Painting With A Knife!
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By Goodnight-Melbourne   |   
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Painting With A Knife!

The Theory

You all may have seen those old masterpieces – painted in impasto techniques with rich and bold use of thick coats of colours and you have wondered how on earth they could do that.

So lets take a peek in the old masters' tools and techniques.
Today we will talk about a less used traditional technique – painting with a knife. Though it's a second most famous technique but not much artists use this technique.

Painting with a knife results in excellent textures, helps in bold application of thick rich colours, and, gives a whole new different level and style to your paintings.

Painting knives are very useful in impasto technique – both in acrylics and oils. Besides interesting textures, this certain tool gives you more control over paint and opens up a lot of ways to experiment. In one sentence, painting with a knife brings up your painting styles at a new height.

Some people says this technique can't be used to put great details. I would not agree with it. Rembrandt could put great details with a knife!

So I'm going to share some basic tips and tricks of painting with a knife to get you started. The rest is only experiment and experiment.

N.B. I am self taught. Whatever I learned and discovered is mostly by trial and error process. And the rest by reading and asking for other artists' advises. So if you know a shorter way to put forth the techniques or if you have more tips to offer, please share. :hug: We always learn.

1. Know your tools:

This is the most important part. You should have a clear idea about your tool of trade.

There are two kinds of knives related to painting – Painting Knife and Palette Knife. A lot of people gets confused and intermixes the names.

A Painting Knife, made of steel, has a highly curved neck to keep your knuckles off the canvas, sharp edges and a very flexible blade. It comes in different shapes and sizes.

A Palette Knife is a long blunt-head knife – visually almost similar to a butter-knife which may or may not have a curve on neck – if it has, then it would not be much.

A typical Palette knife.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Both of the knives can be used to paint, mix, and clean your palette but a palette knife is best for the later two.

Also, local shops may call them differently at some places. The shop I went, did not understand what I was asking for and later I got to know that they know it as 'Spatula' and have no knowledge of the differences between a painting and palette knife. Anyways, so it's good to know that what your local shops call them. If they do not understand you, show them a picture.

It totally depends on your skills to perform any artistic operation with any kind of tools, but palette knife is not usually recommended to paint because it is not flexible much and has low crank. But let that not discourage you – a lot of famous artists use palette knife to paint.

Tip: While buying a painting knife, always check how much is the crank on its neck and how flexible its blade is.

Painting knives

High crank painting knives are better choices.

 2. Colour mixing and applying:

(Acrylics and oil paints only.) Both painting knives and palette knives are best for mixing colours. It can mix colours in a way that the brushes can never do. Just take two or more colours and mix them with the knives like you spread butter. Left to right and right to left. Saw how the builders mix cements and sands with trowels? Exactly the same way. Just be sure the paint stays underneath the knife. Else it will waste and make the knife dirty. It will take some practice. Most of the professional artists in the world use a knife to mix their paints.

Applying is more easy. Just move your hand in any direction you want. You will get a nice texture naturally. Just be sure to take enough paint and apply it thickly and then spread exactly the same way you spread jam or butter on toast. It's more fun than a brush in my opinion. Applying paints with knife is not at all like applying with a brush. The experience is like applying paint with a steel finger.

Paint mixing with a painting knife

While spreading, keep one edge of the blade on the canvas and the other edge slightly lifted from the surface and now spread the paints. If you keep the entire knife's surface on the canvas, you can't drag the paints much further. 

Tip: While painting with acrylics, dip your knife in water before mixing paints – the water on its blade will increase the paint's fluidity.

3. Clean it! Everytime!

Grab a roll of tissue paper and before using different colours, always ALWAYS wipe the previous colours off the knife. Everytime! Else you will get a muddy canvas. Wipe it even before applying different shades of same colour.

4. On Canvas mixing:

A great advantage of using painting knives are that you can mix colours directly on the canvas. Just the same way you mix colours on the palette. Spread it into each-other and spread all the way down, It will create a nice gradient and excellent texture. It may or may not give a smooth gradient but that's the beauty of it.

It's very useful for painting skies and oceans and abstract paintings. You can mix different blues and create depth thus. Without premixing. Though obviously you should have an idea of what you want to do.

And if you don't like it – you can easily peel the colours off the canvas with the sharp edges of the knife. In acrylics, you really have to be sure and quick. But you can always paint over in acrylics.

5. Control on paints:

Painting knifes gives you total control over your paints. You can take a glob of paint and spread it to cover larger areas or take a minute amount on its tip for smaller details. And having a flexible blade, it gives an almost close experience of painting with your fingers. A good flexible knife will bend according to the exact pressure that you will put on it with fingers and it will apply that much paint only.

You may use more than one knife to paint. I use only one diamond shaped knife but many artists use two. One big knife to block the large areas and one small and sharp for details. That is a pretty scientific method.

Tip: You are going to need lot of paints. You may have heard it before - "if you want to paint well, load your brush with enough paints". Well in this case, you will need even more paint than that. But the result is worth it.

6. Textures:

Thick application of paints and your whimsical movements of hand are bound to create outstanding textures on canvas. Do not rush to give a smooth finish. Spread the paint and see how beautiful it is when it dries. Random movement of the knife will give nice impressions of clouds in skies.

Also painting knives has sharp edges- those are every useful for defining/painting straight lines, edges of objects etc. After painting, you can try to scrap the paint off at some parts and it may create a strong contrast between light and dark and create three dimensional view of an object.  

For example- a rock. The following kind of knives are very good for painting rocks. Apply the darker paint and when it is drying, scrap some portion of it here and there to give it a feel of rock's shape and voilà! Now there is a strong dark value and lighter value from where you scraped off the paint. That should give the idea of a rock.

This kind of knives are good for painting rocks.

[click for a larger view]

It's not a trick how to paint rocks. It's a trick how two different values can be created with a painting knife simply.

 7. Achieve a smooth finish (acrylics only):

You may want to paint a smooth gradient of colours sometimes. In that case, you can try the following trick -

First apply and spread the first colour, let it dry for a while but not completely. Then apply the second colour on it. Obviously it will not mix at first - so now dip your knife in the jar of water, make it wet and do not shake the water off, and, just press and move it over the two colours. Yes, this time put the entire blade of the knife on canvas and move, not the edges. Specially on the mixing point of two colours. Keep doing this step until you see the colours are creating a subtle gradient. And be patient.
Additionally, you can mix a middle colour and apply but that is not needed. The water on the knife will do that for you.

Cardinalis cardinalis by Goodnight-Melbourne
I made a subtle gradient of muddy blue (bottom left) and lighter blue (rest) in the background using the same method.

8. Applying multiple colours:

Look at the tree branch in the previous photo where the bird is sitting. That gives almost a closer impression of a tree branch. Let me tell you that was done with only one single stroke!

It's a trick. Mix two colours that you need to create light and dark value and take the colours on either side of a thin diamond shaped blade (Always take the paints beneath the blade, never on the blade) and drag it on canvas now. The colours underneath will mix with each-other and create a tree bark like texture. This method is great for creating tree and wood textures.

I first saw Len Hend doing this technique and later saw Christian Jequel applies more than two colours and he can apply it on anything. It gives nice vibrant colourful textures.

For more informations on this particular topic– see the tutorials links at the bottom of this journal.

Fun Trick for absolute beginners:

9. Accidental genius:

Disclaimer: I'm not responsible in any way if you ruin your painting! :D  It's a fun-to-try trick! Try at your own risk. You have been warned.

You must have noticed how some painting-accidents turned out to be beautiful looking results. Now the sad thing is it's accident right? We can't predict it! But we can increase the chance of it.

For example: sometimes a light warm stroke of colour looks pretty nice on a large darkly painted area. Now it is good if it comes randomly, not by intention. So why don't we put the desired colour whose random stroke we will like, near the other colours. And the knife will pick the colour up without your knowledge and create a random stroke on canvas. Now it may disappoint you or make you happy. Totally depends on you. It used to make me happy. I always loved the random strokes. But these were when I started painting. Later I got confident and now I willingly put the strokes myself, without depending on the knife. I now have a clear idea of colours values and tones – which fits where etc. So it's just experience.

Paint like crazy and you will have your own trick one day too. Don't forget to share with others. Knowledge is no one's property. We must let it flow. Knowledge can't be stolen. What you learn today, you can teach others and they can teach more people. You will be alive among people by your knowledge.

So learn, share, love and be happy. And paint like insane. And stay tuned.


Edit: (28th July, 2015) The next step is here Painting With A Knife! (The Practical - 1)


Knife paintings from various dA artists.
Rainy Alley by the Lake by Leonid Afremov by LeonidafremovLittle Red Mug by turningshadowPoppy Field by MichaleDean
Mist by StudioUndertheMoon736site by Diriane
Soulful Charles -- SOLD by tilentiValletta Twilight 11 by Micko-vic
Setting Sail 8 by Micko-vic
Gesto Farm, Skye by NaismithArt
Village by Malahicha
Village by Malahicha

Useful resources

Painting knife tutorials……… (Christian Jequel)'m/watch?v=ZY0Pv… (Len Hend)

Other artists' tutorials on acrylics and oils… (Len Hend) (Will Kemp)

Famous Artists on deviantART who paint with knives

:iconleonidafremov: :iconturningshadow: :icondiriane: :iconstudiounderthemoon: :iconnaismithart: :icontilenti: :iconartsaus: :iconmkhankova: :iconmicko-vic: :iconmalahicha: :iconsungjunkim:

anonymous's avatar
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marilyndraws's avatar
marilyndrawsProfessional Digital Artist
Thank you for the tips; very helpful!
Cyneburg's avatar
CyneburgHobbyist General Artist
I just bought a simple set of palette knives today. Thanks for the help :D
Goodnight-Melbourne's avatar
Goodnight-MelbourneProfessional Traditional Artist
Palette knives or Painting knives? :)
Goodluck for your art and experiments :thumbsup:
Cyneburg's avatar
CyneburgHobbyist General Artist
The bag says palette knives. They're made of plastic, so obviously not as good quality as yours, but I just wanted something simple to start :)
And thanks! I've always admired the impasto effect made from painting knives
Goodnight-Melbourne's avatar
Goodnight-MelbourneProfessional Traditional Artist
The problem with plastic is that you will be afraid to put enough pressure - other than that, it's fine! And here is a tip - (assuming that the set is actually of painting knives, because palette knives come in one shape only) Pick just one knife which suits your need and train yourself to do the most work done by that one knife! Don't get overwhelmed to see all those different shaped knives. I use only one knife among all those. I saw in a video tutorial that Leonard Afremov used only two knives. So use less, do more. A diamond shaped knife is best for work in my opinion. Goodluck :)
Cyneburg's avatar
CyneburgHobbyist General Artist
You're right about them being painting knives. And thanks for the great advice! Using only one knife will definitely makes things easier. I usually only use one or two brushes, so it's easier to adjust. I'll also experiment with putting pressure on the knife.
Thanks for the great advice! :)
Mayeaux's avatar
MayeauxHobbyist General Artist
Goodnight-Melbourne's avatar
Goodnight-MelbourneProfessional Traditional Artist
Glad to know :TipOfTheHat: 
pulbern's avatar
pulbernHobbyist General Artist
So rad! I think I've been inspired to try it out. :w00t:
Goodnight-Melbourne's avatar
Goodnight-MelbourneProfessional Traditional Artist
I'm glad to know :) :TipOfTheHat: 
Coramel's avatar
Nice article, great for inspiration! :D

And I have to say, that knife colour mixing gif was rather soothing somehow
Goodnight-Melbourne's avatar
Goodnight-MelbourneProfessional Traditional Artist
Thank you :TipOfTheHat: 

Umm I didn't understand ...was the gif bad? ^^;
Coramel's avatar
No no, it wasn't bad at all! It was somewhat calming :)
Goodnight-Melbourne's avatar
Goodnight-MelbourneProfessional Traditional Artist
Ah I see :) Thank you :)
I made it directly from a video that I took and kept the frames per minute high for a smooth transition :)
canttel's avatar
canttelHobbyist Digital Artist
I luv art and i hate school but if they teach art i would actialy look forward to schol! 
BombouGamiGa's avatar
BombouGamiGaStudent Interface Designer
Uhm, there ARE art schools. A lot of them. And Universitys too.
canttel's avatar
canttelHobbyist Digital Artist
The school i go to is anything BUT art
BombouGamiGa's avatar
BombouGamiGaStudent Interface Designer
oh, that's sad :( But you can always change schools(i guess) or go to a art school/university later.
Goodnight-Melbourne's avatar
Goodnight-MelbourneProfessional Traditional Artist
That's everybody's wish :D
Knooooo5's avatar
Knooooo5Student Traditional Artist
Goodnight-Melbourne's avatar
Goodnight-MelbourneProfessional Traditional Artist
Thank you :TipOfTheHat: 
cattieloves's avatar
This poet wants to try! You've made it so accessible and not so scary!
Goodnight-Melbourne's avatar
Goodnight-MelbourneProfessional Traditional Artist
Haha :D My pleasure :TipOfTheHat: 
BanniLynn's avatar
BanniLynnHobbyist Digital Artist
This is amazing! I can't wait to play with my knives some more!
anonymous's avatar
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