Alla Prima demo 2

Materials Needed:

  • Liquin
  • Brushes (rounds and flats)
  • Roll of cellophane
  • Rags
  • 220gsm cartridge paper

Oil Paints:

  • Titanium White
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Cadmium Red
  • Ultramarine
  • Raw
  • Umber
  • Black

I have painted for a long time, devoting over 35 years of my life to it. For a great deal of time I painted with acrylic and with it I became very used to its limitations but also its possibilities. Of the key factors, the speed of drying can be overcome by adding retarder (which slows the drying time) or by keeping the surface of the painting wet with a water spray. However to a certain extent it ceases to acknowledge the medium and what it can do, trying to make acrylic more like oil paint. The fact that it dries so quickly can lead to a really exciting exploration of painting techniques, layering, and placing both thin and thick layers on top of each other without ever worrying about colours becoming muddy.

So when it came to using oil paint, I had many years of complete disasters. Crude, badly rendered and horrible paintings emerged out of my studio and it took me a long time to understand how to use the medium and I would say that looking at a lot artists work: Sean Cheetham, Alex Kanevsky, Neale Worley, William Orpen and of course John Singer Sargent showed me the way. For quite a few years I adopted the measured filled painting approach that I explored in the article for the artist magazine, but it has only been in the last few years that I am finally finding a way of using oil paint which has the same kind of spontaneity as my acrylic studies.

Alla prima, using the direct method of painting and a more impasto approach is a somewhat more risky strategy. One has to find the drawing through the painting. This is much more akin to charcoal drawing, blocking in large areas, cutting into paint, scraping away and rebuilding.

One certainly has to be more decisive in ones approach as an indeterminate brush mark will become sullied and the painting muddy.


It is important that you have enough room to keep your colour clean. A roll of cellophane can be attached to a table top by wetting the table first the cellophane is held down. Colour can be laid out, and when the whole palette fills up it can be easily replaced. I wanted to keep the whole painting fresh and loose so most of the work was done with a one inch and two inch brush.

Stage One

Using Yellow ochre and a big brush decorators brush (10cm) the figure is blocked in using approximately five brush marks, where the mark approximates the width of the torso. Here the brush can be turned to suggest the direction of the limbs, establishing the main movements and directions and proportions

Stage Two

Now that there is a sense of the figure the darks are added. Here Raw umber was used and the paint applied thinly into the yellow ochre body.

The shaded area of the back, foot and head as well as the hip was identified.

Stage Three

White has been added to the mix of colours.One can then begin to work into this armature, establishing both the lights the darks of the figure. Here one is finding a general colour to establish to tonal scale.

Stage Four

As the painting progresses, one can begin to focus much more on the nuanced variations of each hue. Now cadmium red and ultramarine are added to the mix, modelling the figure as well as establishing the space surrounding the figure. With this approach, one can think about the scale of brushes diminishing as the painting progresses, starting with a brush that is a similar size to the width of the torso relative to the scale of the painting.

Stage Five

One is predominantly working wet in wet, so each fresh mark needs to be fairly decisive in its application otherwise your colour will become the muddied and lose its vitality. At this stage I am also trying to get the figure to sit in a space.

Stage Six

One is now thinking about the direction of the brushmarks to describe the planes, horizontal marks to establish a horizontal plane, diagonal ones to describe the structure of the body. In the latter stages of the painting I turn to smaller hog hair brushes to fine tune the forms, the table top and the Kimono Laura is lying on.

Stage Seven

Finally the back plane of the space needed greater clarification. The edge of the table was not straight, so after the painting had dried, masking tape was placed over the painting and a new table edge was painted with white paint, which also enabled me to clean up some of the tones,once the underpainting had dried.

Read Phil's complete feature (which is part five in a series of six), and his alla prima demonstration part one, in the summer issue of The Artist, out on June 16.

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