Mastering Alla Prima Painting Technique With Acrylics

Last Updated on April 16, 2024 by Masha Eretnova

Alla Prima is not the first technique and let’s be honest, word, that comes to mind when you start painting with acrylics.

But what is this and why is this technique really worth trying? (And it is, I promise!)

Alla Prima in Italian means at first attempt or direct painting, and as a painting technique, it means we paint wet-on-wet, without waiting for layers to dry in between or retouching every detail.

It is primarily used with oil paint and for plein airs, as oil paint is slow drying and allows painters to really work on a new layer while the previous one is still wet, at the same time technique is so fast that allows you to work quickly in changing conditions outdoors.

alla prima painting technique
Las Meninas (1656), de Diego Velázquez. Oils on canvas, alla prima. Museo del Prado.

Unlike oils, acrylic paint dries really fast, and applying alla prima in acrylics is more challenging, but possible.

I would say Alla prima in acrylic painting is an intermediate-level technique.

You do need to understand the basic qualities of acrylic (drying time) and how to alter it and be familiar with color theory and color mixing (just get in those practice hours) to be able to quickly decide what colors will go for this or that tone (without forgetting about color bias).

The general process for alla prima includes 6 steps as follows:

  • Step 1 is optional underpainting, also called imprimatura
  • Step 2 is to choose the colors in advance and premix them as we will need them all at once
  • Step 3 is to quickly make a rough sketch, laying out the perspective, the composition and shapes. You do this directly with paint (use brown or complementary color to your main color of the work) and in rough but confident strokes.
  • Step 4 is to quickly layer the darkest colors in the shadow areas. The application should be closer to diluted paint, like glazing, more transparent, and not thick.
  • Step 5 is to place colors on the canvas directly, like creating blocks of colors, for ex., part of the sky is blue, the cloud is whitish blue, the grass is green, tree bark is dark. Work first with darker colors and then with lighter colors.
  • Step 6 is final touches: we add the lightest highlights, correct mistakes, make shapes and lines more pronounced, etc.

The big difference in using Alla prima vs traditional layering with acrylics is that in layering we achieve depth, details, and the darkest spots by using thin layers, one after another, letting them dry in between.

But with Alla Prima, we almost don’t make layers, we work in blocks.

Pay attention to this to make Alla Prima work for acrylics

As acrylics are fast-drying, it will be your biggest challenge in mastering Alla prima technique, as you simply won’t have enough time like oil painters do, to block all colors at once.

So we need to use a trick, and it is to slow down the drying time of acrylic paint.

We can do that in many ways, but my two favorites are open acrylic paints (special slow slow slow drying paints) and special medium.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Alla prima, as primarily an oil painting technique, works best with loose, expressive brushstrokes.

At the same time, Alla Prima is quite perfect for acrylics once you get the grip of it – as it allows you to really speed up the painting process and get done with a portrait or a landscape in record time – from 30 min to 3 hrs depending on the size.

It is amazing, isn’t it?

Using Alla Prima On Canvas With Acrylic Paint

Follow me along in this landscape painting.

I use acrylic paint and the Alla prima technique and it allowed me to finish a landscape in about 1 hour. I did use a sort of underpainting in my demo as well:

Practical Tips To Learn Alla Prima Technique

  • Practice painting in general. It improves your “timing” and mixing skills, as well as skills like composition and perspective.
  • Work quickly and loosely – as a traditional plein air technique, Alla Prima is about freedom of a brushstroke, wide strokes, and marks. It is not a detailed miniature painting. It means you should be confident and not scared!
  • If you don’t do an underpainting, use a toned paper/gesso on canvas – it helps block the colors and “see” the true colors when you mix and place them together.
  • Don’t get stuck on one spot.
  • Use a limited color palette and premix all your colors. It is hard to mix on the spot and will be hard to mix the same color 2 times. The larger the color palette you pick, the more challenging it will be to bring it all together.

Alla prima works best on canvas and boards in my opinion.

Read more: How to Paint With Acrylics On Canvas: Beginners’ Guide

Final thoughts

Alla prima is one of the oldest and still standing painting techniques that are important to learn or at least try if you’re serious about painting.

It is still controversial, like many things in art.

For ex., some say that you should not correct any mistakes or retouch anything, like I suggest in step 6, and leave it as it is. The argument is that retouching sort of dismisses the whole purpose of “at once”.

You are free to choose the path you want, but I hope you will find my guide helpful.