Direct Approach to Oil Painting

by Bill Brown

Direct painting, also dubbed painting "alla prima," rewards spontaneity. It is an approach where you work briskly, painting into wet paint, and paint until the painting is completed in a single session or day. As a result, you don't have recourse to some techniques, like glazing, that require setting a painting aside overnight or longer to dry.

Getting Ready

Set up your canvas comfortably. An easel helps, but hanging it off a nail in the studio wall is fine, as long as you can reach it with ease. Lay out all your colors. You don't want to slow your work to grab tubes of paint with colors you haven't put on the palette. Put the colors in analogous order, with similar colors adjacent. Typically, start with red on one side of the palette, continue through orange and yellow, follow that with green and blue, and finish with purple, earth colors, white and black. With this arrangement, color blending is simpler. Have your brushes at hand. A tray to lay loaded brushes is temporarily is helpful.

Drawing the Subject

Sketch out your subject with a pencil. This gives you a structure. The structure will allow you to work more quickly. Use light strokes. The pencil can be picked up by water or solvent. For that reason, darker lines will darken colors in your paint. Drawing quickly from life, rather than copying a photograph, produces a more flowing, lively image.

The Direct Technique

Paint directly into your drawing. As opposed to a more traditional approach, alla prima or direct paint handling, means you will not slowly build up areas with thinner layers. Mix the color matching your subject on the palette. Load the brush with the paint. Apply the paint directly to the painting. Mix the next color, for a new area, and paint it directly into the area. Thin the paint slightly, with an appropriate thinner for whichever medium you use if you need to. Too much thinning will make runny paint, though. You are looking for brisk and dashing application of paint that is not fussy.

Manipulating the Paint

Manipulate the wet paint with the brush. You can drag it around, smooth it out and blend it with adjacent colors to make startling colorful effects. Quick, hacking or slashing strokes will introduce verve. Use brushes of different sizes for variety in your strokes. Wet paint can be placed over other layers of wet paint. This "wet-into-wet" method is challenging to control, but can have bold results. One way of applying the paint to wet areas is to lay it over the wet paint, rather than brushing into it.


  • "The Oil Painting Book"; Bill Creevy; 1999

Photo Credits

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