Painting ‘alla prima’ is the Italian term for ‘painting at first’ – I know not a great translation - but put more simply, it means to paint in a fast and sketchy manner, often even without having a preliminary drawing to begin with. In this technique, colours are applied quickly onto the canvas and tones are created either by overlapping wet brushstrokes of different hues, or by blending colours together directly onto the support, rather than on the palette. The result is often a fresh and loose work which is quite fun to create as there is no need to wait for long periods of time for the paint to dry in-between layers; hence allowing to create a piece in a very short space of time - as opposed to the traditional manner which often requires days, and even weeks, for a work to be finished.
Titian – a Venetian artist - was among the first to experiment and work using this technique, and during his time, this was seen as an unorthodox way of painting and was often frowned upon. In fact, during the Renaissance in Italy, there was a very famous debate concerning disegno vs. colore. Florentine artists argued that disegno (design/drawing) was more important than colore (colour), and good painters needed to master it before moving onto painting. On the other hand, Venitians sustained that colore was more important than disegno and therefore, there was no need to make detailed preliminary drawings.
Michelangelo who was a supporter of disegno, after viewing a work by Titian of a nude woman, representing Danaë, is known to have said that “it was a shame that in Venice artists did not learn to draw well from the beginning and that those painters did not pursue their studies with more method. For the truth was, that if Titian had been assisted by art and design as much as he was by nature, and especially in reproducing living subjects, then no one could achieve more or work better, for he had fine spirit and a lively and entrancing style.”
However, despite Michelangelo's and the Florentines views on this matter, many others later followed and built onto Titian and the Venetians' footsteps by practicing and working is such manner: from Caravaggio to Rembrant to the Impressionists, the Modern and many Contemporary artists.
Although I tell my students that the outcome of a good painting is often the result of a good drawing, I still would encourage to try painting ‘alla prima’ and in a more sketchy and loose way, and yes, sometimes, even without having to have a detailed drawing to begin with; I think this can be really liberating and produce great spontaneous work. However, this should not be done as a lazy alternative or because of lack of drawing skills, I believe this should be a choice and that is why I always try to teach my students to draw first, so that then they have more freedom, and their works are based on subjective preferences rather than lack of skills.
With this I am not implying that working ‘alla prima’ does not require proficiency - quite the opposite – in fact, I believe that actually to be able to paint without a drawing – at least for realistic subjects – it is not easy at all, as artworks can turn out to be quite messy if the artist has not ‘mastered’ his/her drawing technique first, making it quite hard to correct mistakes and measurements directly while painting. This also does not mean that painting ‘alla prima’ does not requires a preliminary pencil sketch – this is up to the individual artist – but either way, this method allows one to create fresh, unconstrained and really interesting works of art.