What Is Alla Prima? All Your Questions Answered

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One thing that I’ve learned in doing oil painting is there are a lot of terms such as alla prima that can be a little confusing. It was a term being thrown around by other painters I knew and I had no clue what it meant.

alla prima title2

I have a clearer picture now but I thought I’d dive in a little deeper so I could answer any questions you may have.

First of all, the term alla prima is taken from the Italian phrase “at first attempt” and is a painting technique done in one layer in one sitting. The approach takes advantage of spontaneity and the artist must use their skill and intuition to match colors and value.

That seems simple enough, but there are a lot of other questions I had about this method of painting which I will share below.

Is Alla Prima The Same As Wet-In-Wet?

Technically, it is not. This sort of blew my mind because I thought the terms were interchangeable. I know I’ve made that mistake in some of the other articles I’ve published in the past. However, alla prima and wet-in-wet are used interchangeably by artists today all the time, so I’m not going to worry about it too much.

Painters do paint wet-in-wet while painting alla prima. However, the wet-in-wet technique is a little different in that it doesn’t have to be done all in one sitting. Oil paints can stay wet for days, allowing an artist to paint wet-in-wet over multiple sittings.

Sargent Monet painting public domain

This painting by John Singer Sargent painting Claude Monet was painted all in one sitting outside. Image Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve done paintings from life over a three to four hour period which would qualify as an alla prima painting. However, painting a subject over several days before the paint dries is when the term “wet-in-wet” is more technically accurate.

Is Alla Prima The Same as Direct Painting?

According to Gamblin, direct painting is a “method of painting used to make paintings in a single application”. Gamblin also says that alla prima is a “method of direct painting in a single paint layer”. Hmmm. Gamblin seems to be saying that the direct method includes alla prima, but doesn’t say they are exactly the same thing. It’s a little vague.

After reading how other artists talk about the direct method of painting, it sounds like the direct method includes alla prima and is the same as wet-in-wet. The artist Sadie Valerie says that she does her direct method of painting over a couple of days.

Her video on the direct method vs the indirect method is short and informative:

For both alla prima and the direct method, the painting is done quickly with each brushstroke being deliberate, accurate in color and value application, and has a spontaneous quality.

Is Alla Prima The Same As Au Premier Coup?

As I was researching this subject, the term “au premier coup” kept popping up. This is a French term that translates to “in the first shot”. Alla prima translated from Italian means “at first attempt”, so I think we can safely assume that both of these terms mean the same thing. If I find out otherwise, I will let you know.

Is Plein Air The Same As Alla Prima?

Plein air translated from French means outdoors. While many plein air painters will paint their entire painting in one sitting, some will finish their paintings back in the studio.

When painting his famous Haystacks series, Monet would set up multiple canvases to capture the atmospheric changes at various times of the day. He would haul out his canvases and supplies daily and work on the canvas that most represented the time of day and atmospheric conditions present.

monet haystacks at sunset frosty weather

Monet Haystacks at Sunset – a plein air painting most likely finished in the studio

Although Monet painted his first impressions outdoors, he would finish off his paintings in his studio to add contrast and solidify color harmonies.

So some plein air paintings are technically alla prima, but not all of them are. The Haystack series do not qualify.

What Are The Guidelines For Painting Alla Prima?

Everyone will have their own method for painting all in one sitting, but here are a few basic guidelines:

  1. Add a light wash to your canvas with thinned paint (skip if you want to keep the canvas white).
  2. Sketch out your subject quickly with vine charcoal.
  3. Paint over your charcoal drawing with burnt umber thinned down with Gamsol.
  4. Indicate your dark areas with burnt umber and wipe out your light areas with a cloth. Note: If you have too much thinner on the canvas from the wash, the paint can get a little runny, so keep the Gamsol to a minimum. You will find the balance that works for you.
  5. Mix colors either on the palette or canvas (I do both)
  6. Add in key focal points with thicker paint. These may be the brightest, most colorful parts of your painting. I have never painted this way, reserving my lightest areas to last, but can see why artists do this so as not to muddy up their purest colors. Carol Marine paints this way and has a great book showing her process.
  7. Add in dark values with thicker paint.
  8. Blend areas that need it, but keep it to a minimum.
  9. Add more refined details at the end.

These are guidelines, not rules. You can add or subtract steps depending on how you like to work.

Is Alla Prima For Oil Painting Only?

If you go by the definition being “in one sitting”, then just about any medium can qualify. Since most people think alla prima is another term for wet-in-wet, they may think that watercolor, acrylic, pastel, graphite, etc. do not qualify. I think they could if you look at the definition literally.

Painting black fur Eddie Acrylic on canvas Shelley Hanna

“Eddie” acrylic on canvas, was painted all in one sitting over 3 hours.

Any kind of artwork you do all in one sitting should technically qualify as alla prima. If you agree, you may not find that many people think you are right. The term is associated with painting primarily.

What Subject Matter Can You Paint Using This Style?

Painting from life is ideal for the alla prima method. Many artists will gather to spend an afternoon or evening painting a live model and have their painting finished, or semi-finished, at the end of the session. Below is a painting I did from life done in a three-hour session.

class portrait done alla prima by shelley hanna

This is a portrait I did alla prima in a class. It took 3 hours to paint.

You don’t have to limit yourself to portrait or figure painting. Still life is a wonderful subject to paint with this method. Many daily painters will do a series painting the same subject or a variation of a subject alla prima to increase their painting skills.

The website Daily Paintworks has hundreds of painters painting a variety of subjects. Many of these paintings are alla prima.

Painting from reference photos can also be done alla prima. The next two portrait studies were done from the Sktchy 30 Faces 30 Days Challenge. I painted both of them alla prima from photos. They each took in around three hours to complete.

Day 6 portrait painting challenge done alla prima

Day 6 of the 30 Faces 30 Days challenge. A portrait painted alla prima.

What Are The Benefits Of Painting Alla Prima?

If you have a need for speed, painting alla prima would be a major benefit for you. It can be very freeing to find a subject, start painting and finish it in one sitting.

When you push yourself to paint with a certain speed, it can interrupt the brain just enough to bypass the critical “thinking” part and paint with the more “emotional” part. Artists painting rapidly may find they lose themselves in their work and forget about time. This is called flow.

One of the tricks I used to use when doing alla prima paintings was to set a timer. I would see if I could complete a painting in 30 minutes. I’m more of a slow painter but found I could get a painting done in 30 minutes if I had to. I’m not saying they were good paintings, but they were great exercises and pushed me out of my comfort zone.

Another benefit is that you will paint with a much more loose style, so if you have found you are too tight with your work, a few alla prima paintings may be just what you need to loosen up.

Pink Glasses Portrait study

This is one of my favorite paintings from the 30 Faces 30 Days Challenge. It was also painted alla prima.

What Are The Disadvantages Of Painting Alla Prima?

One disadvantage to alla prima is that you can end up with a very muddy painting if you aren’t intentional with how you lay down paint. Alla prima is about confidently painting a bold stroke with the right color and value the first time. If you keep painting back over the area to “fix it”, mud occurs. It’s better to scrape off paint and lay color down again.

Another is that you need to have a very good understanding of color. With the indirect method of painting, you build up your values first before you add color. You don’t do much of that with alla prima and could end up with colors that are not the right value for creating form.

I read somewhere that inexperienced artists can end up painting “rainbow” people that look a little gelatinous. This would be from using too many colors and not paying attention to values that create form.


Alla prima is a wonderful technique for artists to loosen up and learn how to paint what they see quickly. It is a method of wet-in-wet, but not the same thing as many people believe.

It’s a flexible form of painting that can be done both indoors and outdoors. You can also paint from life or photos.

While there are a few disadvantages that artists need to be aware of, the benefits are worth giving it a try. You never know, you may just find yourself painting a little gem that you never would have done if you took a week to paint something.

Thank You For Reading This Article!

If you would like to see an example of alla prima painting in action, my video (below) on how to paint a pug was done in one sitting. I’ll also add links below to other articles you may find interesting.

How To Paint A Senior Dog Portrait – Tips & Tricks

7 Portrait Painting Tips From The #30faces30days Challenge

Tips For Painting Silver Objects – Tutorial

Should Artists Sign Their Paintings? Why is it important?