What's the Difference Between Alla Prima and Indirect Painting?

painting portrait painting

It's said that painting approaches can fall into one of two categories: Alla Prima (also known as Direct) or Indirect painting techniques.

But what do these two terms mean, and which one should you use? Let's start with the first question, and broadly establish the difference between the two approaches.

Direct Alla Prima Painting Techniques

The term Alla Prima literally translates to "all at once." When you paint with this approach, you're tackling all aspects of the painting at the same time: the shapes, proportions, colors, and values are created simultaneously. Alla Prima paintings are done (more or less) in one layer, and everything develops as you lay wet paint on top of wet paint. This generally results in paintings with softer edges, fewer details, and lots of visible brush strokes. These are loose paintings done relatively quickly. (I say relatively, because it still probably won't be fast!)

I've included a video at the top of the page showing an Alla Prima portrait sketch that was completed in 3 to 4 hours. Notice that brush marks are visible, there's not much detail, and things are generally soft.

Indirect Painting Techniques

By contrast, Indirect Painting is done in layers, separating the tasks of proportion, shading, color, and detail into stages. You might start with a drawing and a monochromatic painting to get the shapes and values right, let it dry, and then add color on top. Or, you might start with a general sense of shape and color, and adjust the values and proportions in successive layers. Indirect painting takes longer overall, but gives you the opportunity for more refined results. It's possible to get smoother, more blended brushwork and clear, fine details with this approach, though you're definitely able to retain a softer or more painterly look if you prefer.

Above are some progress shots from a portrait painting that was done using an indirect technique. I started off making a monochromatic underpainting with burnt umber and white in order to get the drawing down. This layer by itself took probably double the time of the Alla Prima portrait in the video at the top of the page. I'm not sure how long the color layers of this painting took, but it's overall easier to get the color right because the values and shapes have already been decided. The results are definitely more detailed and there's a greater depth in the range of values and color here, too.

If you're looking for an oil painting course for beginners, try Foundations of Oil Painting. It teaches you both Alla Prima and Indirect Painting methods, how to mix colors accurately, how distance in a painting, and more!

A Spectrum of Painting Approaches

It can be helpful to lump ideas into clear categories in order to understand them, but the reality is that there's more than one way to paint Alla Prima, more than one approach to Indirect Painting, and methods that combine the two or just fall somewhere in between.

For example, in the following painting I posted on YouTube, I painted the face Alla Prima but in sections. The eyes were completed one sitting, wet into wet. The middle section was done another day, and so on. The entire composition was completed over weeks to months, but each area was brought to or close to completion in one sitting.

(Click on the photo to see the YouTube video.)

Similarly, Indirect paintings can utilize a monochromatic underpainting, or they can be started very similarly to an Alla Prima painting but then allowed to dry so that more layers can be added on top. Transparent glazing might be involved, or each layer could be completely opaque.

Here's a painting that was created indirectly with multiple layers, but the first layer was completed in full color with no monochromatic underpainting: Oil Painting Portrait Demo: Blue Guardians

There's more than one way to skin a cat, as they say! (I hear saying this refers to catfish, not to felines, by the way.)

Let's Play: Guess the Technique!

Here are a few portraits of mine. Can you guess which were done using an Indirect technique, and which were Alla Prima? I'll include a photo with the answers at the bottom of the post.

Which Method is Best for Me?

While I wouldn't say that one approach is superior to the other, I do think it's worth considering the benefits and challenges to each and how they might line-up with your personality and ability level.

Indirect approaches can be better for complex subject matter, beginners, and those who crave detail and clarity in their work. The reason beginners might want to start with this method, especially for challenging subjects like portraits, is that this method allows you to tackle the problems of drawing and color separately. You can go more slowly, continue on the underpainting until you're happy with the shapes, and then work on the color. Also, if you're someone who would be frustrated by slippery paint that won't let you put in those sharp eyelash details, you'll probably be happier working in layers.

Learn Indirect portrait painting methods in this 6 week course.

Alla Prima is for you if you don't want to linger on the same painting for too long, and you can let a painting go if it's not working. If you're the type of person who has to keep working on something until it's right, this method can be a challenge for you but can help you break out of your perfectionist tendencies! Working Alla Prima is a skill you'll develop over time as you learn how to juggle the drawing, color, and paint texture all at the same time. It's especially suited to small or simple subjects, and to painterly styles.

Learn a 3 step Alla Prima portrait painting method in this 2 Day Workshop!

In Conclusion...

There's no wrong way to eat a Reece's, and there are infinite correct ways to paint in oil. As a long time art instructor and mentor, I recommend starting with the method that feels the most comfortable first, and then challenge yourself with the other. It's like cross training for artists. When you get too comfortable in one method, or you're finding the opposing skills are lacking, mix it up and you'll likely find improvement over time.

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Happy painting!


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