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An acrylic painting of a lake surrounded by trees.

Painting Alla Prima with Acrylics and Tips to Get Started

Alla prima painting, also known as direct painting or wet-on-wet painting, is a painting technique where the artist completes a painting in one sitting or session.

The term alla prima is an Italian phrase that translates to “at first attempt” or “at once”.

In alla prima painting, the artist applies wet paint layers onto the canvas without allowing the previous layers to dry completely. This approach results in a more spontaneous and looser style of painting. 

Alla prima is typically used in oil painting, however, it can also be used with acrylics.

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Why Paint Alla Prima with Acrylics?

Using an alla prima technique with acrylics forces the artist to loosen up their brush strokes and paint in a more abstract, painterly manner. It is a very good exercise for someone who wants to change up their style and paint with less detail.

Alla prima painting also helps the artist to practice wet-on-wet blending techniques which can be difficult for beginners. Acrylics can be notoriously hard to blend because of their fast drying time so doing a small alla prima painting is the ideal way to practice.

Plein Air painting is ideally suited for this technique because you have to paint quickly before the light changes and don’t always have time to wait for one layer to dry. A cooler, overcast day would be perfect for painting alla prima outdoors with acrylic paint.

This is also a good technique to use when you really want to paint something but don’t have much time or you want to do a quick study of an idea you have for a larger painting.

Woman hand holding palette with paints and easel with canvas on beach

Painting Alla Prima  

In alla prima painting, the artist applies wet paint layers onto the canvas without allowing the previous layers to dry completely. This approach results in a more spontaneous and immediate style of painting. 

Unlike traditional layering techniques where artists build up layers of paint gradually, alla prima painting requires a quick and direct approach. Acrylic paint dries quickly so when using the alla prima method with acrylic paint, it is best to work on a smaller canvas with little detail so that your painting can be completed as quickly as possible.

Professional artists who use this painting method with acrylic paint usually use thicker paint such as heavy body paint and often make use of retarders that extend the drying time of the paint or slow-drying paint such as Golden Open

Using a large brush and/or a palette knife will help you get the paint on the canvas quickly.

Painting by John Singer Sargent entitled setting out to fish showing a group of people on a beach with fishing baskets.
Setting Out to Fish, John Singer Sargent, 1878

Color Mixing for Alla Prima Painting

When using oil paint it is often possible to mix the color you want directly on the canvas, however, that is much more difficult when using acrylic paint.

Before you start an acrylic painting using the alla prima technique, pre-mixing the colors you want to use is a good idea. Since the drying time of acrylic paints is so fast, even with extenders, you won’t have time to mix various colors while doing your painting.

Using a stay-wet palette would be ideal for alla prima painting since it will keep your paints wet and workable for much longer than traditional palettes. Read more about palettes and how to make your own stay-wet palette in my post on artists’ palettes.

Another good idea to keep your paint and surface wet is to lightly mist both your palette and canvas with water. Use a spray bottle that gives a fine mist and not large water droplets. The large droplets can add too much water and make your paint run on your canvas. This is the mister I use. 

You also have to find the right balance of water to paint since spraying too liberally will dilute your paint too much.

You also have to pay attention to the colors you are adding to your painting. If you have painted a green field and want to add red flowers, you need to do it with a light hand. Adding a strong brush stroke of red paint could cause the red and green to blend, giving you a muddy shade.

In such cases, you would have to alter your technique and maybe use dots of color for the flowers, or alter the color altogether so as not to create a muddy shade.

Woman hand holding palette with paints and easel with canvas on beach. The text says painting alla prima with acrylics
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Applying a Ground or Underpainting to the Canvas

You can paint directly on the white canvas but it is often easier to paint on a surface when it has been covered with a ground or underpainting. This keeps the white of the canvas from showing through and speeding up the painting a little, which is important when you are painting alla prima with acrylics.

I always have a few small canvases prepared with underpainting in various tones so that they are ready when I want to do a small painting. If you want to learn more I have a post explaining the process of underpainting.

An artist canvas on a table with a yellow ochre ground applied and a mixing bowl containing yellow ochre paint.
Applying a ground to the canvas.

Final Tips for Painting Alla Prima

To wrap up how to paint alla prima with acrylics here are the important points to remember:

  • Work small
  • Work fast
  • Work loose
  • Don’t worry about tiny details
  • Keep your paint and surface cool and slightly damp
  • Pay attention to color blending
  • Premix paint
  • Do an underpainting if desired

I hope you will give painting alla prima a try. It can be a really fun and quick experience and will teach you a lot about blending and finding joy in a looser style.😊

Happy painting

If you have questions, you can leave them in the comments below. You can also join our free Facebook group, Trembeling Art Creative Corner, where you can ask questions, post your work and get to know some fantastic artists from all genres and skill levels. 😊

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