I’d like to begin this guide by fully disclosing that I was never really taught how to paint with a palette knife.
I didn’t learn it in any of the bazillions (it seems) of formal, extra-curricular art classes I’ve taken since I started taking them when I was about 13. I didn’t learn it at art school proper, where we were told that palette knives were for mixing paint, and that you would wreck your brushes if you used them for this purpose.
And yet I’ve done two entire shows featuring palette knife painting (not counting a third ‘sort of solo show’ #itscomplicated) plus another with a couple of pieces done the same way)—along with the few odd pieces for group shows. I can’t help it—palette knife painting is insanely addicting.
So it’s on the basis of that that I’d like to share what I’ve learnt over the thirty odd years I’ve been ‘playing with knives’. On top of maybe sparing you a learning curve (although there’s a lot of fun that can be had in that), I’m hoping you might find the same intense enjoyment in this particularly tactile, energetic and expressive method of painting.
So to sort of follow up on the Quick-Start Beginner’s Guide to Oil Painting I made for my students last summer, this is a very informal, loosely written quick-start guide to painting with a palette knife. (Which actually is more like a slow, rambling love story between me and palette knife painting.) Such as it is, this guide will be covering
- Parts of a palette knife
- Choosing your knives
- The kinds of knives out there
- Palette knife painting techniques
- Mediums (or things you can mix with the paint)
- Caring for your palette knives
Quite a number of the terms I’ll be using, I made up, mainly because (as I’ve said) I never attended any real ‘How to Paint with a Palette Knife’ classes. I’ll be sure to let you know which terms are mine, though.
Thank you, Mr Kelly.
But before I go further, I’d like to acknowledge (admit?) the ‘real honest’ (is there a ‘fake honest’? XD) truth: it was Gene Kelly who taught me how to paint with palette knives.
No, I’m serious—I grew up on Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, and my first real crush at the tender age of five aside from Steve of Voltes V was Gene Kelly. (I told you it was a love story LOL.)
Ironically, I first saw Gene as an old man dancing at his own tribute. So I was actually rather shocked when I saw him young for the first time dancing with that rat in Anchors Aweigh XD
But I digress—point is I saw Gene cramming for his show in American in Paris. He used a palette knife about an hour and 13 into the film for a grand total of about three to five seconds all told. Sounds ‘yeah right’ and hokey AF but I never forgot it.
‘Baby’s First Knives’
So when I got my first set of knives when I was about 15, I couldn’t wait to ‘make like Gene’. I still have those knives, by the way, and I still use them:
See if you look at this knife / a lot of knives, there’s a joint— See the difference when you put the ‘jointy’ and the ‘seamless’ ones side by side?
The problem I have with that joint is that the paint gets stuck between or around that joint and you can never really clean it thoroughly. At least I can’t, anyway, even when I soak my knives (which is probably why they rusted LOL (but they’re easier to clean, thus (read: jill is lazy).
This is a big deal for me since I can get kinda OC ^^; I’ll talk about cleaning and stuff a little more later on.
Palette Knife Anatomy
Having mentioned ‘necks’ and ‘joints’, I figure it might be helpful to put a little diagram here pointing out the basic parts of a palette knife (as jillamonsters call them) which might be referred to throughout the rest of the blog:
Picking Out Palette Knives
Now as you can see, palette knives come in all shapes and sizes—which is another thing I love about them, although not that brushes don’t come in all shapes and sizes, either. I’m always on the look out for new (to me) shaped knives; if I find one (and I happen to be liquid) I’ll buy it on the spot.
This doesn’t automatically mean, however, that just because a knife costs less, doesn’t mean it’s less good. Check out these beauties which I got from one of my teachers who’d brought them over from India—I don’t remember breaking the bank for them, that was some 20 years ago and I still can’t live without them.
So if you’re going shopping for a knife, here are a few things you might consider.
1. What you’re using it for, exactly. Well, for painting, obviously, haha. But what I meant was, did you plan on doing fine detail (in which case you’ll want a smaller, pointed knife) or were you going to spread or blend colours over a wide area (which means you’ll want something bigger). Just like buying a brush, n’est ce pas?
2. Seamless + stainless. If you want to make sure your knives stay shiny and new, you’ll want to make sure they’re easy to clean. Check out the steel or the metal the blade is made of, and whether there’s a joint or not (if that sort of thing bugs you like it does me). (Although I’ll buy a knife with a joint just the same if it’s the size or shape I need and there isn’t much choice.)
On top of my Indian knives above, these are another example of seamless + stainless knives that I was lucky enough to not have to spend an arm n’ a leg for, either. They came in a set, they’ve served me ever so well and I likewise just can’t do without them.
3. Handling and weight. Jillamonsters have small hands, the right of which (which happens to be the dominant one) has a weak wrist. So they prefer lightweight knives and handles that fit comfortably in the palm. Compare the handles and the necks on these knives:
Talens there at the bottom has a flat handle, while Holbein there on top has a round one. The cylindrical handle of the Indian knife (second from the top) is oh-so-comfy to hold, and light, too, which is especially nice when you’re running a painting marathon for hours on end. But weight, handles, necks—that’s a matter of preference (i.e. not everyone is a jillamonster).
A word about plastic knives.
A little while after I started working on the show I’m working on now, my mom got me this set of plastic knives (because she’s sweet like that).
Remember I said I was little anal about keeping my knives clean (although you wouldn’t be able to tell that from their handles LOOOL)? So for me, plastic wouldn’t be my first choice for palette knives.
But if this sort of thing doesn’t bother you (and you’re a little worried you might cut yourself on a knife) (hasn’t happened to me ever and I’ve been doing this a long time, but you never know), then plastic knives might be for you. Plus, you don’t have to worry about rust, and anyway, if you wipe them off with a rag soon enough they ought to stay as clean as can be.
There is this, though—plastic knives aren’t very thin or sharp, which means they might not be as efficient at picking paint up from a palette, even if it was glass or paper. And I’m doubtful (because I admit I’ve never tried) as to whether I would be able to ‘scratch’ or ‘scrape’ on canvas if I was so inclined—although maybe if the paint was still quite fresh or wet…
I mean personally I wouldn’t go into battle with a plastic knife ^___^ I need to be able to rely on my knife having a sharp edge (and point, even, sometimes) in case I needed it (I meant painting that time, not a fight ^___^).
Me being the greedy witch I am, the knives I’ve found so far have never been quite big enough for me. (I have yet to revisit that art supply shop near that famous art school back here (the one I didn’t go to, heh). But if you happen to know a good place for knives, I beg you, if you would be so kind to please, of your generosity, let me in on it.)
In the meantime, for me, the lack of a dream knife shouldn’t deter you from finding other means of creating the strokes or texture you want. So I’ve had recourse to other similarly bladed implements as can be found at baking or culinary supply outlets, hardware stores (not in above photo: gardening trowel) and health & beauty boutiques.
That Zwilling JA Henckels icing knife is one of the best knives I’ve ever had—my heart broke when I broke it mixing up a batch of primer (but then, that’s not what this knife was meant for, after all). Who knows when I’ll be able to find another blade like it, so I still use it even without the handle, even so. (Best 800 bucks I ever spent.)
Palette Knife Types & Techniques
You know how samurai always carry two swords? Palette knife painting is like that. You don’t go into battle with just one.
You have (in jillaterms) your ‘painting knife’ (your katana / long sword)—which can either be a ‘detail knife’ or a ‘blending knife’, and your ‘support knife’ (your wakizashi / short sword).
So the painting knife is what you actually paint or apply the paint with, like so:
As you can see below, the paint tends to build up on the painting knife as you paint, so the support knife is what you ‘clean’ the painting knife with by scraping the paint off of it.
Personally I like my support knife to be about the same size as my painting knife, but that’s just me. But sometimes I like to choose a bigger support knife and use it like a mini-palette (no pun intended) so I don’t have to keep replenishing my painting knife from my palette-palette.
This is especially true when I’ve mixed up bigger batches of paint, which I keep covered under cups to keep them from drying up—something I do more with acrylic than with oil. (Yes, you can use knives for both acrylic and oil. Equally fun to do ^_^)
So I’ve said detail knives are usually smaller and sharper (‘diamond-heads’ or ‘teardrop’ blades as I call them) but that really depends on how big whatever you’re painting is, I guess.
I’m particularly fond of this knife (one of my ‘originals’ or ‘first knives’) which I like to call my ‘leaf blade’. Its neck and tapered point make it nice and flexible and great for backgrounds.
And while knives might be synonymous with texture (which is the main reason why I love using them so much), they can also be pretty ultimate for smooth, stroke-free surfaces (guaranteed no brushstrokes here, lol)—especially if you use a knife like this:
Some people use squeegees for this sort of thing, too, if I’m not mistaken. But this ‘longie’ knife is also great for mixing colours if you want a uniform all-throughout mix.
Speaking of mixing, I also like to use the wider or ‘oddly shaped’ knives for scooping up medium (which I’ll talk about a little later) and blending the paint. But what I really love to use these knives for is…well, there’s a reason why I call them ‘scaling’ knives ^_^ (You’ll see, later //wink)
You can see why I call the one at the bottom my ‘popsicle’ knife (one of my faves for scaling, too) ^_^*
So a couple of techniques that I like to teach beginners and intermediate students in acrylic do involve texturing surfaces with a palette knife.
The first technique is what I like to call creating a spiky texture by spreading a thick layer of acrylic (usually but not necessarily white) on your support (usually canvas, plywood or board). You then ‘jump-stick’ the flat of the palette knife on that layer, over and over again until the surface is, well, spiky.
When the spikes are dry, you can add another layer of paint (usually of another colour) over it using a brush. Usually this second layer is thinned so as to be able to cover the spikes more completely (i.e. so that the white won’t show) while still allowing the texture to show through. If you’re using acrylic, as in the photo above, you can thin the paint with water.
If you’re using oil, as in the photo below, you can thin the paint with turpentine (or Grumtine so it won’t smell as much).
The second technique, which is also the one I love to use whenever I can make an excuse for it, is what I refer to as ‘making scales’. This is done by allowing the shape of the knife to define an individual scale with each stroke. Here’s what it looks like in progress:
So obviously this technique takes patience, planning and careful drying. Patience, because you have to put the scales in one at a time. Planning because you’ll have to lay the scales in a certain order.
And when you’re done, make sure your work ‘dries in peace’. Because if an accident should befall and the thing gets messed up, there’s no repairing just that part of the scales—at least, not if you don’t want the fix to be obvious, anyway. You’ll have to scrape that entire section off (another legit use of the palette knife apart from mixing), and lay all the scales in order, again.
Mixing Things Up
Since we’ve been talking a lot about texture, we’re now going to talk about the mediums or the stuff you can mix with the paint to enhance that texture.
We’ll be talking about acrylic alone in this section, as there’s hardly anything as far as I know that you can mix with oil for this purpose. If you’re strictly an oil painter, though, this section might still be of interest to you insofar as ground preparation is concerned—in other words, you can texture the surface you’ll be painting on with oil using these acrylic mediums.
Now how thick you want your paint to be is a matter of preference, and some paint might be thick enough on its own like this heavy bodied tube of white here:
But if you’re anything like me, sometimes thick just ain’t thick enough, so one medium you might want to try mixing in with your acrylic is modelling (AKA moulding) paste.
There are different kinds of modelling paste; some are thicker or rougher than others like this coarse grain variety here:
I never really learned how much ‘you’re supposed’ to mix in with the paint; for me, I like to make sure there’s more paint than paste in my mix—but again, I figure the consistency is up to you.
In a way, I guess you might even use paste as a sort of extender (although it would probably be cheaper to just buy more paint if that was what you wanted to use it for).
In any case, the nice thing about modelling paste is you can use it to texture your ground on its own, without mixing it with anything. You can use a brush to paint on top of it (with oil as well as acrylic) after it dries like how I did this:
Now the thing about modelling paste is it kind of dries matte; if you wanted your colours to stay shiny and juicy, you might try using gel medium:
So in the detail below, I used gel medium and that Zwilling JA Henckels icing knife. Now, as far as I know (which isn’t very far), people don’t usually use gel on its own for texturing surfaces like you can with paste; then again I haven’t had occasion to try it. (If you have, please let me know; I’d be much obliged ^_^)
But one thing I would warn beginners about is the lovely smell gel medium has (actually modelling paste doesn’t smell so great, either). I remembering driving my mom nuts with this smell, so make sure you work next to an open window or have enough ventilation.
Finally, if coarse paste and gel still aren’t thick enough for you, you can try mixing plastic sand or similar texturing materials with your acrylic—and even with your paste or gel. Since these are all acrylic mediums, they all have adhesive properties, so you don’t have to worry about mixing glue in there with it or anything.
I have to say, I particularly enjoy mixing sand with the paint for the ‘crunchy’ feel and sound effects. (What can I say, I’m an abrasive person by nature ^^; ) Since you are actually mixing in something that isn’t acrylic this time, you really have to make sure you don’t mix too much sand so there’s more of it than the paint, to make sure the sand doesn’t come off.
Now the thing about mixing sand in with the paint is that depending on how much sand you use, the whole painting could end up really, literally heavy. You’ll want to make sure your support has enough, uh, support—like putting a solid plywood backing behind your canvas, for instance, instead of using a ‘beat-like-a-drum’ stretcher.
In any case, transporting your work afterwards might be a nice upper-body workout or something ^^ (But not nice for jillamonsters with weak wrists or torn shoulders ^___^)
One last thing: sand can take its toll on even the best quality knives, as you can see in the before-and-after below (where the ‘before' / old knife is below):
Felt kind of bad about that particular detail knife; I’d had it for many years and it had served me most faithfully—but yeah, I ended up having to buy its replacement (new knife above) just last year.
Knife Care and Maintenance
Having mentioned the ‘death’ of one of my favourite knives, let’s talk about how to take care of your knives so you can use them for like, forever. (Remember those first knives I got when I was 15?)
But as you’ve seen with ‘dead detail knife’ and its fellow fallen below, palette knives are not indestructible:
So the first order of business is to keep your knives clean. It used to drive me nuts when my students would let paint and such dry on their knives. Like brushes, the handle can get as filthy as you like, but keep the ferrule and the bristles clean—with knives, it’s the neck and the blade.
I mentioned ‘soaking’ your knives, earlier, like you would with a brush—which most probably isn’t recommended because of that whole rust thing. I have to admit I have seen rust come off in the water with some of my knives, before—but not all of them, so I guess it depends on that whole ‘stainless’ thing.
But if you should soak your knives, me, personally, I like to make sure that I never dunk them in the water past the hilt, so as to let water seep into where the neck enters the handle. That’s because any water that gets in there might rust the neck or the blade, or weaken the attachment, because it may not get to dry thoroughly.
Of course, that doesn’t justify soaking but I have to admit I’ve found it rather convenient. Of course, soaking in water doesn’t apply to regular oil paint (water-soluble oil paint, maybe, though). It’s a quick n’ easy fix for anything that might’ve dried on the blade that isn’t readily scraped off with another (clean) knife—especially if it’s something like gel or paste.
Finally, the best way to take care of your palette knives is to not use them for anything other than painting. That may seem rather obvious, but you’d be surprised—these poor dears were used (not by me) for rubber cement and epoxy (!):
Don’t use palette knives to open tins (orange handled victim four photos back) (person who broke it didn’t even say sorry). And, don’t leave your knife lying around where it doesn’t belong (e.g. the floor), because if it should get bent—
—I regret to inform you that hammering won’t fix it. Okay, that last one was on me. Stupid of me, really. Well, what was I to do? And I had a hammer on me; I figured it was worth a shot.
See, that’s why I’m sharing these things with you—so you won’t make the same stoopid mistakes ^^; Anyway I still try to use that poor knife when I can—he can still mix things, but he’s not much good for scraping and he can be a tad tougher to clean.
Now, go forth and wield!
I hope this post has given you enough to get started on palette knife painting, which (even when used to produce monsters en masse in the painting factory) remains one of my all-time favourite painting methods. The colour, the texture, the materiality of the paint, the very process of applying it—it’s all just too much fun.
As always, I admit I don’t know everything there is to know about painting with palette knives, and I’m afraid all I can do is to share what I know from my own experience. But I would be more than happy to learn from you if you’ve got some palette knife know-how you’d like to share, or to help you out if I can if this poor attempt at a guide proved insufficient.
Just drop me a line here or poke me on Facebook or Instagram, and let’s continue our palette knife painting adventures, together.