If you’ve tried painting with a regular paintbrush and want to experiment with a different way of applying paint, palette knife painting is a fun alternative. But what is a palette knife used for in painting? This commonplace tool can create striking textures and effects. Here’s everything you need to know about how to do a palette knife painting, oil painting and acrylic painting included.

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What Is Palette Knife Painting?

nature painting
Want to learn how to use a palette knife in oil painting? See this student work by Anne Stride for Palette Knife Techniques for Oil or Acrylic Painting.

Almost every painter who uses oil or acrylic paints will have a palette knife (also called a painting knife) in their artist kit. They’re usually used for mixing paints together and applying paint from tubes onto palettes. But as Skillshare tutor Martin Jaramillo states, “this tool is quite versatile and can be used in many ways to create incredible effects.”

Palette knives can be used alone or (more commonly) in combination with a paintbrush to add extra details and effects.

palette knife types of textures
Want to learn how to do a palette knife painting? Practice different techniques on swatches first.

Palette Knife Painting Techniques: Landscapes

Seascape, Forest and Desert in Oils or Acrylics

The History of Palette Knife Painting and Famous Examples

Painting with palette knives has a long history, and many of the world’s most famous painters have used this tool. However, for a long time it was only used alongside other painting tools (like paintbrushes) to create isolated effects. For example, the Renaissance painters Titian and Rembrandt used palette knives in some pieces, but it wouldn’t be right to say that their paintings were “palette knife paintings.”

Many traditional Western artistic conventions were challenged in the 19th century, and it was at this time that palette knives became more widely used as a primary (sometimes even the only) tool in painting. French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) is often credited with popularizing palette knife painting through his landscapes. Nineteenth-century painters like Cezanne, Pissaro, Chagall, Van Gogh, and Matisse also painted with the tool. 

As artists became less concerned with perfectly representing reality and more so with expressing mood, light, and color, the palette knife became an increasingly popular tool, and abstract palette knife painting became more common.

Van Gogh's Starry Night
Source: Instagram
When you’re learning how to use a palette knife in oil painting, study masterpieces like Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
Gustave Courbet’s Paysage de Mer.
Source: Instagram
Wondering what is palette knife oil painting? Check out Gustave Courbet’s Paysage de Mer.
Leonid Afremov painting of trees
Source: Instagram
Painting by 20th-century Belarussian artist Leonid Afremov.
Paul Cezanne painting
Source: Instagram
A semi-abstract palette knife painting by Paul Cezanne.
Henri Matisse painting of lady
Source: Instagram
Painting by Henri Matisse.
Marc Chagall paintings
Source: Instagram
Marc Chagall used palette knives in some of his paintings.

What Kind of Paint Do You Use for Palette Knife Painting and What Kind of Knife?

Windsor Newton paint and palette knives
Paints and knives used for palette knife painting.

Metal palette knives with a wooden handle come in different sizes and shapes. Avoid using plastic knives, which might be fine for mixing but aren’t robust enough for applying paint to the canvas. Invest in slightly more expensive metal knives from the start to save money in the long run.

For palette knife painting, acrylic or oil paints are best. Because the paint will be applied thickly, you need to work with a paint that won’t crack while dry. Plus, the consistency needs to be thick enough for spreading, not just dabbing or washing, as you would with watercolors. 

When painting with a palette knife, the ideal surface is canvas or wood, but you can also use thick card. No matter what, you need a surface that won’t buckle under pressure.

3 Steps to Painting With a Palette Knife

Step 1: Mix Your Paints

palette of colors
Mix the colors you want on a palette.

Palette knives are better than paint brushes for mixing thick oil or acrylic paint because they allow you to be more precise with the amounts of each color. On a smooth palette, mix the paints you want to use into the desired color combinations and variations. Keep in mind that you’ll probably go through much more paint when painting with palette knives rather than brushes, so keep plenty on hand.

Step 2: Practice with Swatches

practice palette knife strokes
Practice palette knife painting techniques on swatches.

When learning about palette knife painting, how to get the different textures is an important skill to practice. Begin by applying paint with a palette knife onto a practice swatch. Apply paint using different pressures and with different sweeping, scraping, and dabbing motions to see what you get. In his introductory palette knife painting tutorial, Jaramillo demonstrates a number of techniques you should practice before starting your main canvas.

Step 3: Paint on Canvas

palette knife smudging paint
What is a palette knife used for in painting? This picture illustrates.

If you already have an in-progress painting that you’ve worked on with paintbrushes, you can now paint directly onto the canvas with your knife. If you’re starting a blank canvas from scratch, you might want to plan your painting first with some preliminary sketches in pencil, to guide you as you work. (Of course, if you’re making a palette knife abstract painting, you may not need to sketch in much detail.)

A common mistake to avoid as you start painting with a palette knife is applying the first layers too thickly. Applying too much on the first layer will result in cracking, peeling, or even paint that never fully dries, so build the thickness up gradually instead.  

And finally? Step back and admire the masterpiece you’ve just created.

A Palette Knife Painting Tutorial for Portraits

Easy Portraits With a Palette Knife – Oil or Acrylic Painting