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The Secret of  Palette Knife Painting

Occasionally I make an oil painting with knives using the 'wet into wet' technique. By using a knife it is possible to layer wet paint on top of wet paint without disturbing the layer underneath, thus maintaining a freshness in the painting. Knife painting automatically keeps your colors pure because it is so easy to keep the knife clean. A quick wipe of the cloth does it and no solvents required!

Painting with a palette knife forces me to loosen up. I focus on shapes and colors, not being consciously aware that I am painting a person or a tree. I let the colors and values that I place on the canvas tell that story. Painting with a palette knife also gives me more of an impasto surface. The paint has dimension, a quality I like.

Knives are ideally suited for use in oil paintings of architectural subjects or for anything which is man made.  With some subjects a small amount of detail is completed with a brush.

I often begin with the sky for a landscape, completing the painting as I work down to the bottom. By using the texture of the paint  detail can be conveyed, such as rugged mountains, trees and rocks in a landscape or rough seas in a maritime subject.

For this technique it is imperative that the paint is not allowed to dry, as it is virtually impossible to control the knife as it skids over the ridges of dried paint underneath.

A palette knife is used for mixing paint on the palette and not for actually applying paint to the canvas.  The blades on the ones used for painting are usually made from forged steel and are very flexible. The handles are made from hardwood and the blade should extend completely through it.

Of the three types of knifes that I usually use, one is straight and flat. This is used for rapidly filling in the large areas of paint on the canvas by holding the blade almost flat to the canvas. It is also used for creating straight lines on the canvas by holding the blade at an angle of 90 degrees to the canvas surface and for blending large areas. The other knifes are much smaller and have a cranked shaft with a diamond shaped head and a tear drop head. The head is offset from the handle to prevent the artists fingers being dragged through the wet oil painting. I use these knifes to add details and relief to the work.

The set I currently use...Loew Cornell
from Dick Blick... #03111-1009

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Sean Dye demos a studio painting using India ink, acrylic gouache and water-soluble oil with painting knife techniques. I just watched this two hour video. Very informative, he explains clearly every step. About half of it shows the final oil phase.
from Dick Blick...#69808-1004

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See some great palette knife paintings by Jim Larimer.

...and by Shelli Robiner-Ardizzone:


This technique works well with acrylics, too...

Glacier Peak
Acrylic on canvas
Robert Bissett using painting knife technique



Snow Creek Falls
Acrylic on canvas
Another Bissett knife painting


The Wharf
24 x 18"
Oil on Canvas

Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.
A palette knife painting.



5 Stars...amazon.com review:

"Any knife painter who loves colour straight from the tube will benefit by studying Coulton's exuberant paintings. His book not only contains over 220 black and white illustrations, it also has 16 full colour plates. Coulton offers 'an enormous range of knife painting techniques', with step by step demos. His discussion of colour is second to none. As an oil painter, I have found his book to be the single most valuable work I've ever read.

His beautiful, powerful knife paintings illuminate the book, as does his warm, intelligent narrative. I love this man.

He was born in Cornwall, England, in 1896 and later made his home in Newburgh, New York. His work is in collections in Syracuse University, the University of Wichita, the Cooperstown Art Association, the Toledo Museum, and in private collections all over the U.S.

Nothing reveals the man and the artist more than this quote from his book, with reference to Egyptian Turquoise: "I have certain still lifes with backgrounds of this colour which I love so much I often just walk around the studio, carrying them."

Coulton Waugh's books should definitely not be out of print. I hope Watson-Guptill Publications will consider reprinting them."

I order a used copy based on this review alone! Bob

Good for basic techniques. Powell also has videos for sale on his website. I own this book and a couple videos.

More Painting Secrets:

The Secret of Values New
The Secret of Emotion

The Secret of Critiquing
The Secret of Composition

The Secret of Visual Idea
The Secret of Borrowing
The Secret of Tonalism 
The Secret of Style
The Secret of Maxfield Parrish

The Secret of Plein Air
The Secret of No Solvents
The Secret of Water Mixable Oils

The Secret of Thumbnails
The Secret of the Process
The Secret of Knife Painting


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