How to Do Palette Knife Painting

How to Do Palette Knife Painting

The Spruce Crafts / Mollie Johanson

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 1 hr, 30 mins - 4 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $40

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.

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.

A Basic Set of Wood-Handled Palette Knives

The Spruce Crafts / Mollie Johanson

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.

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!)

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.

Ready to spread some paint on a canvas (or even a piece of hardboard or wood)?

Mixing Paint Colors With Palette Knives

The Spruce Crafts / Mollie Johanson

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Palette or disposable plate
  • Basic palette knives
  • Paper towels or a cloth


  • Stretched canvas
  • Artist's acrylic paint


  1. 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.

    Sketch a Rough Layout on Your Canvas
    Mollie Johanson
  2. 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.

    Blobs of Aqua, Green, and Yellow Paint
    Mollie Johanson

    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.

    Gently Blend the Shades of Paint With a Palette Knife
    Mollie Johanson
  3. Background Techniques

    Hold the knife at an angle as you spread the paint on the canvas. The motion should be like spreading butter on bread.

    Paint Spread on the Canvas in a Thin Layer
    Mollie Johanson

    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.

    Paint Swirled and Spread in a Thick Layer
    Mollie Johanson

    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.

    Lines Scraped Into the Paint With the Palette Knife Tip
    Mollie Johanson
  4. 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.

    Paint Dabbed on With a Knife to Make a Flower Shape
    Mollie Johanson

    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.

    Scrape Away Extra Paint as Needed
    Mollie Johanson

    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.

    Texture and Color Lines Formed With the Edge of a Palette Knife
    Mollie Johanson

    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.

    Painted Shapes Formed With Different Palette Knife Shapes
    Mollie Johanson

    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.

    Dots Painted With the Tip of a Palette Knife
    Mollie Johanson
  5. 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.

    Layered Painting Details Added With a Palette Knife
    Mollie Johanson

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!

Floral Painting With Palette Knives

The Spruce Crafts / Mollie Johanson