Alla prima painting, or painting wet on wet, is a fun but challenging way to paint. If you want to improve your alla prima painting technique, here are some tips to become better.
Spend Lots of Time Looking
Alla prima painting is a “jump right in, the water’s fine!” approach to art. It’s about creating work in one live session, working wet into wet. The finish marker is when the paint dries. So before you even put paint on the canvas, you have to give yourself permission to sit and absorb.
Observe your subject or scenery and develop a clear mental picture. Make note of the light and dark areas, and notice the middle values that exist between them. Look for relationships between warm and cool colors.
There’s a carpenter’s rule that goes, “measure twice, cut once.” For alla prima painting, you’ll want to “think twice, apply once.” Spending lots of time thinking and observing will help you break down your subject into bite sizes pieces so you can translate what you see more easily to the canvas.
Start with a Big Brush
Using a big brush first with thinned-down paint is how you’ll want to start your painting. With a big brush, you’ll easily be able to cover the canvas in color. It will also ensure you don’t get caught up in tiny details before you’ve established the bigger picture. Get the impression of the tree, or the house, or the building down first, then you can work your way down to smaller brushes.
Paint at a Comfortable Speed
When people think of painting alla prima, they might picture an artist painting quickly, with their brush flying over the canvas! Contrary to that thought (and what some may recommend), alla prima doesn’t need to be fast. But it shouldn’t be slow, either.
You want to find a comfortable balance for yourself that feels comfortable. A pace fast enough to allow a little instinct to take over but slow enough to make informed decisions and remain in control. Remember, what is fast to you may be slow and controlled to someone else. The masters make it looks effortless as they throw paint on the canvas without hesitation. But to them, it feels under control and even a bit slow. Do what feels comfortable to you!
Account for Mixing on the Canvas
With alla prima painting, colors mixing on the canvas is an inevitability. And for some, this can either be a fun challenge or a headache.
To help you account for mixing on the canvas, remember to compensate for the color already put down. For example, if you’re mixing a dark color that needs to go on top of a light color on the canvas, then make your dark color a bit darker than it needs to be. If you want to apply paint without much mixing, use a very loaded brush or palette knife and drag the paint loosely over the top.
Save Accents for Last
To ensure accents are at full strength and not lost within the painting, save any dark, light, and vivid accents for last.
Some artists like to put their accents in first and use them as boundaries to paint within. However, sometimes it can cause you to spend the rest of the time painting trying to preserve the accents. Waiting to apply the darkest, lightest, and most vivid accents will ensure they pop and aren’t muddied up in your piece. Not to mention, this tip of applying accents last is a more efficient way to paint.
Don’t be Scared to Scrape
An advantage of painting alla prima is that you not only have the option of applying paint, but also the option of taking it away. When you scrape a part of your painting, you can take away unnecessary details and work fresh with the essential elements in place. You can also add in delicate details of tree branches, create rough textures, or simply remove a mistake.
Don’t be scared to scrape away some of your paint to alter your painting! To use this technique, use the top of your palette knife or the blunt edge of your paintbrush to remove the paint from the canvas.
Enjoy Alla Prima Painting
Painting wet on wet is fun and freeing, and I love being able to share my passions with others! I hope these tips help you with your alla prima paintings. If you’d like to own an oil painting without having to paint one yourself, check out and purchase one of my paintings! And, of course, if you have a question about one of my pieces, please feel free to contact me. Thank you for supporting your local Colorado artists!