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Working up a painting from sketch to completion ALLA PRIMA!

When you are just starting out, it can be daunting to paint a larger or more complicated painting. I've heart novice artists say that they "feel lost" and "loose their place" some "forget what they are painting" and start overworking certain areas.

Artists are young at heart and tend to get excited at the prospect of painting-we often get so excited that we jump right in without a plan or an idea of how the painting will unfold. A few quick planning steps and you wont have that problem, painting will unfold smoothly and you will know exactly what to do next!

Now the painting we are talking about is representational and alla prima. You approach other paintings differently. WIth representational art, you are focusing on the form and values of what you painting so that it "looks real" and with alla prima you are focusing on the light on the subject at this moment and all at once (one painting session).

I reserve a chunk of time (usually 3 hours) so that I won't be interrupted and can focus on the challenging task of painting. Make sure you turn off your phone, lock your door, put the cat out, whatever you need to do to remain focused. Most of my alla prima works happen en plein air so there will be occasional interruptions from onlookers and maybe an annoying fly or two.

I start with a quick NOTAN sketch to find the best composition for the scene. Notan is purely black and white and should take no more than 5 minutes and be no larger than 2"x3". Its a quick sketch. While doing it, I am thinking about the path that the viewer's eyes will take through the painting. What is the focal point? what's the 'dragon' on pattern of darks that leads you to the focal?

Once I have a good design for the composition, then I do a quick VALUE sketch. This one is more crucial. It's the road map for the painting. I capture at least 5 values from dark to light. I start with the darkest dark and sketch everything in that is that dark, the work to the next dark, then the mediums, then the lights, and so on. This sketch may take 15 mins. and should be more detailed with a clear pattern of darks and lights. While sketching it I am also thinking about what to leave out and what to include.

The value sketch is what keeps me on track during the painting process. When I paint, I work the whole painting at the same time starting with the darks and working toward the lights. I need to know if that row of trees is a 3 value or a 4. Sometimes I number things in the value sketch just to be clear. The values are my "paint by numbers" key.

Once I have the values sketched out, its time to lay out the palette. My palette is a wooden box that sits on my easel. I call it "VIP seating" (for Very Important Pastels) as the pastels that make it to VIP seating are the only ones I use for the painting. I may bring 1000 colors but I only use about 15 on any given painting. Which 15 is the big question. VIP seating is divided into 5 compartments for 5 values from dark to light.

To answer that question I make a color sketch. This only takes about 10 mins and is a rough thumbnail sketch about the same size as the value sketch (can be done on top of the value sketch if need be). The color study's sole purpose is to lay out my palette. I test different colors to find the right values for each. Is this the right #2 for the sky? Is this the right teal for the wave, etc. Each color I use, I lay in it's box in VIP Seating. So all the dark 5's are all at the beginning, 4's are next to them, 3's in the middle, 2's toward the other side, and 1's on the far end. The color sketch populates this box with colors that are the correct value based on my value sketch.

I lost my sketches for the piece I'm demonstrating in this blog-so I'm including samples of other sketches.

When I am done with this 30 minutes of preparatory sketching; I know how I am going to paint this subject, where I'm going to start and every step along the way. I have a clear plan, and a pretty good idea of what I want it to look like when I'm done. This time spent in planning is well worth it because it can save me from making mistakes that cost my much more time to fix (like that tree that wound up in the middle of the painting, how did that happen?) or even save me from wasting my time and materials on a bad painting.

Now I'm ready to paint. I go to VIP seating and start methodically working from dark to light. I start with all the 5's and use them everywhere I see 5's. The darks in the foliage may be different than the darks in the water. These are not just blacks but deep purples, blues, greens etc. I always start with a strong pattern of darks. This is the skeleton that holds the painting together.

These are the first marks on the board-pattern of darks and distant sky which will be overlapped.

Next is the 4's, these are more subtle. Usually you see them near the 5's and sometimes on crests of rocks, or shadow sides of trees and hills.

This is the 4's notice there are a lot more 4's than 5's in this painting.

Next are the 3's which there can be many colors the same value. 3's are middle-values and are the color of an object that isn't in light or dark.

Once you get to the 3's the painting is really taking shape. This is the moment I step back and check my values. At this point, all the darks should be in place.

Some subjects (like this waterfall) are lighter because of aerial perspective. We are looking through water vapor which makes the scene bluer and lighter. Most of the warmer colors will be in the rocks at the base, closer to where I was.

You can see that I punched up the darks in the foreground rocks to create a deeper illusion of perspective.

Next I put the 2's which is the reflected light, or lights that are not quite as bright as the highlights. This scene is mostly the water foaming around the rocks.

this photo was shot on site so it's very blue and the color doesn't match the painting well.

Final touches are highlights or lightest lights which is the edge of sunlight at the top of the waterfall. Once I get to the 1's which are very few- I step back and make any final changes or fixes and then LEAVE IT ALONE! This painting took a very short time (under two hours) because of the preparatory sketches I made.

Alla prima means getting it down the first time and not overworking it. Try not to lose the freshness of the painting by going back over it again and again. Most often when I finish a painting, I hang it in the house, and live with it for a week or two. Only then can I see things that need to be fixed.

Better photo of "Kaaterskill Falls" pastel on Ampersand Pastelbord 18x24

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1 Comment

Thanks again Shawn for the awesome ’Alla Prima’ tips! The more I read about “how to”, the more it sinks in when I’m ready “to do”! How fortunate we are to have these blogs right at our fingertips with tons of knowledge and from a dedicated artist who is not afraid to share her vision and passion with us. I, for one, am a very appreciative student! 🤗

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