For a first go at landscape painting I’m fairly pleased with the results. It’s not going to win any prizes – but, equally, for a simple holiday painting it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen. Aside from the pure pleasure of spending time in such a delightful setting, I learnt one or two valuable things about working alla prima. For one thing, working on a small scale you really can’t get too bogged down with measuring everything. When the scene is so distant it’s difficult to get the view to ‘lock in’ in the same way it does when you’re sight-sizing a portrait or still life.
You also need to make a decision, fairly early on, about what the light (and, in this case, the water level) is going to be doing. I began painting at about half past ten in the morning and the shadows and the tide were changing constantly. By the end of the day the estuary was just a trickle and people were walking across with the water below their knees.
I consciously tried not to make the greens too ‘acid’ – a mistake which beginners often seem to make. In fact I deliberately omitted from my palette any green from a tube– and instead I mixed my greens from Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Cerulean Blue and French Ultramarine, tempered with Yellow Ochre and Raw Umber.
There were a few surprises in store for me too. The water (roughly done though it may be) was unexpectedly easy to execute. Even doing the channel of slack water and the dark area in front of the boathouse wasn’t particularly difficult. The cliffs and vegetation in the background, on the other hand, were a nightmare.
Toward the end of the painting I decided to have a look at the boathouse using a small mirror (something I often do when I’m painting in the studio) and I realised the shape of the thatched roof was fairly badly ‘out’ and needed correcting. I’m still not sure it’s quite right but I don’t think it’s a disaster. The object of the exercise was really just to have a go and enjoy myself, and in that respect the day was a great success!
* Alla prima (Italian, meaning “at first attempt”) is a technique in which layers of wet paint are applied to previous layers of wet paint. It is sometimes referred to as 'direct painting' or by the French term “au premier coup” (meaning “at first stroke”). It was a method made popular by the Impressionists.
Ben Laughton Smith
Aspiring artist, training in the classical tradition.