Painting Alla Prima, Part 2 of 2

Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.

Understanding and controlling values should be one of your first goals as a painter. When I began painting landscapes from life, I realized that the objects in my finished paintings lacked convincing form. When I understood how light reveals form and began looking at the world with this in mind, my work began to improve. So will yours when you learn to see light and understand what it does to show an object’s form.

Recognize value in color. An object’s form is made of valued tones of color. It’s imperative while painting to be able to see a color in your subject and translate its value into paint.

Think about the picture and its center of interest. Think in terms of composition first. Plan where the center of interest will be located and how you will emphasize that area. Make your center of interest stand out with color and value contrasts and an interesting shape.

Inside, Looking Out
Inside, Looking Out, Oil Painting

When painting a center of interest, keep your eyes on that area of landscape (or model or still life) and nowhere else. Use your peripheral vision for the rest of the subject, but keep your eyes on the focal point as you finish the rest of the painting. This will help you make the rest of your painting harmonious with the focal point.

What can you cut? Are you saying too much and cluttering the picture space with too many details? Is there anything extraneous that you can remove from the picture? Can you cut detracting background by moving in closer or by cropping the subject with a viewfinder?

The overall design. When composing your painting, do not think “up and down” or “side to side.”  Rather, consider the depth you can create within the “cube” I’ve talked about in class—that three dimensional rectangular space that will be your painting. Then work with the overlapping forms within your vision’s periphery as part of the overall design.

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard
Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

Put it on and leave it alone. This rule is often mentioned to oil painters, but I’m suggesting it to painters using acrylics, too. Fussing with passages of acrylic paint can be more damaging than reworking the slower-drying oil paints.

When putting in the lights mix up thick, opaque color and put it down with simple strokes. The amount of paint on the brush and proper brush pressure is vital when applying your paint. Putting thick paint down boldly forces you to make definite decisions. Believe your first impression. Paint quickly; if you look too long, your perception may change. Be decisive. A boldly applied stroke looks right because the artist made a decision and stuck with it. Putting down a stroke and then restating it once or twice pushes the paint into the underlayer, making the color muddy. If the underpainting is too thick, scrape it off. You can lay paint over a thick area by painting the next layer even thicker.

Oil on canvas board
Oil on canvas board

Criticize your work from afar. Step away a good distance from the canvas and decide whether some shapes and edges need more emphasis. Judge artfully from a distance, not critically with your nose against the canvas. From Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting we learn that from a distance “…the work appears smaller, and more of it is taken in at a glance, and [any] lack of harmony or proportion in the various parts … is more readily seen.” Remember to emphasize major areas—do not stray far from your painting’s focal point.  Add detail, or sharp edges at the end of the process.

Sketches in the Sun
Sketches in the Sun, Oil Painting, circa 2002

Impressionist Claude Monet described painting alla prima as this: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you, a tree, a field. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene.”