Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My alla-prima technique

"Tea for Two" is the latest in my painting a day series and was completed in about 4 hours total. It would have moved faster but for the fact that I photographed it at key points so I
could demonstrate my approach to alla-prima painting.  I've taught this direct approach over the years and found it very successful with beginning and intermediate students. I'll cover each step and convey the primary concerns of the painting at the point viewed. If you should have any question please leave a comment or email me from this blog page. I'll be happy to address anything that seems unclear.

The set up is critical, you have to balance the need for light to paint in verses dramatic lighting on the subject. To light the subject a single light source is best and will give you the deep shadows and extreme lights that are so exciting in classical paintings. I darken the room and only use two lights, a spotlight for the subject and a studio spot lamp I place behind me to act as a fill light to softly light the canvas. In this case it was placed behind me to the left so it wouldn't create any strange extra shadows or reflected lights in the subject.

This is the stage where everything will go wrong quickly if you don't take your time and think about what your doing. You are not trying to draw the objects at this point as much as you are
setting up the size and position relationships between the objects. To do this, take the time to measure and compare the size of each of the objects before you place your first stroke. If you have a cropping window use it to see the composition and figure out the placement of the objects on the canvas. In this case I chose to crop tightly on the objects because of the complexity of the Tea Set. If I had wanted to keep them simpler I could have pulled back and avoided painting much of the pattern on the ceramic pieces. The tight crop gave me a more intimate feeling which is a key part to the painting. The narrative for this piece could be about the quite relationships we have with those who are closest to us or the longing for that type of intimacy. It becomes the viewers story and you can make what you will of it which is important but for now we will stick to the technical aspect of creating it and discuss the esoteric values of painting later. 

Now that the composition and placement are set the next step would be to brake the components down into what is in shadow and what is in light. I have made some very basic statements here with an attempt at being sensitive to the value range and colors in the shadow areas of the subject.

Next I began to address the light side with the same broad general approach. Please note that I didn't try to paint around the pattern that will later appear in the painting. I simply looked for those areas of light and shadow and attempted to keep the value ranges separate. I also looked for some opportunities to begin to soften the shadows and place reflected lights in them such as on the lemon. It began to take on some form at this point and felt a little more credible.

Still working in the shadow areas I began to place the pattern on the ceramic piece in the back and the shadow side of the tea pot. I also continued to work on the modeling of the lemon.

I have continued into the light areas now bringing the pattern of the ceramics across into the light and adjusting my colors accordingly. I've also began to adjust the value and temperature of the lit surfaces.


This is fairly complete at this stage and in looking at it I was unhappy with the contrast between the teapot and other ceramic piece. It's always good to walk away from a painting at this stage and come back 15 or 20 minutes later to re-evaluate it. My final decision was to push the contrast and look for opportunities to add a little more color to make the piece sing.

After careful observation I noticed that the reflected lights on the shadow side of the tea pot were a yellow green and the deeper shadows had a violet or reddish cast to them. I also noticed more variation on the blue areas of the lit side of the pot. I pushed the piece to the back slightly darker to get the separation I was looking for. At this point I'm feeling the piece was a success. Give me another day or two and the flaws will appear. 

Don't worry, this is normal!


  1. Hey Charles Still lifes looking good. Your post on the alla prima tech is interesting. Much like in the magazines, but I guess they do it that way because it is a good way to do it. If you do that for all your paintings, you will have a book before long :-) Particularly like the fortune cookie ptg. rick