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
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:
They’re Japanese (Nouvel), very good quality, except they kinda rusted on me, as you can see, but this doesn’t affect the paint or my painting one bit (at least, not in any way I can see anyway). I love them especially because of the way the neck of the knife (what I call that part between the blade proper and the handle) joins the blade seamlessly, making it easier to clean.
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:
So you’ll see it’s reminiscent of sword parts (as I’ve learned them reading the kind of books I did growing up ^^), which I hope you’ll excuse (not having known better).
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.
That’s what made me buy the blade on the far left—when it still had a handle, that is. I admit I was rather um, suspiciously surprised it was so cheap (60 bucks (about USD1.15). I usually have to pay through the nose (1 or 2 grand even) to buy a knife, so I knew something had to be up.
Sure enough, it didn’t take an hour for me to wreck that knife (hence the state it’s in in the photo). It started to wiggle in the handle while I was using it, and sure enough the neck came right out. Welp! Lesson learned for jill—if it’s too cheap to be true, it probably is, lol.
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.
I don't purport to know everything. Yet if the little I do know can be of any help, you are more than welcome to it.