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