before a painting blog

This blog is about before a painting is made.

TO SKIP DOWN to On sketching and photography before making a painting – click here

The tools of a painter:
Landscape painters need devices to carry about at least some of their brushes, paints, canvases, paper.
Here, a sketch of this – first messy thoughts in cardboard, to the completed box (not constructed by me, and not engineered by me either! (credit also to G. Bettencourt).

And, then there are palettes for painting on.  This acrylic palette, cut by a glass company from a pattern I provided in cardboard, is covered with tube oils – I so enjoyed all the colors – but, should have kept it cleaner.  A palette like this is not needed for painting with natural pigments, or, so I think at the moment.  This palette has two holes which jars of painting binder/oil and brush cleaner/solvent can balance between.

A few thoughts about alla prima painting (as a technique, which like sketching and photographing, yields a primary record(ing) of an experience, and possibly a final painting – so that possible preliminaries such as sketching, or image-making with light (and a camera) might not be used).

Alla, the preposition, like “a” (with accent grave) in French, indicates motion towards someplace, and engagement at a place ( really being somewhere).  All along with the word “prima”,  speaks of one’s first efforts, the first take, the first go at it.  And the at, and to, remind one of heading out “to” paint. And might remind musicians and painters also of “alla breve” – “in duple or quadruple time”.

Probably a painting in the studio, however, can be alla prima, depending on subject and approach – if it is “at first go“(?)(at first impression).

And what about layered first impressions – made over several days of fresh starts –  is this still alla prima?  Or paintings made quickly in the field, at first take, but using a fast-drying medium which is layered – that is alla prima?  Well, maybe not technically.

Alla prima, is simply defined by technique as “wet-on-wet” – (June 27, morning,  It is dependent on the medium, how much medium is used, and what other ingredients are added to extend the paint is still open to incorporating more pigment and binder into the mix (even if the mix is a very heterogeneous mix, of many small mixtures of different pigments, and perhaps even different binders, creating one paint layer.  That is, the time when liquid medium and pigment can still be added to the liquid medium and pigment already on the support, so as to form one film rather than two.

Aside:  With watercolor, and minimally used binder, film more coats the individual pigment particles, so they stick together, and any film is rather partial, delicate discontinuous bridging and fragmented films, maybe sunken towards the paper, and into it, rather than fully surrounding and forming a continuous mixture even when dry?  I need to check a few references – art preservation articles are great to show images of paint layers, and Michael Price in his books has many excellent – absolutely super – graphics and discussion about binders with pigments).

Alla prima,  as I’ve understood it over the years, seems to also be about an immediacy of interaction – where research with many sketches is limited.  It always seemed to me that one should happen upon a view, or find again a place once been, or things seen, and right then, paint until finished.  How would a still life work for alla prima, if alla prima is about first impressions?  Perhaps just by happening upon some things, bringing them together, and painting.  As the painter, one would have a sense for whether the making of the painting is an immediate experience or not.  To label a painting two hundred years after it is made “alla prima”,  however, relies on looking at the technique used – that is, on looking at a cross-section of the paint to see if it has been layered.

Therefore, sketches and photographs can be made, and then a painting made using those sketches and photographs as inspiration, and if wet-on-wet, which is pigment in a  liquid medium-on-pigment in a liquid medium, that work will be alla prima, regardless of all the preparatory work, by that definition. And after all, all painting is about the here and now to a large extent – here and now, I lift the brush, dip it in paint, and paint something remembered right then, or (and) experienced right then.

It is unusual, however, somehow thinking about a work made in the studio as an alla prima work, after years of understanding alla prima as a primarily landscape form of painting – and especially unusual, when considering that using sketches and photographs to derive another work from, is about the immediacy of rediscovering and re-experiencing the first moments of discovery and experience with camera and art making tools (between the artist and the world – and the world and the artist). That is, when beginning a painting, already begun in a sense with sketches and photographs, even if what was in mind when sketching or photographing, is quite different from the painting at hand, this experience then is not the primary experience, in terms of a first attempt at recording impressions.

Having written all that, I have opened Wehlte’s “The Materials and Techniques of Painting”.  On p. 479 of his 1975 English translation, he discusses alla prima watercolor technique.  I have made little work with watercolor, and so am very happy to find his text.  He writes that about alla prima painting, the Italians call it prima vista – “In painting this means that the artist tries to reproduce in color what he sees at first glance, directly and without elaborate underpainting…The French expression for this method is au premier coup” Wehlte also mentions on the previous page, page 478, alla prima as a wet paint into wet paint way of painting, with possible unintended colors resulting – and the technique requiring a command of both form and color.

What I started to write this blog for, is to talk  about how sketches and photographs might be useful for landscape and environmental painters, artists, and designers.  

On making sketches and photographs before making a painting
An alla prima painting might be a final work.  Or, a small alla prima painting, might be a sketch towards more work, and an excellent way to remember color – if colors do not blend together unexpectedly (although, if they do, that which was unintentional, might be carried into a derivative work intentionally).

For sketches, a notation might be used to record colors – a notation might be also especially useful when if all for imaging you have with you at the time of experiencing a wondrous rainbow, is a scrap of paper, and a pencil (having one’s sketchpad or journal  in hand is preferable, but is not always so – and even if along, yet, a notation might add to a sketch, and words written).

For photos, many photos might need to be taken to record the color of a place.  Or for that matter, to record the feeling of the place, as experienced.  No matter the camera in hand?  Well, perhaps – I am not sure about the abilities of new cameras on the way, such as those with multiple lenses perhaps which can take pictures simultaneously, and in a range of color settings, also simultaneously.  The photography part of this essay then might be a bit antiquated, depending on your choice in a camera.

On sketching with a notation:
The lines weight, thickness, and density in an area in part determine value, from light to dark, along with the choice in color of the tool and paper used.  If the paper is white, and the tool is brown, how might green be depicted?  Or blue?

A good memory, and a few color notes on your sketch are a great place to start – and quickly making a painting from them even better- if hoping to recall the most detail.  Written notes are generally different and discernible from the lines of a sketch, and that is good – the notes, and the sketch then are each legible from each other.

Is it possible, however, to include a color notation  that although it might merge more with the image, yet allows for many more color notes to be made, in a smaller amount of space on the sketch, or on a separate paper in conjunction with a sketch?   My earlier exploration of this has been in part successful, and in part not.  Maybe it is fine as is, and just needs learning, like a language.

Or maybe there is a simpler and clearer notation.

On photographing for painting, with multiple reference photographs:
In the field, how do you note colors seen with a camera?  Can new cameras, with multiple lenses, take all notes necessary?  Perhaps.  I’ve not tried one.  And every artist needs, or prefers, different color “notes”.

So,  a photographer might capture with a camera, something of the character of individuals – people and animals alike, motion, and vibrancy, whether with still photos, or videos.  And this is not a discussion about how to do that well.

My experiences have led me to believe (and enjoy):
1.  Instead of using a panorama setting, consider taking many many photos or photos and videos, or just videos, and stitch them together (as in the rainbow image on the home page of the website began as many photos ).

2.  Take more than one photo or video of the moments of color of great importance to you – if need be – until the color setting, and thus color recorded by the camera,  is what you hoped for for that moment  and particular spot.  Keep a record of these photographs (with an app?) if not making the painting immediately, so that you will know for sure what photograph goes with which details you hoped to achieve a particular color note by camera for.

More on Alla Prima Painting (the landscape non-technical immediate way of thinking about it):  Skip the first three parts of this essay :).  And perhaps the rest.  Just get out and paint.  This is advice I should often go with.

Time in the field (in the cold, heat, perfect weather, rain, with the pleasant hum of the mosquitos, and the songs of birds).  Settled.

A work done fully alla prima eliminates the redundancy of sketching and photography, and records the beauty of moments seen and generally also very recently recalled, and the motion of the artist and paintbrush, both, at once.  Fabulous.

(Generally fabulous – as long as like in Walden, the hum of the mosquitos, is like a violin – was that a play on words.  I have not verified he compared the hum of a mosquito to the sound of one of humanities most wonderful instruments when played as such – I just recall it this way.  I believe he appreciated their sound, truly.  Nonetheless, he might also have been making a play on words – violin – violent mosquito. If so, maybe the playful play on words was actually intended about an instrument which one plays.

Alla prima and choices in media:
Again, wet-on-wet alla prima painting is dependent on choices in media, and on how fast they dry, and how fast one can paint what one hopes to in an alla prima then with that media.   (For a quite fast drying oil technique(s), see Michael Price’s work (in two volumes) on painting with mineral pigments, Kurt Wehlte on working with casein,  Ralph Mayer on working with an egg-oil emulsion, A.P. Laurie, Reed Kay, Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, – and one can continue to add to this list).

Perhaps with some media, rather than alla prima, or not alla prima, one might make a partial-alla-prima (can one say that – “partial” all-prima?).  [Bring canvas or panel or paper out in field.  Make an alls-prima painting, working all over the canvas, but not rapidly filling the canvas. (before working, maybe make a quick sketch, while working, take a break, and a few photographs).  Decide it is not finished.  Make more sketches.  More photographs. Bring it home.  Decide again it is not finished (think twice about that, it might be best to start another work).  Work the areas not yet worked.](?)(Such a method, will not result in only one wet-on-wet layer though, unless you have a medium which might allow that).

Written Monday, June 24th, 2019, and Thursday, June 27th, 2019.  I will add some images later  By the way, references for the discussion of alla prima, include Wikipedia, memory of what an alla prima painting is from what I’ve learned from teachers and artists,  and local tv event reporting.