OCAD Studio: Alla Prima Portrait – Shadows


This project is based on the ‘alla prima’ method which means that the painting is completed all at once. The project is divided into two sections for the sake of clarity but I recommend watching them both and reading through the material before trying your hand at it. This way, you will be able to get everything done in a single sitting, as intended.



  • You can work from life – either a sitter or yourself in a mirror
  • Or from a photo reference



  • Small white canvas or panel (up to 8×10 inches)
  • Palette
  • Oil Paint
    • Titanium White
    • Cadmium Red
    • Cadmium Yellow
    • Burnt Umber
    • Yellow Ochre
    • Ivory Black
  • Easel
  • Palette cup/container for mineral spirits
  • Mineral spirits
  • Brushes
    • Some round, some flat
    • From about 4mm wide to 20mm wide
  • Kitchen towel or rag for cleaning brushes and wiping back




Overall Wash

Begin by thinly washing yellow ochre over the whole canvas, either with a brush or by squeezing a bit of yellow ochre onto the surface of the canvas/panel and spreading it with a rag or piece of kitchen towel dipped in mineral spirits.


Line Drawing

Use a small stiff brush to loosely sketch in the main shadow shapes with Burnt Umber thinned with mineral spirits. You can use the brush like a pencil or piece of charcoal but try to make sure that you hold it near the base so that your strokes are loose and general – avoid adding too much detail! Keep your lines and shapes straight and blocky for the time being, you’re just trying to capture the general proportions and not all the fine details.

Try to rely more on your eye rather than taking measurements with a tool but if you need to check something that seems wrong you can use a spare brush to check that the proportions in your painting match the reference.

If you need to make any corrections, dip a clean brush into your pot of mineral spirits and use it to wipe away the mistake. If there any marks remain (or too much mineral spirits) you can use a clean piece of kitchen towel or rag to wipe away the excess.


Adding Mass

Once you’re happy with the accuracy of the line drawing, use your biggest brush to fill in all the shadow shapes with slightly thinned Burnt Umber. Use as few brushstrokes as possible – this will make the painting feel fresh and confident. Don’t be too sparing with the amount of paint on your brush, if you use too little the brushstrokes will seem thin and scratchy.


Adding the Darkest Darks

Begin by painting the darkest darks (usually pure black) into the shadows. Thin the paint slightly but make sure it’s opaque enough to reach the right value. These darkest areas will usually occur in the creases or places where direct and reflected right can’t reach, parts of the nose and ear often have dark accents. Dark hair will also have areas which are pure black.

Now you can add progressively lighter colours to the shadows. Look for areas with the most reflected light as these sections will be the lightest and highest chroma sections in the shadows. Mix colours as accurately as possible but don’t worry too much as you will only be able to judge them completely once everything is roughed in.



One thought on “OCAD Studio: Alla Prima Portrait – Shadows

  1. mywendysfeedbackgt.com Reply

    While this studio time is offered by the OCAD University Alumni Association, you don’t have to be a student or alumni to attend — the sessions are open to everyone.

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