When you picture an artist working on a painting, you probably envision them using a paintbrush. But you can also create gorgeous artwork with palette knives. These tools are usually used for mixing paint colors but work well as a unique painting tool, too. And even novice artists can use this technique because palette knife painting is ideal for making abstract art.
If this style of painting feels unfamiliar, it's likely that you just don't know it by name. Impasto painting, which refers to art formed with thick, textured strokes of paint, is commonly made with a palette knife. (It was also a favorite tool of Bob Ross!)
When working with a palette knife, you can add layers of paint without waiting for a layer to fully dry, because of how you apply the paint. These tools are also highly versatile and easy to clean.
Palette knives come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but a basic set is all you need to get started. You can find plastic palette knives, but metal blades with wooden handles will last much longer and are still reasonably priced.
You'll also need something on which to mix and pick up the paint. A traditional artist's palette is ideal, but you can also use a paint tray with larger flat areas or even a disposable plate. The more colors you want to work with at a time, the more space you should have to work on.
For this tutorial, we're using acrylic paint, but you can use this technique for oil paint as well. And don't be afraid to experiment as you work with palette knives. As with anything, playing and practicing go hand in hand when getting good at a new skill.
Ready to spread some paint on a canvas (or even a piece of hardboard or wood)?
Equipment / Tools
- Palette or Disposible Plate
- Basic Palette Knives
- Paper Towels or a Cloth
- Stretched Canvas
- Artist's Acrylic Paint
Prepare Your Canvas
Inexpensive stretched canvases come ready to use; however, you should check and see if you need to prime your canvas before you start painting.
It's usually helpful to start with some simple sketches for anything you plan on painting. Even if you are just planning on adding random colors, sectioning the canvas and getting a rough idea of the composition can make a big difference. Once you start adding paint, the lines will get covered quickly, but planning helps. You can even snap a phone pic for reference.
Prepare Your Paint
Squeeze some paint onto your palette. This will use more paint than you might expect, so don't be afraid to start with a few big blobs of paint. You can work with single colors or a few colors that will blend well together.
Use your palette knife to blend the colors a bit without overmixing. Use the cloth to scrape or wipe the knife clean before picking up paint to add to the canvas. Cleaning off the knives regularly as you work is also helpful for keeping colors and strokes from overblending.
The thickness of the paint itself can make a big difference in how your palette knife painting comes out. Craft acrylic is much thinner than artist's acrylic and isn't ideal for this. You may even want to add a thick gel medium to get more texture.
Hold the knife at an angle as you spread the paint on the canvas. The motion should be like spreading butter on bread.
You can cover large areas with thin layers of color this way.
You can also hold an offset knife so the flat blade smoothes over the canvas and paint, making thicker, more textured layers of color.
Another technique for working with layers of paint is to use the tip of the palette knife to scratch or scrape designs into the paint. The lines can add movement to your artwork.
Foreground Painting Techniques
To add thicker areas of paint to the foreground, try swirling the paint onto the canvas and working with it to form textures.
If you find that you have too much paint on your art surface, you can also use a palette knife to scrape away any excess paint.
Another way to hold and use a palette knife is to turn it on its edge. The edge is ideal for making straight lines of color or working more texture into a design.
The tips and shapes of the knives allow you to work with the paint in many ways, such as with the edges of this flower.
You may also find that it helps to rotate the canvas as you work so you can more easily maneuver the palette knife.
The palette knife tips are also suitable for adding tiny dots to your painting. Again, by playing and experimenting, you'll find ways to use these tools and make all kinds of abstract and non-representational art.
Finish With Details
Add more details and depth to your painting with more layers of color. Use different sizes and shapes of knives to get the effect you want, or considering using a paintbrush for elements you can't achieve with a palette knife.
Because palette knife painting generally uses a lot of paint, it can take a while for your painting to dry. Keep it in a safe space until the paint has cured, then display it to show off your artwork!