Alla prima, al fresco, plein air, painting from life

I want to offer discussion of some overlapping terms often used in describing an artist’s method of creating a painting, and which describe some of my own processes. These and other topics will be discussed in a class series providing instruction in painting which I will be teaching early in 2023.

palette for Lily Pond painting
palette display of shades and values

Alla prima refers to a method of painting in which pigments are laid on in a single application instead of being built up by repeated paintings. In my work, this means a one shot painting – start and finish in a single session. Many of my still lifes are alla prima paintings. An alla prima painting is created in a short period of time, so it often contains an element of freshness and spontaneity that is visible on the canvas surface. Elements like lively brushstrokes and thick paint application are hallmarks of this approach.

For myself, al fresco and plein air are nearly interchangable terms describing painting out of door, “in the open air.” When I go out of my studio to visit the coast to paint, I will be painting plein air. A painting being plein air usually means the entire painting is painted outside, though later touch up work in the studio may follow. Some art contests for plein air work would use the stricter form requiring the painting be done 100% on location.

Painting from life means painting based on what is in front of the artist. (Painting from references would include painting based on a photograph or other image.) Painting from life includes outdoor landscape painting, as well as studio painting of a still life setup or of what is viewed from a window, or painting from a live model.

These terms do not define mutually exclusive methods of developing paintings. For example, the painting from life in a plein air effort may inform a larger work back in a studio later. An artist uses her/his wonderful impressions gathered in the outdoor scene to create the painting in studio. Similarly a painting may start out plein air and be completed later from references.

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