Alla Prima Portrait Study in Oils

by Damian Osborne


In this alla prima portrait study demo, I did an oil sketch of my sister in one sitting, using a limited palette. This quick oil portrait was done in my sketchbook, painting it wet-on-wet.

I primed the paper with a basic white acrylic primer in order to paint my oil portrait studies. This is a great way to practice alla prima portrait painting in oils without the expense of canvas.

Generally, an alla prima portrait sketch uses a limited palette (the Zorn Palette is a common painting palette) to make colour harmonies easier for the artist. But you can choose any oil colour palette you prefer.


Why is it important to practice painting portrait studies?

Wow, that question was a mouthful! Well, you can’t really be good at anything if you don’t practice it.

And in order to become better at portrait painting, it helps tremendously to do regular quick sketches and studies. Portrait studies allow us to stop worrying about trying to create a perfect work of art. And instead focus on the learning aspects of painting. 

Drawing and painting quick portrait studies will teach you innumerable lessons about facial structure and head anatomy. As well as improving your general drawing skills a thousand fold.

Regular practice will make you more proficient with your paint handling and you’ll become a master of your materials.

Just as a musician practices daily scales and etudes, so an artist should produce daily sketches and studies. 

And studies generally don’t take much time in comparison to more refined works of art. So you can produce a huge amount of work, and thereby gain an incredible boost to your knowledge and skill level. 


Janine reading, oil sketch portrait in sketchbook by Damian Osborne
Janine reading, oil sketch portrait in sketchbook.


What is alla prima in oil painting?

It’s when you paint in one direct layer and in one session. Alla prima is a common painting term from Italian meaning ‘at the first attempt’ and is interchangeable with the French term ‘au premier coup‘.

The paint is not given time to dry during the painting session, so the painting is completed entirely wet-in-wet. 

Alla prima is a really spectacular technique for expressive brushwork.

You can see how I did an alla prima flower painting in this easy flower painting tutorial.


What is sketching with oils?

An oil sketch is basically a drawing done with oil paint and may forego the preliminary charcoal underdrawing stage.

An oil sketch is generally done alla prima as a painting study, and therefore, may be quite loose in its application, containing few details. Oil sketching is usually done as a rudimentary study for a more refined or larger oil painting.


What are the advantages of doing an oil sketch?

• Doing a quick oil sketch is the easiest way to compose or plan for a larger oil painting.

• Since you are ‘sketching’ with oil paints, you are able to draw with colour and to see how effective your pigment/colour choices are. Other drawing mediums are usually monochromatic.

• It can be a very loose precursory study or even a small ‘thumbnail’ to get your visual ideas down rapidly.

• An oil sketch can be done fairly quickly, so it takes very little time compared to a more polished and detailed artwork.

• Oil sketches are generally cost effective because they can be done on cheap canvas or paper. Archival supports are not necessarily important if you don’t feel precious about the outcome of the oil sketch.

• It frees you up to paint with abandon and not worry about the cost of the materials, nor the amount of time you spend on an artwork. Since they are usually done so quickly, the sketch can be easily abandoned if you decide that it isn’t working, without feeling like you’ve wasted your time. 

• An oil sketch is never a waste of time. But a more refined painting that you’ve spent months on which has gone wrong and is beyond fixing, may be a total waste of time. 

• You can learn so much through doing quick oil sketches. And your drawing and painting skills with progress very rapidly if you do regular free sketches in oil paint. 

• It allows you to plan ahead to see what works and what doesn’t. How does this composition or colour palette work relative to that one? How effective is the value range?

• Oil sketching teaches you to be economical with your paint handling and to be succinct in what you’re ‘trying to say’.

• They are very satisfying and rewarding to do.

• You can produce a very large output of oil sketches quickly. 

• They can be beautiful works of art in their own right. And sometimes the rapidly done oil sketch has more vivacity and freshness than the overly polished artwork based on the study.


Aunty Brenda, oil sketch portrait in sketchbook by Damian Osborne
Aunty Brenda, oil sketch portrait in sketchbook using burnt umber and white on a blue/grey toned ground.


Can you paint with oils on paper?

Yes absolutely you can! It is a very cost effective method of painting compared to buying lots of canvases.

And it’s a great way to produce many oil sketch studies for larger oil on canvas paintings. But first, you’ll need to size and prime the paper so that it is ready to receive oil paint. Or you’ll run into problems. 

Linseed oil is oxidative as it dries, so it destroys natural fibres like canvas, panel or paper. Therefore, you need to create a barrier layer between the oil paint and the paper. Thus we need to size and prime the paper. 

The paper will also tend to soak up all the oil, so your painting will just become a soggy mess without sizing and priming.

And your painting will end up looking a very dull mat if the paper has absorbed all the oil. The painting will be prone to cracking and flaking off, since there is not enough oil left to bind the pigment.  

It is better to use a higher grammage of paper, such as 300g watercolour paper. And to make sure the the paper is at least acid-free or good quality cotton ‘rag’ paper.

But, you can also use Bristol board, or even cheap brown kraft board if you really don’t care about it being archival. And I just prime my Daler-Rowney sketchbook with 150g cartridge paper for my oil sketches.

Then again, you can also just buy paper that’s already primed for oil painting. There are many different brands with different characteristics. Some papers are obviously better than others. 


How do you prepare paper for oil painting?

To prepare paper for oil painting you’ll need to do the following:

• Make sure to use good quality, higher grammage paper such as >300g watercolour paper.

• Let the paper soak in a cold water bath for a few minutes as you normally would prepare/stretch watercolour paper before painting.

• Pick the paper up carefully by the corners and let the water drain off. The soaked paper is very fragile when wet, so handle it gently.

• Lay the paper on a sturdy board such as thick hardboard or masonite, perspex or marine ply.

• Soak up the excess water on the paper gently with some paper toweling.

• Cut 4 strips of gum tape the length and width of the paper. Use a mist bottle to lightly spray water on the gum tape. Tape the paper all along its edges to the board with gum tape.

• Allow a day or two to dry.

• Make up a ‘size’ with two thirds acrylic matte medium or glaze medium and one third water. (Keep it in a sealed container if you would like to keep the mixture for sizing further projects.) You can use use diluted acid-free PVA glue, but make sure the solution is diluted enough that it doesn’t cause the paper to stick to the board. Rabbit-skin glue is a commonly used size, but I don’t recommend it because of its many defects.

• Once the paper is dry and ‘stretched’ to the board, coat it with a light layer of size.

• Allow a day or two to dry.

• Apply another thin layer of size if you wish. Two coats will prevent the paper absorbing oil better than one coat.

• Allow another day or two to dry.

• Prime the paper with an oil based primer (preferable) or acrylic primer (if you’re on a budget).

• Allow the primer a few days to dry and give it another coat of primer if desired. 


Artist anatomy studies oil in sketchbook by Damian Osborne
Artist anatomy studies, charcoal and oil in sketchbook.


See also: Sizing watercolour paper for oil painting by Winsor & Newton


Why should you keep a sketchbook for oil paintings?

If you’re an oil painter, you’ll know the daunting feeling of standing before a large blank canvas, as well as the expense of canvases themselves. 

Then there is the time it takes to paint a large work on canvas. Keeping a sketchbook ready-primed for oil painting is a convenient and cost-effective way to produce a huge amount of oil studies in a short amount of time. And to improve your painting skills.

A sketchbook is great for experimentation, composition ideas and for producing quick alla prima artworks. It’s easier to loosen up and experiment on cheap paper than on a pricey canvas.

A sketchbook is also a convenient way to keep all your oil sketches, studies, drawings and thoughts together. It takes up very little room, and you can take your sketchbook with you wherever you go.

A sketchbook for oil painting studies is much like keeping a diary or a record of how your art and painting skill progresses.


Why use a limited palette for oil painting?

• Using a limited palette saves a lot of time thinking about colour and colour mixing.

• It also saves on pigments.

• The limited palette teaches the artist how to work with what they have and to understand a far more subtle colour mixing skill.

• There is also more of a focus on the ‘drawing with paint’ aspect of painting, so your drawing improves, rather than relying on colour.

• The artist also has a more intuitive grasp of value, since the hue shifts are more subtle.

• A limited palette naturally encourages a more balanced colour harmony because the same limited pigments are used throughout the painting. Therefore, nothing seems garish or out of place.

• The artist also understands colour temperatures more intuitively.

• In short, it’s easier to understand pigments and colour mixing by starting off with a monochromatic, and then limited palette. Most artists talk about the famous Zorn colour palette of only 4 colours: black, white, red and yellow. But you can take the same concept and experiment with any 2 to 3 pigments plus white and see what you get. 


Starting off with a brush drawing for a portrait oil sketch in my sketchbook.


How do you paint an alla prima portrait study in oils?

• On a white or toned ground, begin a basic brush drawing with lean raw umber or burnt sienna paint and a number 4 filbert or round brush. You can mix a similar warm earthy colour with the Zorn palette.

• Get the general placement down of the cranium and jaw structure and the imaginary midway line of the face. This will give you the basic positioning and viewing angle of the head.

• Keep a dry rag handy to wipe out any mistakes.

• Continue drawing the skull and work out the more general areas like the curve of the zygomatic arches, the frontal prominence, temporal region and temporalis ridge.

• Work out the positioning lines of the brow, the base of the nose, and the bottom of the lips. They should all be roughly equidistant apart in a model looking straight ahead. Consider the foreshortening or perspective if the head is angled.

• Work out the hair line.

• Indicated the roundness of the obicularis oculi (eye sockets), the obicularis oris (mouth area) and the triangle of the nasal bone and the glabella (where bridge of the nose meets the forehead).

• Now that you have a basic framework, fill in the basic drawing of the features — eyes, nose, lips and ears.

• Remember the gesture of the neck and the dygastric area (throat).

• Once you’re happy with the simple drawing of the skull and features, consider the lighting and the planes of the head.

• Always check and recheck your drawing. Step back often or look at it in a mirror. Use a rag to correct.

• Mix up some mid to darker paint (I used cadmium red, black and yellow ochre) and block in the shadow areas. Not too dark yet.

• You can thin the paint layer by wiping lightly with a rag. This will make it more transparent if you’re painting on a white ground. And you can make the shadows more transparent with a bit more linseed oil. 

• Paint the hair with this shadow mixture adjusting the colour slightly if needed.

• Start with your background. This will influence the values of the face. Leaving a white page background will make the darks appear darker than they really are. 

• For the darks: use a larger filbert for blocking in the shadows or painting the hair, and a finer brush for delineating the details of the eyebrows, nostrils, pupils, line of the mouth, etc.

• Once the darks are done, mix up your light areas. In my case, I added the light areas to the face with white and yellow ochre. Since you’re painting wet-on-wet, you achieve lovely blends of colour. Be careful not to over-blend.

• Carefully work your values, but don’t lose them, adding more colour or higher chroma where necessary.

• Add the final dark accents and details to the face.

• Check your background against the values of the face.

• Add the highlights but don’t over do it. Unless you want sweaty-looking skin. 

• Stand back and check the values, the planes of the face, and the proportions.

• Work areas that need it, but if you start overworking it into a muddy mess, scrape off some of the paint in the general area with a palette knife or rag, and start again.


Using the Zorn palette in this alla prima portrait study. Adding the lights with a tint of white and yellow ochre. The wet-on-wet paint creates lovely hues of creams, yellows, pinks and oranges.


For my alla prima portrait study, I used the Zorn palette and completed the painting in about an hour. The brushstrokes are still a bit sketchy, but it is supposed to be an oil sketch and a head painting practice. 

If I wanted to work on it further, I could allow the painting to dry, then give it some transparent glazes and opaque scumbles to refine the painting.

But sometimes a painting can become overworked this way if you’re not careful, and it can lose the initial energy of a quick alla prima oil sketch. 

For a more refined portrait painting, I prefer to work in layers. 


Adding dark accents to the eyes.


Alla prima portrait study tips:

• When painting an alla prima portrait study, make sure you have a fairly constant light source for the time you need to paint. Changes in lighting conditions can create a lot of difficulties for the inexperienced artist. 

• Paint from a live model if you have that luxury. Otherwise be sure to use a photo reference without obvious lens distortions. I like to use a 50 mm prime lens for the least distortion. 

• Spend enough time getting the basic overall drawing right before laying in heavy brushstrokes of paint.

• Drawing is the most important aspect of the alla prima portrait study.

• You can begin your drawing with vine charcoal, or go straight into drawing with a lean earth pigment and a filbert or round long-handled paintbrush.

• Long-handled brushes allow you to step further back so that you can more easily identify drawing, proportion or perspective areas.

• Use a mirror to check your drawing.

• Keep a dry rag ready to wipe out mistakes.

• Start off with a fairly limited range of colours as you build up the initial structure of the skull and the planes of the head.

• Start with the mid-tones to darks, avoiding white until your drawing stage looks alright.

• Once you’re fairly happy with the drawing, stay within the mid-tones, but don’t paint too thickly yet. Leave the thicker impasto paint for the lighter range. And even more impasto for the highlights. 

• Always pay careful attention to values.

• Don’t over mix your colours and turn them into a muddy mess.

• Lay down a brushstroke with confidence, think about the direction and length of the stroke.

• Don’t dab, dab, dab tentatively. Put a stroke down and then leave it.

• You can use a toned or white ground.

• If you use a white ground, you can pull out the general lights with a dry rag for your drawing stage.

• For a toned ground, you can paint directly into the wet ground and achieve good colour harmony and temperature. That’s because the colour of the ground will affect any paint that’s applied on top of it.

• Remember to account for colour mixing on the canvas itself. So you’ll need to adjust accordingly when painting wet-in-wet.

• If you want to mitigate colour mixing on the canvas, lay the fresh stroke of colour more thickly (called tiling) and leave it. Don’t mess with it. You may need to scrape off the previous layer before applying the next.

• Remember fat over lean. So apply thicker paint over thin. 

• Add your lights, but don’t use just a pure white. Add a touch of warmth to your white with red or yellow ochre. Or any tint of your choosing. Pure white will make the flesh look very cold.

• Don’t forget about your background. It affects the values. A dark background makes the lights appear lighter and visa versa. It also affects the colour balance. So be sure to paint your background before painting your final values. And keep checking. 

• Add the lightest and darkest accents last.

• You can check your values and your drawing by taking a black and white photo of the painting with your cellphone.

• Make sure you have a focal area. Consider your edge control — soft, blurry edges as well as sharper more focused edges. Edges help to bring the portrait to life. Having sharp detail everywhere makes for a flat-looking portrait.

• Keep it simple. Not every detail is necessary. A work of art is about just as much as it includes as it excludes. 

• Squint your eyes to see if the values and the painting is working. 


Alla prima portrait study of Melissa with limited Zorn palette in sketchbook.



There are many ways to painting an alla prima portrait study. And every artist will have different ways of tackling the challenge. So figure out your own methods and don’t get too hung up on formulas. You’ll soon figure out what works and what doesn’t for yourself. 


Please let me know in the comments below if there’s anything I left out, or if you have any questions about these painting techniques. 


Check out some of my figure drawings here. 


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