Portrait painting has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. I’ve been consistently working to get better at it since my early 20s, when I was a student in Florence, Italy. I studied traditional methods of drawing and painting that had been passed down to my teachers from genuine masters of the 19th century. Today, I continue to hone these skills as a drawing and painting instructor.
Two Approaches to Building Skills
Skill-building is a complex endeavor for artists. First, we need to have the right theories and then follow them through with the right exercises. I’ve found there are two approaches best suited to the practice of painting:
- Longer studies made over the course of many days, weeks, or sometimes even months
- Alla prima studies, which are completed in a single session
Benefits of Alla Prima Studies
Painting alla prima studies is a relatively low-risk way to build your skills. Whether the work ends up fit for framing or gets tossed into the bin, you’ll have spent a day seeing and observing the light and your subject directly from life. The results of your decisions and color choices will be right there on the surface, with no hazy glazes or layers of fiddling standing in the way. For this reason, an alla prima study is one the best exercises for students of painting who truly want to see improvement in their work.
Get the Support You Need
You’ll need a variety of materials for alla prima studies, but the support is the most important. You’ll want to work on a surface that’s quite absorbent—one that allows you to lay down clear brushstrokes that show a pure and opaque color with the first application.
Stonehenge Oil Paper by Legion is far and away my preference. The paper’s absorbent surface allows for the subtle blending of brushstrokes, making it perfectly suited to an alla prima approach. A list of other recommended supplies is below.
Stongehenge Oil Paper by Legion, which requires no primer or gesso.
Simplifying your color choices allows you to focus more attention on seeing the values and getting an accurate likeness.
I use a limited palette of just five pigments:
- Titanium white
- Vermilion extra
- Raw umber
- Ivory black
Those good old hog bristles won’t get the job done by themselves, so I recommend using at least a few very soft brushes. You don’t have to splurge on red sable; a synthetic hair version will work well.
Alla Prima Demo
Stage 1: Sketch
A quick sketch in colored pencil lays out the composition and structure of the portrait.
Stage 2: Color Mapping
Here, I’ve laid down a mosaic of color values, each made using separate and distinct brushstrokes. I refer to this stage as “color mapping.” Be sure to keep your values in the middle of the scale—with no values that are too dark or too light.
Stage 3: Bridging the Gaps
As the portrayal becomes more developed, I give more attention to finding color values that bridge the gap between the more broken colors of the previous stage.
Stage 4: The Finish
Lastly, I refine the features and resolve edges. Finishing is the most challenging stage in a painting, Here, too, the alla prima approach is helpful; you simply have to stop painting when a session ends. When your model gets up to leave and you shut off the lights, the painting is done.