Alla Prima Sketch in Oil
by Shane Wolf
Before I begin, I assemble my brushes. For an alla prima sketch of this size (canvas size approximately 20×15) these are the brushes I’ll likely use. You’ll notice mostly flats. For the male figure I use mostly flats; I like the planal, sculptural strokes they provide. For female figures I’ll use a mix of flats and filberts (filberts giving softer, rounder strokes). The two red-handled brushes are cheap, soft synthetics that I love for the drawing stage of the painting. The two on the extreme left are my “eraser” brushes: very stiff bristle brushes that I can use with a bit of mineral spirits to scrub away any errors if need be. The fan brush is there just in case I need to knock down any annoying paint ridges in any strokes. The rest are for plain painting.
It’s important for me to use different sizes of brushes as that helps create variety of paint texture in the painting.
Step One: Preparing the Canvas
At the end of a day of painting I’ll occasionally use my scrap pigments to prepare some sketch canvas, instead of scraping them away into the garbage. For my alla prima sketches I often tend to use a mid-tone field color, and the hue can be anywhere from a cool, warm or neutral hue. Each field color will impact the real pigment mixtures differently. For this demonstration I decided to use a mid-tone cool gray field color into which I scrubbed a bit of red and scraped it up a bit with a comb to add a bit of texture. Sometimes I beat up these canvas preparations a fair amount so as to have a bit of jazziness already from the get-go.
The canvas preparation is completely dry when I begin my sketch. Most of the time I simply tack a bit of canvas onto a panel and paint, as I did here.
Step Two: Choosing the Colors of the Palette for a Figure
Before the model gets to studio the painter already has a load of work to do, namely setting up his palette. My pigments here, from right to left: Bloxx flake white, W&N yellow ochre pale, W&N raw umber, Old Holland burnt umber, Old Holland red umber, W&N ivory black, W&N cadmium red.
From these I always premix a value string of probable flesh tones. With a bit of experience one learns what are good base flesh tones, and these are what I premix here. It’s crucial that the lighter value mixture beslightly higher chroma than the next darker mixture (as this is how form works in nature: “lighter, brighter; darker, grayer” is an old academic saying that explains where an object is in light, it is brighter; as it turns away from light into halftone, it gets darker and grayer. It’s more complex than this, but it’s an underlying principle.).
Slightly is a key word, and takes a long time to master in practice. As anyone who has painted corpses, jaundiced or sunburned people instead of “normal” complexions knows, flesh tones are of a very sensitive nature! (FYI: chroma differences this subtle likely won’t be visible in print.)
The lightest and brightest mixture is from flake white, cad red and yellow ochre pale. The second mixture is the same with a bit of red umber added. The third is flake white, cad red, yellow ochre pale and burnt umber. The fourth is the same but with more burnt umber and less of the others. The darkest mixture on my palette is what will be used for the wash drawing and to scrub in the shadows: burnt umber with a touch of flake white to cut the warmth a bit.
From these mixtures I will tweak the colors as need be according to the model and the painting. If I need a touch more red, I’ll add it. Grayer, no problem. Lighter, go for it. Having these mixtures ready assures me that I’ll have enough paint on my palette to allow me to actually paint, and not spend too much time finding colors.
Step Three: The Sprint; The First Five Seconds of an Alla Prima Sketch
Using one of my drawing brushes I saturate the hairs with medium (a few drops of linseed oil and a lot of odorless mineral spirits in my medium cup; it should be very liquid) and load a small amount of my shadow mixture. It should have a watercolor consistency so as to flow easily and very lightly.
The first 5 seconds are a flurry of strokes that represent my first impressions and gesture of the pose: the main lines of movement, size and placement on the canvas. I don’t get caught up in thinking! It’s like the first five steps out of the starting blocks of a sprint: you just go!
Step Four: Placing the Figure in the Painting
I begin to look at the light-shadow pattern of the model. Still using the same liquid paint, I begin to scrub in key structures to assure the drawing is going in the right direction (ie: rib cage, skull, pelvis, linea alba). You’ll notice that compared to my initial gesture strokes I decided to lower the figure a bit on the canvas. This is an important decision from the beginning: deciding where to place your figure. Granted we can always crop later if need be, but being able to control figure placement is a rudimentary part of composition, even if it’s just for a sketch.
Step Five: The First 23 Minutes of the Sketch
With my models I use a 23-minute on, 7-minute rest cycle. By the end of the first sitting I aim to have a solid drawing statement completed. Here you can see I reinforced the shadows, paying closer attention to the drawing. I’m using the same shadow mixture, but less diluted, so as to give me a darker value. I like to keep my shadows somewhat transparent, allowing the field color to peak through and aerate them a bit. Most of the shadows painted here will likely be untouched in the end, assuming they’re accurate (which is of course the goal!).
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a solid drawing statement early on. Though I have certain time goals in mind, I won’t continue a painting until the drawing is solid. If it takes another sitting, then so be it. An unstable drawing statement will not get better with more color and information. To the contrary it will appear more and more awful the further it is developed. Don’t be so attached to any single part of the image such that you cannot wipe it away at once if you see that it is wrong.
Step Six: Beginning the Lights
For alla prima figure work I build from the dark end of the value chain upwards. This means I’m now using a new brush with my second darkest pigment mixture, without any medium. This color represents all the half tones on the figure, which means it acts as our barrier between the shadows and the next round of lights. So, logically speaking, every single shadow edge that touches a light shape in my painting needs to have a hit of this color (ie: rib cage, lats, deltoid, triceps, neck, abdomen, thigh…)—regardless of how much or how little comes from the model. I think planally here: I see the model in facets more than round forms, and my flat brush helps me carve the image.
I’m using the paint pretty thickly: again, no medium. I begin my stroke in the light shape and drag into the shadow. This is an important principle in my sketches: always dragging the lighter value into the darker value. You’ll get much cleaner transitions between the values this way compared to the inverse (dragging darker into lighter). Controlling how the transition happens is about brush dexterity: sometimes it’s a slow, sensitive caress; sometimes a staccato flick; occasionally a touch of a finger; sometimes sliding perpendicular into the adjacent value; sometimes just barely overlapping the strokes. It’s a wonderful thing to get a perfect transition from the beginning, but sometimes it takes a bit of doing.
A word to the wise: the more you “play” with any of your brush strokes, in general the dirtier they are getting. What can make alla prima painting so wonderful is its purity, its lack of “fiddling” with the paint. The painter seems to have commanded every stroke and laid it perfectly (though the reality may have been a real wrestling match!). If any area begins to lose its integrity, scrape it away and redo it. It’s a psychological battle, but scraping it away and redoing it will be MUCH better (and more efficient) for the painting.
Step Seven: Continuing the Lights
Once all my dark half tones are placed I continue the same work for the next lightest value: a new brush, no medium, thick paint. After every stroke I wipe off the brush so as to keep it clean. If I don’t wipe it off I’ll gradually get more and more of the darker, grayer color on it (from dragging the strokes into each other), thereby dirtying my color. And integrity of color is crucial when paintingflesh tones.
Following the same logic as the previous step, every edge of the previous color that touches a light shape needs to get a hit of this new color. In this manner we’re “building up” to the lightest lights in the painting, always assuring that our transitions are not jumping too far in value.
Step Eight: Again Continuing the Lights
Once again: a new brush, no medium, thick paint. The same logic as before: building accurate transitions between the previous value and the new one.
You’ll notice I made a small correction to the length and gesture of the arm. I’m always careful to check the structure of my drawing and make any changes as soon as I see them. To make that correction I used one of my “eraser” brushes with a bit of medium on it, as I scraped away the elbow and outer edge of the triceps.
Step Nine: First Pass of the Lights Completed
Once again a new brush: no medium, thick paint. The same logic as before: building accurate transitions between the previous value and the new one. At the end of this stage about two hours of model time has gone by.
At last I’ve made it through my value chain and can make some important assessments. It’s not until I have my figure completely filled in that I evaluate any of my colors. The influence of the original cool gray field color is too great to make any accurate assessment of color until the subject is completed in a basic manner.
I should mention a few very important principles at this point: up until the completion of this stage my goals are 1) solid structure and gesture (via drawing), 2) BIG forms only, and 3) OVERALL complexion only.
I’ve mentioned enough about point 1 I think. Regarding point 2: I’m only concerned about the largest planes of Mickael’s figure, which means I’m simplifying a great deal. You’ll notice there aren’t any individual ribs, serratus anterior muscles, skin folds, nipples, etc. I need to assure that the bigness of the forms are working, are turning, are solid in space. Details won’t do any of that for me. To the contrary, they get in the way.
Regarding point 3: in the same simplifying spirit as point 2, I’m only concerned about Mickael’s major overall color. The subtle hits of pinks, greens and grays are details will help liven the figure, but only once a solid complexion is established.
My assessment then is: so far the colors look pretty good. They’re not finished, but it’s a solid base. The forms are working; the drawing is good. If I have time I’d like to get in his head, as that would add a nice touch of color and would finish the study nicely.
Step Ten: Sculpting the Lights
This pose really showcases the model’s thoracic anatomy, which will require some serious knowledge and attention to place the details accurately.
I begin by placing the first of the highlights: a few spots on the pectorals and on the abdominal insertions of the thoracic arch. Next comes nipple placement. A note about nipples: they’re quite soft and diffused at the edges, and often lighter than one thinks. Next, I start placing the serratus anterior muscles and a few rib details. Since my big form was working well, I need to realize that any detail that appears lighter or darker on the model is merely a slight deviation in my painting. This is where a lot of painters get tripped up: exaggerating the details. Details cannot alter the big form.
This is what alla prima is all about: painting wet into wet. I’m always careful to keep my brushes clean every time I place a stroke (by wiping them off afterwards). In the lights, every time I place a stroke, I wipe off the brush, reload it and place it again. The process can appear slow and methodical, but when done accurately the image just pops into life. It’s quite the contrast to the frenzy of the very beginning of the painting when it’s a bit of a maniacal sprint.
Step Eleven: Finishing Stages
In the last sitting I step back and ask myself what are the priorities to finish the painting. The head is definitely one, as is softening some of the abdominal planes and reinforcing the shadows in a few key spots. The overall complexion of the head is a bit darker and pinker than the torso, which makes for a nice touch to the painting. Here is where I will also finally introduce a few of the pinks and greens that are always so exciting to add. In this pose the greens (mixed from raw umber and white) are along the jaw, the neck and the latissimus dorsi; the pinks (just a bit more cad red in whatever local color is already there) are in the head and elbow. I also will often use a high chroma, dark color for the holes of the body (burnt umber, cad red and a bit of white): the ear and navel. It prevents the figure from looking like it has dark cavities of emptiness instead of shallow openings.
Here you can better see some of the points I made during the demo: transparent shadows, high chroma navel and ear opening, soft nipples, slight value and color shifts for details, and the very first gesture lines from the very beginning are all still visible.
Painting Palette, Before and After
A lot can be learned from looking at a painter’s palette before and after. Often a clean palette reflects a clean painting (but not always!). Here we can see how I needed to modify my original mixtures at the end of the painting to get the touches of red where necessary (like for painting the head). Throughout most of the painting the mixtures were relatively unaltered. We can see that I didn’t touch ivory black at all. The bit of lighter gray-green on the lower left of the palette was from raw umber and white added to my shadow color to get the green hits in the painting.