Ébauche or Lay-ins in Plein-Air ‘Alla Prima’ Oil Painting – Paul Cézanne

Ébauche or Lay-ins in Plein-Air ‘Alla Prima’ Oil Painting

Work in Progress (WIP) – lay in stage one
Large size Oil on Canvas
81 x 65 cm (approx 32 x 26 inches)
© The Artist.

Work in Progress (WIP) – lay in stage two
Large size Oil on Canvas
81 x 65 cm (approx 32 x 26 inches)
© The Artist.

There’s a nice french painting term ‘ébauche’ meaning a ‘lay-in’ or underpainting, meaning the intial layers of oil paint. This should estabilish the composition right from the outset. In the above WIP, I blocked-in the large masses of the ‘dominant’ colour (stage one) & then started to indicate the light & shade (stage two). It’s a kind of lay-in that blocks-in the colour first of all, rather than lines & tones . You can of course choose to lead with line (see Cézanne, who BTW left a large number of ‘unfinished’ paintings in the lay-in phase, which is incredibly lucky for us as we can study how he started off his masterpieces!) or tone (see Corot) as you please.

Example of a lay-in prioritising line
Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne left a lot of ‘unfinished’ paintings ? weither they were abandoned or left aside or just never pushed to resolution or abandoned in a state of despiar  by the artist we will never realyy know. His diaries tell us not. However these half-finished paintings  are a great testimony to his working process. They taught me to paint in oils, simply put. I used to spend hours looking at them in wonder. Looking for clues too. What a great gift he left to us artists who follow behind.


A lay-in has alot of painterly charm because at this stage, you aren’t concerned with descriptive details & little, fiddly fine brush work. You are roughing-in the overall masses.

A lay-in in oil should follow the ‘fat over lean’ rule (thick paint over thin paint). Note how diluted with turps the paint is (a great advantage of plein-air is that the artist isn’t intoxicated with fumes whilst shut-up in an atelier).

For this large size painting, working quickly with the changing light en plein-air, the surface was fairly quickly covered with the intial lay-in.

The lay-in phase comes after the conception phase (where you have the idea or see the painting in your mind’s eye) & the composition stage (where you work out what goes where & how if fits together).

I find that getting the major relationships between the colours painted early on in the lay-in stage is essential to how a painting fits together as a whole, as a set of harmonics. It also estabilshes the quality of the light, the timbre & feel of the place. Getting this clear early on speeds up the painting process, which in plein-air painting can be something of a race against the sun’s movement… if I had a euro for every time I’ve heard ” the light’s changed”.

In a lay-in, you kind of bring the whole painting-up at the same time all together, rather than finishing a bit here then finishing another over there (as much as is possible). Try & keep an eye on how the whole fits together. For such large oil paintings, done in one session ‘alla prima’ en plein-air, on location, on the spot, you really do need to have an idea of how the painting will/might unfold.

NOTE : Not every painting unfolds in the same way. Just as in cooking, different meals, different recipes require different approaches.


‘Karst Landscape’
– unfinished state
Large Oil on Canvas
81 x 65 cm (approx 32 x 26 inches)
© The Artist

3 Comments on “Ébauche or Lay-ins in Plein-Air ‘Alla Prima’ Oil Painting – Paul Cézanne

  1.  by  Cathy Gatland

    Great to see this process Adam. So this is all in one session, do I understand? Do you ever go back again another day to finish up, or back in the studio? I really enjoy these rocky landscapes of yours.

  2.  by  Adam Cope

    hi cathy
    how nice to hear from you 🙂

    re: rocky – still not certain if they’re not better in wc? spring now, so I’ll be moving on to pastures new.

    re:alla-prima – well no, not entirely, because there is a bit of retouching in the studio the next day. do remember these are large paintings, not small minature postcards. maybe they’d be better done in two sessions? difficult for me to find two free days just to paint.

  3.  by  Cathy Gatland

    The watercolours have a different quality of light, and texture which conveys rock really well – I like them both!
    I know well the problem of finding whole days at a time to paint 🙁