oil
Using a dry tissue, remove the excessive oil that is there on the canvas
 Start off with your oil painting, apply any number of strokes/coating over and over until you finish the painting

The reasons why I choose alla prima technique

1. Why alla prima technique – Freehand practice from life
Alla prima technique – Landscape
Freehand is a style(be it any genre – figurative or landscape) will help you better your composition, placement of your subjects and create the frame that you want to cover, this is just one of the advantages of doing a study from life. You can implement all the theory you learnt so far from your textbooks and online sources, on canvas/paper and you can keep getting better that way.  You will be able to realise the difference between what is there on your mind and what you are delivering on canvas. With practice, you can keep minimising the difference.
2. Why alla prima technique – Light
Alla prima technique – Figure study
One of the most important reasons why I choose alla prima is that I love to do portrait study from life. My main subject of study is usually portrait (until shoulder or full figure). When a model is sitting in front of you, with the light source falling on the model from one side of the painting and absence of light on the other side, the difference in light on the subject looks very vivid to the naked eye.
This is very essential for a portrait study. When these values are very clear and definite you can do a lot of experiment from painting the portrait as it is as you see it and also creating a very dramatic lighting effect which is called the chiaroscuro effect.
This will help you immensely with the improvement of color, values, skin tone and light study. It gives a variety of ideas on color mixing and the values that are there on your mind.
3. Why alla prima technique – Skin tone study
Alla prima technique – Portrait study
I havea strong feeling that Indian skin, particular the tones ranging from brown to dark brown/ very dark are quite difficult to achieve. I also have a feeling that these colors are not really suitable to bring out the raw Indian skin tone. So the experiment/practice has to be consistent and serious. The advantage of painting a portrait from life is that, you will be able to see the combination of colors very obviously. The range of reflection, the area of reflection and the peak of reflection, all of these is very easy to understand when you paint someone from life.
4. Why alla prima technique – Resemblance or Likeness
Alla prima technique – Portrait study from life
If you are crazy about resemblance or likeness and you are wondering how to achieve it, studying someone from life is one of the best options. But remember that you should know the basics of portrait, you should know how to create a face, shape of the features and construction of the same and all of this should start with monochrome, black and white, which means with pencil. After doing a few portrait studies like a minimum of 100 pencil portrait studies from life, you are ready to take oil in hand.
Before starting your portrait study from life, do a few portrait studies from photo. This will help you achieve likeness easily. After all you are going to apply the same technique to do a study from life too. So in order to achieve resemblance, start your portrait study from photo and make a gradual shift to life.
The beauty with oil is that, you can do a plethora of modifications on your work. Therefore you can keep your study as short as 1 hour or if you think you have gone wrong with the facial shape or features you can redo that and keep on correcting until you get it right, until you think you got the likeness of your portrait with your reference.
5. Why alla prima technique – Alla prima from photo
Alla prima technique – Portrait study from life
I have also done wet on wet oil painting from photo. The only reason why I do a portrait study from photo is that, I am crazy about achieving resemblance. So I do a rough study for about 1 to 2 hour exclusively to achieve resemblance. The reason why I do alla prima study of a landscape from photo is because I love to casual study. I love to explore colors and light and I am always curious about the combination of colors. These colors, particularly the combination I have on my mind should align with the values that I have imagined.
6. Why alla prima technique – Still life study from life
Alla prima technique – Still life
This is something I do in my break time. The time when I think I am exhausted of doing complicated subjects. Because when I do a still life study from life I am pretty damn sure that I will be able to achieve a sensible realism and magic in a short span of 2-3 hours. The sense of achievement and satisfaction is pretty high here. I would finish the study in one sitting and it would look beautiful and realistic, because it is a study from life and nothing could go wrong. The colors of vegetables never confuse me, I get my realism in no time.
In my next article, I will be giving a detailed description for various genres of how I use alla prima technique with a few examples.

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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