Palette knife painting for beginners
Palette knife painting is a great technique to try when you're developing your painting style – and you may find that it quickly becomes your favourite painting method!
If you're looking to expand your repertoire of painting techniques, palette knife painting can be a great way to explore a new style. You may even prefer it to painting with a brush!
Palette knife painting can be a good way to get out of a creative rut and free up your painting style. You can use a palette knife in combination with paint brushes or by itself, depending on the effects that you want to achieve. Experiment and see what works for you!
Painting with a palette knife is a little different to painting with a brush. You can create some interesting effects, but it's not the best tool for painting precisely. For this reason, an artist will often use these tools to to create an abstract palette knife painting.
Palette knives are great for abstract painting because they allow you to create a variety of textures and effects. You can use a palette knife to create grooves and ridges on your canvas if you like. You can even blend the colours on the surface as you work.
You don't have to stick to abstract painting though – you can also produce dramatic landscapes, intriguing portraits or even still life paintings using a palette knife. It's fun to experiment with different themes to find the ones that you enjoy the most.
In this guide, we'll cover palette knife painting for beginners. We'll look at the materials you'll need as well as some basic techniques to help you get started.
What is palette knife painting?
Palette knife painting is a technique where paint is applied to paper or a canvas using a palette knife. In palette knife painting, acrylic paints or oil paints are applied thickly to create a rich textured effect. This is known as impasto (more on that later!).
Palette knives used for painting are known as painting knives, but many people use the terms interchangeably so I'll be referring to them as palette knives in this article. Painting knives tend to be angled slightly so that you don't smudge the painting with your hand as you work. This helps keep your hands clean and stops you damaging your work by accident.
Famous artists who used palette knives in their work include Vincent Van Gogh, Marc Chagall, Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse. Today, palette knife painting is often used to create more abstract works of art.
Palette knife painting materials
Palette knives have lots of advantages over paint brushes. To start with, they're very easy to keep clean and just need to be wiped after use – or if you want to switch between colours.
When you're looking for a palette knife, you can buy them individually or in sets. When you're choosing a palette knife (sometimes called a painting knife), look for some flexibility in the blade and a handle that feels comfortable. It should be sturdy too.
Your palette knife will last you for a long time if you take care of it and clean it thoroughly after every use. If you don't do this, paint can build up on the tool and you won't achieve clean lines when you use it.
A large knife is useful for covering large areas of your canvas with paint, while a mid-sized knife is better for adding details to your work.
Artists who work with palette knives usually use acrylic paints or oil paints for best results. Acrylic is a good choice if you want to work quickly, as these paints dry much more quickly than oil paints. If you want to add more dimension to your painting, you can use heavy body acrylic paints for a more structural look.
If you don't want to buy an entirely new set of acrylic paints then there are mediums which can thicken your paints. These will often have names such as structure gel or texture paste.
Finally, we'd recommend using a canvas or canvas board when you're doing palette knife painting if you're planning to layer the paint on thickly. If you're using a palette knife on paper, make sure it is a heavy, thick paper which is designed for acrylics. If you don't have a lot of room for painting in your home, canvas boards are a good option because they are easier to store and are often cheaper.
Winsor and Newton palette knife
Winsor and Newton are known for their high-quality paints and tools, so this palette knife is an excellent choice for beginners. The Winsor and Newton palette knife is sturdy and well-made, so you’ll be able to explore new techniques with ease. The smooth wooden handle is ergonomically shaped to fit comfortably in your hand while you paint. The blade is made from stainless steel so it won’t rust over time. This is a good buy for art students or for people who want to try out palette knife painting for the first time, but as you progress you may wish to invest in a more expensive painting knife.
Conda palette knife set
The Condo palette knife set is a good starter pack for people new to palette knife painting. It contains five different palette knives for you to play with in a variety of shapes and sizes. The blades are suitable for both mixing and applying paint to the canvas. There is some flexibility in the blades which makes them ideal for palette knife painting. The blades are made from stainless steel, so they should last a long time. They have comfortable handles and are a pleasure to use. Overall, this set provides great value for money and will suit most of your painting needs.
Daler Rowney Graduate acrylic paint set
The Daler Rowney Graduate acrylic paint set is a great choice for new painters. It contains a good selection of bright colours to work with and the colours remain vivid when applied to the canvas. This is a set that I use regularly in my painting and I’ve been very pleased with the results! You may find that you need to buy extra tubes of black and white acrylic paint, as these tend to run out very quickly. If you’re using this set for palette knife painting, you may want to blend them with some thickening gel to create more textured paintings.
Liquitex Heavy Body acrylic paint set
If you don’t want to mix your paint with another medium, then you should opt for a heavy body acrylic paint set like this one from Liquitex. It has a thick texture which makes it ideal for palette knife painting. These paints are archival quality, meaning that they won’t fade over time – this is a really useful quality if you want to sell your work. These are high quality paints that are more suitable for experienced painters than absolute beginners, but if you get into palette knife painting then you may wish to invest in this set.
Pebeo Studio Acrylics high viscosity paints
If you’re looking for acrylic paints that you can use immediately, you can also buy high viscosity acrylics like these ones from Pebeo Studio. These are designed to be thicker than normal acrylic paints, which means that they are perfect for palette knife painting. These paints are so thick that they will clearly show palette knife marks and will keep their structure on the canvas. This will really help to add texture and interest to your paintings. This set contains a satisfying combination of colours to try in rich, vibrant shades. This acrylic paint set also comes with a free paintbrush.
Daler Rowney water mixable oil paints
Water mixable oil paints are a great alternative to traditional oil paints. They can be diluted easily in water to create thinner layers of paint or applied thickly onto the canvas. Water mixable oils are able to blend smoothly together just like traditional oil paints, but there’s no need to use any oils or turpentine when using them. They also dry much more quickly than traditional oils. This Daler Rowney water mixable oil paints set has a good range of colours and I use this set regularly in my own artwork. You can also buy additional colours separately.
Winsor and Newton Galeria texture gel
If you don’t want to buy a set of acrylic paints especially for palette knife painting, you may want to add a gel to thicken your existing paints. This structure gel from Winsor and Newton can be added to your paints to give them some extra body. This is handy when you want your paint to have more texture and for your palette knife marks to show up. It also adds a gloss to your paints when you blend them together. Add a little gel at a time until you are happy with the consistency. You can also apply this gel as a varnish to your finished painting to seal it.
Arteza canvas boards
If you don’t have storage space for lots of canvases, buying canvas boards can be a good alternative. They can take up less room and are more portable, while offering a similar experience to painting on a traditional canvas. This pack includes seven boards in each size, making it excellent value for money. The surface is made with 100% cotton, which provides a smooth surface for painting. The canvas has been primed with acrylic titanium gesso, so you can start painting right away. Suitable for use with oils or acrylics.
Arteza stretched canvases for painting
Stock up your art stash with this great set of mixed canvases from Arteza. The sturdy canvases have strong pinewood frames to make them durable. The surface of the canvas has been primed with acid-free gesso, so you can start painting immediately. You can paint onto these canvases with most paints, including acrylic paints and oil paints. This canvas set is suitable for new artists as there are several different sizes to try. You may find that you prefer a particular size of canvas for your future work!
Palette knife painting techniques and tips
There are lots of different ways to paint using a palette knife and we'll cover some of the basic techniques and terms here. Experiment with them and see what effects you can create in your palette knife paintings!
Bear in mind that the results may vary depending on the paints that you are using. For example, scumbling with oil paints may look very different to scumbling with acrylic paints.
Before you begin, it can be a good idea to go over your canvas with a layer of paint first. This can be applied using a brush, not a palette knife. This gives you a good foundation to work on and you'll find that some of this colour may show through your upper layers (so choose carefully!). In the picture below, I've underpainted the canvas board using blue paint and added some rough layers. I will be going over these with my palette knife.
If you're using a canvas, it may also need to be primed before you get started. Check the packaging to see whether your canvas has already been primed before you begin.
Creating straight lines
It's possible to create lines on your painting using a palette knife. To do this, you need to apply paint to the edge of your knife and drag it across your painting. Make sure that the paint isn't too thick on the edge of the knife. You will need to top it up with more paint each time.
When you're using a palette knife, you can scrape back the paint to remove a mistake or to reveal the colour underneath. If you're using acrylic paint for this, you'll need to do it while the paint is still wet.
This can be a good technique to use when you want the layers of colour underneath to shine through.
Impasto is a common art term that you may have come across before. It's a term used to describe areas of a painting that have been covered with thick layers of paint. Apparently the term comes from the Italian word for dough!
This can be a very satisfying technique to use in your paintings if you're trying to create an Impressionist effect. This is particularly effective if you've mixed some structure gel in with your acrylic paints.
If you're using oil paints, remember that the layers underneath must be thinner than your top layer to avoid cracking and flaking.
If you're using an impasto painting technique, the marks made by your palette knife will usually be visible in the paint, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can be very striking if you want a textured finish.
Choose the right palette knife
You may need to choose a different palette knife depending on the effect you're trying to achieve. Use the long side of a palette knife to spread the paint across the canvas or choose a palette knife with a pointed tip to add fine details. If you're using a diamond-shaped palette knife you can also use the corner of the blade to add small marks to your painting.
Scumbling is when you drag paint over the top of another layer of paint to create a broken layer of colour over the top. This is usually done with a nearly dry brush and opaque or semi-opaque paints, but you can do it with a palette knife too.
Keep your hand relaxed as you do this and apply pressure very lightly for best results. This is a great way to add texture to your paintings.
This technique is traditionally used by oil painters, but there's no reason why you can't also use this method with acrylic paints too. When using acrylic paints, it can be a good way to blend colours together or to create shading.
Don't be stingy
It can be tempting to try to use as little paint as possible, but if you do this you won't be able to achieve an impasto paint effect. Try to be more generous with your paints and you'll be able to get the most out of this fun technique.
Sgraffito means scratched in Italian and it's a term used in a variety of arts and crafts. To use this technique in painting, you need to scratch back a layer of paint to reveal the colour underneath. You can use this technique to add texture or details to your painting.
Clean your palette knives
Keeping your palette knife clean is very simple! Just keep a cloth or some paper to hand to wipe the blade down whenever you switch colours. You'll also need to wipe the blade before you put it away.
Try using your palette knife to scrape unmixed or partially mixed paints across your painting. This can lead to very interesting results! It's a good technique to use to add interest to an area of your painting.
This is a technique that works well when you're creating an abstract acrylic knife painting. This is also a fun technique to try if you want to try palette knife painting but don't know what to paint.
Vary your marks
Try not to make all of the marks on your painting the same length as this will look odd. Vary the lengths of your palette knife marks for a more natural look.
You can use a palette knife to blend your paints directly on the canvas or paper. This can take a bit of practice to get right. You won't get smoothly blended colours as you would if you were working with a brush, but it's still possible.
When you're painting with a palette knife, you can build up layers of colour gradually as you go. An interesting technique to try is to create broken colours on the surface of your painting. This can be done by painting one layer of paint directly on top of another without blending.
Use the tip of a pointed palette knife to add small dots onto your painting. This is a good technique to try if you just want to add a dab of colour to your painting.
If you want to try and achieve a palette knife effect but you don't have one to hand – improvise! Old store cards or expired bank cards can be used to scrape paint across your painting. You can even use pieces of card to create similar effects.
Using a brush to create balance
You can use a palette knife by itself or combine it with some brushwork. A brush can be used to smooth or soften areas of the painting or to blend the paints in a more subtle way. This can be useful if you realise that you've added more texture than you wanted!
Blending with a brush can help you reduce the texture and create a more balanced piece of work.
Add small details
You can often add smaller details to your paintings by using the tip of your palette knife. This is great when you just want to add a dab of colour to an area without needing to use a paintbrush.
Know when to stop
This is something I always struggle with as an artist. It can be very tempting to keep returning to a painting to tidy it up or make adjustments. Try to resist this urge if you can! You can end up making your work look less dynamic and interesting. If you're not sure, stand back and see how you feel about the overall look of your painting.
Sarah Orme is a UK-based linocut printmaker, digital editor, feature writer and award-winning podcaster. She's been editing the sewing and art sections of Gathered.how – and before that our sister website calmmoment.com – for over 3 years. She’s the host of Gathered’s We’ve Made It podcast and A Calmer Life podcast. She’s a keen crafter and artist and loves creating DIY tutorials for Gathered. Sarah has previously written features for The Guardian, In The Moment Magazine, Project Calm Magazine, countryfile.com, radiotimes.com and yourhomestyle.uk. She enjoys designing her own unique lino prints and dreams of opening her own online shop. She shares her work @sarahormeprints