Alla Prima

I came across the term alla prima in the March issue of Artist’s magazine. I couldn’t recall ever hearing it before, so I hurriedly looked it up online. I learned that alla prima — sometimes called direct painting — refers to a style of painting in which the artist paints “all at once”, completing the work in a single session without waiting for layers of paint to dry. The words themselves mean “at once” in Italian.

Bob Ross
We all loved Bob Ross and his “happy” approach to painting.

Sounds like fun! That was my first thought. I haven’t attempted oil painting yet — except for that one-time adventure when I was growing up that I wrote about in Where it Began. Of course, I was also a huge fan of  Bob Ross and dreamed of painting happy trees and singing brooks. At the time, though, I couldn’t afford to make the investment in the supplies required — especially knowing that my results would probably be laughable at best, humiliating at worst. I couldn’t afford that.

I mention Ross here because earlier this year I did buy one of his books and learned a bit more about his “wet on wet” painting process. To me, that sounds a lot like alla prima. I’m not going to rush out and buy any oil paints right now, although I’m looking forward to learning oil techniques at some future point in my artist’s journey.

After reading about alla prima my first thought was “Could I do something like this with watercolor?” Why not? One of the reasons I’m enjoying my artistic explorations so much is because there are so few fixed rules. Experimentation is not only accepted but encouraged. Trying new things, mixing media, and seeking out unconventional ways to apply conventional materials is all part of what art is. No wonder I’ve always wanted to be an artist.

In browsing a bit more, I came across this 5-star review for “Alla Prima: A Guide to Traditional Direct Painting“.  The book is by Al Gury, who chairs the painting department of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The reviewer does mention that although the book deals with oil painting, alla prima style can be done in other mediums”. Uh, shouldn’t that correctly be “other media”?

Last night before bedtime, I was looking at a color wheel, thinking of landscapes, and planning — plotting might be a more appropriate word — my next attack at the easel. I’m going to gather up my watercolors and get set for a little alla prima watercolor painting.

Hum a little tune if you like while I’m away painting.

Black LineAnd now…the result. I’m calling this “Autumn Canopy” and while it’s not a masterpiece, it does give me a certain sense of satisfaction when I view it. It falls far short of my original “artistic vision” for the piece, but I see possibilities in it. It’s a starting point on my watercolor travels.

Autumn Canopy, Daler Rowney Watercolors on Strathmore Watercolor paper. "Alla prima" style.
Autumn Canopy, Daler Rowney Watercolors on Strathmore Watercolor paper. “Alla prima” style.


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