painting knife painting, Musician, oil  on board,  by Beth Inglis Simmons


For artists, brushes aren’t always the best tools for making art. Brent Cotton, a living artist in Montana, says his painting pieces are usually  three quarters done by using a “palette knife”. Otherwise, he finds some hardware store brushes to lay in the initial draft of his painting. Palette or painting knives offer much for the artist. To clarify if necessary, there is a difference between a palette knife and a painting one. A palette knife generally has a long blade which is used to mix paints on a palette. They also clean palettes by scraping off  unused paint. A painting knife has a somewhat flexible metal blade with a wood handle. Just above the blade, there is a bend whose purpose is to keep knuckles from touching wet paint on the canvas.  Blades come in pear , diamond, and trowel shapes. The similarities between palette and painting knives include having blunt  ends and very sharp edges. Both palette and painting  knives are available in various sizes.

Why use painting knives instead of brushes? For one, to get different effects like impasto texture, large areas of smooth flat color and to make a three-dimensional effect. Painting knife method does liven up an area of dull color and enables an artist to paint more loosely and painterly.  Plus, painting knives are much easier to clean. Just wipe off excess paint with a clean cloth.

Which is better: to use metal or plastic? For those starting out, plastic painting knives are ok;  however, the springiness of a steel blade can’t be beat for  more advanced painters. These steel knives are less likely to break and will last longer, too. In the spirit of experimentation, other knife like materials to use are old credit cards cut in half and metal or plastic rulers.


Painting knives generally have blunt ends but come in different shapes and sizes. For example, an angular long blade makes sweeps of color , while a knife  with a more rounded end is useful for adding dabs of color layering. A sharper, pointed blade works well for making sgraffito, as in scratching in blades of grass. When choosing a knife, one which  is comfortable to hold and has a “springy” blade is best.

The versatility of painting with a painting knife is worth doing. For example, to first get paint on the canvas hold the knife like a conductor holds a baton and then sweep up swaths of thickly mixed paint with the side of the knife. For small details, use the tip. Cleaning your knife withe the wipe of a clean rag after applying each color keeps your colors from getting muddy.

Another technique is to use the long side of the knife and apply paint like buttering a piece of bread. To create some texture, press the blade to the surface and lift off. For fine lines, use the edge or tip of the blade and for dots, use the rounded tip of the blade, which is similar to a filbert brush. To make some heavy duty ridges, press  the blade flat into thick paint. Sgraffito is a useful way to expose the under layers of paint perhaps made with a brush.

Painting without brushes is nothing new or modern. Renaissance and Baroque artists used  this painterly style. Van Gogh painted with painting knives in the 19th century and artists like Jackson Pollock and Frank Auerbach did so in the 20th century. There is much wisdom to be gained from the past. For example, to avoid cracking of the paint as it dries, use a very firm surface for the painting to begin with such as Ampersand and Gessobord. Also when making an under painting, use oil paint thinned with Gamblin Gamsol, or something comparable,   and then apply the mixture with a large bristle brush like a #10 or #12. For the under painting using analogous colors to the final layer brings greater harmony to the painting.

Best to let knife paintings dry for a long time. Dry to the touch is deceiving because usually there are under layers that are still wet. Sometimes a painting takes 6-12 months to dry, after which it is advisable  to varnish as a seal of protection.

In conclusion, if there are too many hard edges in the painting, soften them by using a paint brush or to let the first layer appear through the second layer. What are the advantages of painting with knives? There are many  but mostly to facilitate painting with energy and expression!