In oil painting, there are a lot of terms that can be confusing, such as alla prima. Let’s discuss what it is and why I use it for some of my own pieces of work!

A painter's palette with a brush dipping into oil paint, ready to start an alla prima painting.

The term alla prima comes from the Italian phrase “at first attempt.”

What Exactly is it?

This painting technique is when layers of wet paint are applied to previously painted layers of wet paint. For it to be a true alla prima painting, there is no retouching or overpainting after everything has dried. Also, in strict terms, the painting would be started and finished in one painting session. This technique is also known as wet-on-wet, direct painting, or au premier coup (French for “in the first shot”).

Alla prima has been practiced alongside other techniques since the development of oil painting. Various artists from Italy in the sixteenth century, Holland in the seventeenth century, and France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have used this direct painting technique for a wide range of ideas and paintings.

As an oil painter, I utilize both the plein air and alla prima techniques in my works. While I, and many other plein air painters, will paint an entire painting in one sitting, sometimes other paintings we start will be carried back and finished back in the studio.

Sharon painting an oil painting alla prima outside with a shade umbrella to her right.

Using this technique, it can be freeing to find a subject, start painting, and finish it entirely in one sitting.

Why Paint using this Technique?

There are a few reasons why artists, like myself, choose to paint with this technique. It can be freeing to find a subject, start painting, and finish it entirely in one sitting. When you sit down and do an alla prima painting, you push yourself to paint with a certain speed. This can interrupt your brain just enough to stop any “critical” thinking and let the “emotional” side come through full force. If you’re an artist that has a hard time beginning a painting, being too critical of what you’re doing, or just letting go, this technique can help free you up and get you into your flow.

Another reason is it can help you to paint with a much looser style. Painting tight can be good in some aspects, but it’s always nice to get out of your comfort zone. Alla prima painting can help you be a lot looser and more open with your painting. A tip for beginner alla prima painters: if you want to try this technique out, be careful you don’t end up with a muddy painting. Being loose and free with your technique is good, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be intentional with how you lay down paint.

Alla Prima Painting

This technique is fun and freeing, and I love being able to share my passion with others! If you have a question about one of my pieces, please feel free to contact me. Thank you for supporting your local artists!