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What Is Alla Prima Painting?

Alla prima painting, also known as "direct painting" or "wet-on-wet," is a technique in which an artwork is completed in one session, without allowing the layers of paint to dry in between. The term "alla prima" is an Italian phrase that translates to "at first attempt" or "at once." This approach is often associated with a spontaneous and immediate style of painting, capturing the essence of the subject with bold and expressive brushwork.

The alla prima technique gained prominence in the late 19th century with the rise of Impressionism. Artists such as Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, and John Singer Sargent embraced this method as a way to capture the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere in their paintings. They sought to convey the immediacy of their observations by working quickly and directly on the canvas.

One of the key characteristics of alla prima painting is the use of thick, wet paint. Artists typically apply paint in a loose and gestural manner, allowing the brushstrokes to remain visible. This imparts a sense of energy and vitality to the artwork. The wet-on-wet approach also enables artists to blend colours directly on the canvas, creating subtle transitions and vibrant mixtures.

To execute an alla prima painting, artists often work from life or use quick sketches and studies as references. This allows them to capture the visual information and the overall impression of the subject in a limited timeframe. The focus is often on capturing the essence and mood rather than achieving a highly detailed representation.

The alla prima technique requires a certain level of spontaneity and decisiveness from the artist. They must make quick decisions about colour choices, brushstrokes, and composition as they work. This approach can be challenging but also rewarding, as it allows for a fresh and immediate response to the subject.

While alla prima painting is often associated with oil painting, it can also be applied to other mediums such as acrylics and watercolours. Each medium has its own unique properties and drying times, which artists have to adapt to when working in the alla prima style.


Alla prima painting is a technique characterised by the completion of an artwork in one session, without allowing the layers of paint to dry. It is a spontaneous and immediate approach that emphasises bold brushwork and the capturing of the essence of the subject. This technique has been embraced by many artists, particularly during the Impressionist era, and continues to be practiced today.

It is easily my favourite method for painting. I find the process invigorating and the fluidity of the paint allows for a vast range of expressive mark making effects. You can find more examples my alla prima work here.

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