Has oil painting been difficult or lost its luster? Did you know that palette knife of yours is your most versatile tool next to your paintbrush?
Palette knife painting allows you to add textures and effects to your work that you’re missing out on using just your paintbrush.
By the end of this article, you’ll know how to use these techniques to add interest and style to your paintings.
What is Palette Knife Painting?
Palette knife painting is when an artist uses their palette knife to apply paint to create texture and fine detail on their canvas that’s harder to achieve with a brush.
Palette knife painting gained popularity in the 19th century because it allowed an artist to apply thick paint to a canvas creating texture with ease and minimal clean-up.
The techniques of applying paint with a painting knife include impasto, broken color, marbling, and sgraffito. These we will discuss in the tutorial below, so stay tuned…
What You’ll Need To Start Palette Knife Painting:
- A palette knife
- A canvas or similar
- A palette (for your paints)
- Storage after painting
Before you start shopping, there are certain things you need to consider.
Choosing a Palette Knife
Palette knives come in different shapes and materials. We are looking for a palette knife with a rhombus-shaped, flexible blade and a bend similar to a trowel. With this basic shape, you can accomplish many techniques, such as impasto, with a palette knife.
Painting knives come in different materials like wood, ivory, metal, and plastic. Metal and plastic knives are easier to find and less expensive.
Either is fine for these painting techniques; however, if you want your painting knives to last longer, the metal ones are the better choice. They are easier to keep clean and are less likely to break under pressure like plastic knives.
These palette knives are my go-to because they are affordable and durable. However, these plastic knives will work if you’re strapped for cash, these plastic knives will work.
A Painting Surface
For something to apply your palette knife strokes, pick from a canvas, canvas panel, canvas paper, or oil paper according to your personal preference. I like using canvas panels for practice. They are inexpensive, and their stiff surface makes for better support under pressure.
If you apply paint to one of the canvas options, ensure you’ve prepped it with gesso. The oil paper is ready to go as-is.
Palettes come in different materials, including glass, plastic, wood, and paper. I prefer this glass palette in gray. It has a smooth surface perfect for mixing oil and acrylic paint which also aids in clean-up. Additionally, the neutral gray color ensures color accuracy. An inexpensive option is a disposable palette pad.
You can do palette knife painting with acrylic paint or oils. For this tutorial, let’s use oils.
You may notice “student-grade” labels. These are for general use, and the term is used interchangeably for “lower quality.”
While you don’t need the best paint, you also don’t want the cheapest. A medium tier will have better consistency and will last longer once dried.
If you’re just starting with oils, this Winsor & Newton Introductory Set is a good compromise on cost and quality. The set includes ten colors that make a full-color palette. You can refer to this article for more paint options.
After painting, you’ll need a place to store your palette because it would be a shame to waste unused paint. This Masterson Sta-Wet Palette Seal holds a 9×12-inch palette and will keep your paint usable for up to 3 weeks.
If you leave your oil paint out, it will develop a “skin” that you can peel away to reveal wet paint, which is an acceptable option for up to a week.
Is there anything else you need to paint? Yes, if you don’t already have other supplies, this article covers anything else you need. You’ll find information regarding oil paint mediums like turpenoid and linseed oil and what easels you may find preferable.
Okay, now that you’re set-up, let’s dive in.
Step 1: Mixing Paint
Once you have your paints lined up and separated on your palette, you may want to mix up some extra colors such as orange, gray, violet, or any shade or hue combination you can think of.
Let’s start with orange. Place the tip of your palette knife into the Windsor yellow from the paint set mentioned above (the bright yellow that’s not the yellow ochre if you’re using a different set.) to scoop a little pea-sized bit of paint up. You’ll move to an empty area of your palette and scrape the paint off the palette knife.
Next, take the tiniest amount of alizarin crimson onto your painting knife (about the size of a kosher salt crystal). Now, press it into the Windsor yellow. Using the edge of the knife, scoop up the two colors and scrape them back onto the palette, being sure to smear them as you do.
Repeat this process until you have a nice uniform color without any streaks. Ta-da! You’ve officially completed step one of palette knife painting. Now you can make any color combination you’d like.
Step 2: Learning Techniques
Impasto is when the paint is applied to the surface thickly to add texture, and it’s easier than you think.
Similar to when you mix your paint, you’ll scoop up some paint with your knife edge. Instead of scooping the paint onto the top of the painting knife, you’ll tilt the blade slightly, getting the color onto the bottom of the blade.
Now, press it onto your canvas any way you like. Stamp the blade onto the canvas to leave the angular shape of the blade, or smear the paint as you press to create a longer swatch of color. When you already have paint on the canvas, use the edge or point of your painting knife to etch in other textures.
As you see in Poppy Field Impression, the artist returned with the palette knife and pressed the blade’s edge in the paint to create the lines you see.
Check out this video to see the technique in action:
Pointillism is another palette knife painting technique where you press the paint onto the canvas. It’s similar to impasto. As you can see in Autumn Trail with Maple Leaves in the Park, the palette knife is dipped into the paint, and only the tip is used to create paint points on the canvas.
Similarly, you can use this pointillism technique to add bursts of color to your painting. It accentuates features such as street lights on a dark road or flowers in a distant meadow. This will add dimension to the image.
The artist uses acrylics to demonstrate the pointillism technique. The concept is the same with oils, but the paint will take longer to dry.
There are two ways to create a gradient. The first is carefully placing different colored paints onto the same palette knife without mixing them. Then press this onto the canvas pulling downward, and the two colors blend where they meet on the painting knife. To incorporate more, place your knife back at the top of the gradient and pull down again.
This maneuver is similar to how you would create a marbling effect. However, instead of just pulling down, move in a swirling motion. You want to create areas with combined colors and streaks where the colors are pure. To do this, just ensure that you don’t apply pressure to the blade and you stop before the colors mix too much.
The second method of creating a gradient is by placing one color on your canvas on one side and then another color next to it. You then take the palette knife and blend the two colors, creating the gradient.
Creating lines with a palette knife simply uses the side or tip of the painting knife and dragging paint with it. Get a little color on the blade’s edge by tapping it into the paint on your palette and drawing on your canvas like that. Alternatively, drag your knife through an impastoed area to create lines around it, as shown in the screenshot above.
A little-known use of your palette knife is as an eraser. If you’ve made a mistake while the paint is still wet, you can use the palette knife to scrape it off and start anew.
Similarly, if you purposely let the paint dry, you can use the blade of your palette knife to scratch the dried paint away, revealing the layer underneath. The pottery example above illustrates this technique perfectly.
The last palette knife painting technique is called scumbling or broken color. You take the flat side of the palette knife and use it to smear paint onto the canvas lightly. It’s the perfect knife painting method to create snow-covered mountain peaks and sun-dappled water.
In the words of Bob Ross, “use absolutely no pressure. Just like an angel’s wing.”
Speaking of Bob, who better to show you these palette knife strokes than the master himself?
Step 3: Test Drive
Now that we have gone over the various palette knife painting techniques, let’s grab our palette knives and create art.
Landscape Painting with a Palette Knife
Creating a landscape with a palette knife uses as many of the above techniques as you want to. Typically, a landscape painting will use impasto, pointillism, and scumbling. This video shows you how to use your palette knife to create a landscape in 20 minutes.
If you want to learn more about palette knife landscape painting (and landscape painting in general), check out this New Masters Academy course.
Portraiture with a Palette Knife
Portraiture with a palette knife will generally use all techniques save for sgraffito. Rendering a portrait is daunting, but many find it easier to use palette knives than paintbrushes. This video demonstrates exactly how to manipulate your palette knife to create a portrait from scratch.
For more palette knife portraiture, check out this portrait painting for beginners course by Joseph Todorovitch.
Abstract Palette Knife Painting
Like landscape painting with a palette knife, abstract painting will use as many techniques as you want. This youtube tutorial walks you through abstract using a painting knife in under 5 minutes.
Step 4: Clean-up
Storing Unused Paints
First, you’ll want to keep the palette as untouched as possible. To do this, storing it in an airtight container like the Masterson Sta-Wet palette seal is your best option. It will keep your oil paints wet for up to 3 weeks.
Alternatively, you can leave your palette out in the open. The paint will form a protective skin, showing wet paint underneath. This is only a suitable storage method for up to a week. After that, the paint will be rock-hard.
Acrylic paint palettes can be stored in this palette seal as well. While your oil palette can just be placed in and sealed as-is, you’ll need to have a wet cloth or wet sponge insert under your acrylic palette. This keeps the environment in the seal humid so your acrylic paints stay wet.
If you’ve let your paint dry on the palette, your palette knife is excellent for scraping off the dried paint. (Of course, if you used the disposable palette pad, just throw the palette away). Sometimes the color is so dry that you’ll need to wet it just enough to scrape it off.
In this situation, a solvent comes in handy. I’ll dip a cloth or paper towel into some turpenoid and use that to baste the dry paint. Let it sit for just a second before using the palette knife to scrape. Once the paint is scraped off, wipe anything wet off (such as streaks of stained turpenoid).
Maintaining the Palette Knives
Cleaning your palette knife is the most critical step in keeping your palette knives in good working order. Before the paint dries on it, take a paper towel or a lint-free cloth and wipe it clean. If there’s a little bit of dried paint on it, dip the palette knife in turpenoid and immediately wipe clean with a lint-free cloth.
If you have metal palette knives, it’s best to keep them away from humidity that can cause them to rust.
Storing Your Painting
Oil paints can take several weeks to dry, primarily if you paint thickly. I have a drying rack for wet canvases, but these can be expensive. You can leave the painting on the easel to dry or set it out on a table where nothing will disturb it.
If you have pets or kids, you want to ensure it’s out of their reach to minimize the risk of your painting getting ruined and making your pets or kids sick (some pigments can be toxic). Wherever you leave your artwork, ensure that you have it away from a window in a cool, dry place.
To keep those creative juices flowing, check out these paintings done by some talented artists. The possibilities are endless with palette knife painting.
Ginette is a watercolorist and oil painter. She does her palette knife painting with oils. Her subject is mainly landscapes, and looking at the Old Oak Tree knife painting, she flawlessly employs the impasto technique.
Lau is a Chinese artist who paints with oils and only does palette knife painting. As you can see in Autumn Birch, he combines vibrant colors and rich texture to create breathtaking work.
Vincent Van Gogh
Famous for his sunflower paintings and The Starry Night, Van Gogh used the palette knife to create his iconic impressionist style. In fact, many of his works were knife paintings.
Do you want even more inspiration? Check out this article for easy oil painting ideas.
It’s A Wrap
In this article, you learned how to apply paint with palette knife painting techniques and explored how to implement these techniques into artwork.
If you’d like to dive deeper into oil painting, check out this mini course from Evolve. This 15-minute course will give you the skills you need to create depth and volume in your art, and you can use these skills in any new palette knife paintings you make.
Did you enjoy this tutorial? What was your favorite technique? Will you use these techniques in your future paintings? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image: Reincarnation by Leonid Afremov