No doubt about it a good painting knife is an artist's best friend. Often overlooked while brushes get all the publicity. The humble painting knife can play a strong supporting role or emerge as the star of the show. When you want to add that extra touch of texture or punch to your paintings, the painting knife will deliver.
In this article I want to introduce the types of painting knives I prefer. Plus a handy painting knife technique you can use in your next painting.
Not a Palette Knife
First let's clear up this potential bit of confusion. Most artists talk about palette knife painting when in fact they mean painting knife painting. A palette knife is a long bladed knife used for mixing paint or applying primer to your canvas. Think of a long and skinny spatula.
A painting knife, on the other hand, has a shorter blade and a bent neck to keep your hands out of the paint and produce more precise marks.
Yes, you can use a palette knife to paint with, but a proper painting knife will be more versatile and easier to use. The painting knife should also have a flexible, springy, blade. The palette knife, however, has a thicker and less flexible blade.
Selecting a Painting Knife
There are many knife shapes to choose from. Needless to say I will be biased to a few that I find useful. You may try them all to find your favorites too. Avoid the plastic variety. I know they are cheap, but they are also nasty for painting. Rather let young children use them for varied purposes. For your painting only good steel bladed painting knives will do.
A longer blade, like the painting knife shown above, is nice and flexible. The rounded point is much like a filbert brush and offers more than a sharp point. My painting knife has endured many years of service and has worn down into a rather sharp edged instrument. Be careful as they can deliver a nasty cut. I will not part with it though.
Take a look at the video below for my tips on selecting a good painting knife.
The Versatile Painting Knife
The painting knife has many important functions. These include:
1. It can also be used to mix small piles of paint. Indeed it is always close at hand for this purpose.
2. The knife scrapes off paint from my canvas too. This could be to correct an error or to make deliberate marks in the paint.
3. The edge of the knife can make precise lines without them looking too perfect. Although straight the lines tend to show a variety in paint thickness. You never know quite how it will turn out and this is a good thing too.
4. Yes the painting knife is also good for ... you guessed it... painting. Thick and juicy smears of paint. Dabs and slashes of bravura strokes that liven up a dreary canvas instantly.
Painting Knife Techniques
Just like a brush you can get many effects with a painting knife by simply adjusting your grip. There is no need to hold the knife with a white-knuckle-death-grip either. I prefer to hold the knife much like I hold a brush. The handle lying across four fingers with only the thumb applying pressure to keep me from dropping it.
By holding the blade parallel (flat) to the surface you can get an even smear of thick paint. Then by tilting the blade at an angle you get a thinner layer. Turn the blade on its side for a thin line. Use the tip to create small dabs. Or scrape into the top layer to reveal color from a layer below. Also known as sgraffito.
Scoop up paint on the underside of the knife and apply to the canvas using any of the above techniques. Spread the paint boldly and with confidence. Even if you have to fake it. Knife painting does not reward timid and hesitant strokes. It also does not reward, for the most part, stingy paint volume. This instrument welcomes impasto layering so go for it like a Frenchman spreading butter on a baguette.
Thick Over Thin
You can follow the concept of "fat over lean" by applying thicker paint over thin paint. Your initial layer of thin paint can be applied by brush too. Perhaps a simple block-in of big shapes to get the composition worked out. Or more detailed work with a brush.
Then working wet-into-wet get out the painting knife and apply impasto layers where required. Let thin lower layers show through in areas suited to thin paint. For example shadows. have the thick juicy paint over the light filled areas.
If you are in the swing of it then go further. Perhaps eighty percent of the canvas gets the painting knife effect. It is the combination of brush and knife working together that makes the difference.
Stand back often and take a look at your progress. See where you need to add more paint or adjust.
But Take Care
There is this to keep in mind. Too many similar looking paint strokes with the knife can look a tad monotonous. Variety of shapes, color and edges is still important. Yes you can adjust and soften edges of shapes with the painting knife. Not every edge must remain hard and textured. Variety makes this a painting in the proper sense of the word.
Also use the knife to apply paint over existing layers. Emphasis on over. Not smooshing the knife into lower layers and muddying up your color. The painting knife has the ability to ensure clean color application wet-over-wet. Use this to your advantage to keep colors clean and vibrant.
Brush to Knife
In the video below I use the technique of adding knife painting over an underpainting of brushwork. The first layer established the idea. But I wanted more energy and lively paint so brought in the painting knife. It was tons of fun going over with thick paint. I enjoy painting this way to energy filled music. This helps to get my painting speed up and I get stuck in. No second guessing. Paint instinctively and spontaneously. And then WOW! Love the result.
Okay not every painting works out this way, but most do. Decisive painting usually works better than caution. Try it if not sure.
If you have not tried knife painting then you must absolutely start now. It might change your entire style or simply help to liven up a day's painting. Enjoy it.
Want to try something new?
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