When it comes to painting, there are as many different approaches to achieving the end result as there are artists who employ these various techniques. One such approach is often referred to as “Alla Prima”. This is a direct approach to painting in which the artist strives to capture his subject in a single session of painting. The constraint of time plays a crucial role in this demanding approach. The painting session is over at the end of the allotted time and what is left on the canvas is what remains, not to be touched again. An emphasis on accuracy is a key element to working in this manner. The artist focuses on the most important aspects of his subject in order to capture a convincing likeness. When working in this manner, the first twenty minutes are the most crucial. What you do in these first few minutes will determine how the rest of the painting goes. If you are careless during this period you will struggle throughout the rest of the painting in order to try and correct the previous mistakes. If you take the time to get things correct, you can then use this accurate start as a foundation from which you can build the rest of your painting upon. The experience of working this way is both exhilarating and exhausting because it takes everything you have in order to capture a moment in time- A moment in which you can look back on and feel a sense of accomplishment in knowing that you put forth the effort that it took in order to achieve such a goal. For those artists who have mastered this approach to painting, the results are breathtaking. These paintings reveal not only the artist’s subject, but also the energy and intuition with which it took to create them. There is no time for second guessing or going back to correct mistakes. These adjustments must be made along the way as the painting progresses.

A great example of this process can be seen in the head study of Eleanor Duse by John Singer Sargent. Sargent describes the event with Duse arriving at his studio at midday. As Sargent accurately worked on the painting, the image of his subject began to take shape on the canvas. Without warning, the sitting was over at five minutes until one. It was then that Eleanor Duse stood up, said her goodbye and then left the studio. Sargent never saw her again, but the record which was left behind on canvas had captured not only a likeness of this esteemed actress, but the emotion and character of the woman, herself. Sargent made the most out of the time which he was given, unaware of when it would end. He could look back at this painting and say that he had done his best, knowing that what was on the canvas was accurate.


Portrait of Eleanor Duse by John Singer Sargent


Having said all of this, I am reminded of the opportunity that I had to speak to a group of young artists. As I looked into the eyes of the future of painting, I spoke on this very subject. At the end of our discussion I left them with one last thought which I would like to share with you as well.

Unlike art, where you can go back, make changes, correct mistakes and, in some cases, even start over again, life is lived Alla Prima- in one sitting. You only get one shot at it. Every decision you make is like another brush stroke on the canvas of time. Eventually, these brush strokes culminate to form a picture of your life. One day, when you look back on your life, what do you want that picture to look like? Do you want it to be one which says that you did your very best, or will you have regrets of wishing that you had taken the time to get things right? With each new day comes a clean slate, a blank canvas. Strive to make each new day better than the last, for with it comes the opportunity to create a masterpiece.