How to use palette knives

Have you ever wondered what artists use pallet knives for? Not only are they used for mixing paint but you can also paint with them. Painting with them in acrylic or oil paint gives an impasto effect, thick layers or thin if you prefer. Over the past 30 years our students have asked us the same questions about the use of pallet knives. Here are the most popular questions and the answers we gave…

What is a pallet knife?
-A palette knife is a metal blade in various shapes, held by a wooden handle. These are also available in plastic but are more rigid.

Metal or plastic?
– the metal palette knives have more spring to them. The plastic palette knives are more rigid.

What do I use a pallet knife for?
– mixing paint
– applying paint
– cleaning your paint pallet by scraping off the paint

When do I use a palette knife and when a brush?
-Any picture can be made with either a palette knive or brush or a combination of both. With palette knives you can create texture and a rougher and looser effect. For more detail you are better off using brushes. Palette knives can be used in combination with brushes. Together they can create different effects. Sweeping strokes and refind details.

What medium can I use with pallet knife?
-You can use acrylic or oil paint.
– you can add gells with acrylic or oil paste to thicken your paint for a more impasto effect.

How do I clean my pallet knives?
– With a wipe of paper you can get rid of all the paint on your knife. No need for chemicals to clean up with, just some elbow greace.

What size or shapes do I use for my painting?
-First of all it depends what you are painting. If it’s a landscape with lots of skies, rolling hills and trees you could use the larger pallet knives. Large areas of colour, like skies or water need a large sized knife. Smaller areas or details you can fill with a smaller knife. The smaller the detail, the smaller the knife.

-You can use the pallet knife with either thick or thin paint. Smooth or rough, light or dark. And also use the texture of the surface to create the needed effect.

What surface do I work on?
– a painters board or any riggid gessoed surface.
– gessoed Masonite is a good surface to work from.
– you can also work on a canvas. But make sure you have used the wedges at the back to tighten the canvas. We show you how to do this in our demonstration film.

What effects can I create with the pallet knives?
– That depends on the knife size and shape. The amount of paint and the way the knife is held will determine what effect you create. In general more paint is used with a knife than with a brush. Different shapes make different effects. For example, a lot of paint smeered by a long thin pallet knife will spread and cover a great area of your canvas. But if you use a lot of paint and spread it with a small triangular knife the effect will be very different.

 Are there any alternatives to pallet knives?
– You can make your own tool by cutting up plastic cards, into any shape or length to suit what ever you are painting. You could make a comb shape for example to make a grass effect or a rounded edge shape to create clouds or hills…

Some additional tips:
– When painting with knives don’t add any medium or anything to thin it down as you need the paint to be thick so that it will stay where it is put.

– Apply the paint with the knife as you would apply icing on a cake. You can either go for a flat and smooth surface or you can manipulate the paint and add texture with the knife to create stripes or swirls. Different effects can be achieved with different movements.

– Painting with pallet knives produces thin and thick strokes, by using either the flat side of the knife or the side. Highlights can be given with the tip of a knife.

-More than one colour can be put on to the knife, so when it is used you can create stripes.

-Clean each blade with paper or a soft cloth between each knife stroke so that you don’t mix colours or damage your surfaces.

Show us what you have painted with pallet knives. Perhaps you would like to be featured in our ‘Featured Artists’ page with your work and show the world your art.