Painting Top to Bottom
Digging through my archives, I happened upon this unfinished study by William Mainwaring Palin. It was likely executed while studying with Lefebvre and Boulanger, in the 1880s.
As a student, I often wondered how students at the French ateliers (Cabanel's or Julian's for instance) arrived at such a complete finish while maintaining such beautiful, fresh paint handling. Eventually, I found this passage in Solomon J. Solomon's book:
"It is quite possible to complete a picture bit by bit in this way. Many of the students in the École des Beaux Arts in my time began their studies from the nude at the head and worked down to the feet without retouching; and such studies, when completed, were often perfect in the relative value of the parts to the whole.
In this way freshness is preserved and completeness attained; and for the student who is beginning, it is far less distracting than what I might call the driving of a whole team. With a simple theme, it is better to keep the whole going together, but with a more complicated one, when the colour, tone, and drawing, and many subtleties demand consideration, it is wiser for the beginner to divide up his work in the way here suggested." (98-99)
I didn't try it at the time because the general taboo against painting "like an inkjet printer" was stuck in my head. I began focusing more on drawing the figure and painting landscapes, so I left it at that for awhile.
A couple of years later, fortune found me as a student in Rob Liberace's class. One day, Rob suggested that we first focus on the overall scheme by making an accurate drawing of the pose in umber, then proceed by choosing a manageable area and finishing it in full color. He called it a "giornata" (a day's work in Italian) and I believe the term is adapted from fresco painting, which demanded that a painter know how much it was possible to finish it one day before the plaster dried. As I watched Rob work, I realized that my years-long question had been answered.
The beauty of this approach is that you're not working the overall thing, or moving inch by inch. You're taking a general area (say the head), finishing it, then moving on to another general area and finishing it. The trick is to not have hard edges where you leave off and to constantly look at the whole thing, to "look at the head while painting the feet" as Bonnat used to say. It also doesn't matter whether the work is tight or loose.
In addition to the Palin, I included some other examples that appear to be done similarly.