Expand Your Palette and Learn How to Paint With a Knife

Painting with a knife produces quite a different result than a brush. Painting knives are excellent for producing a range of effects, from textured impasto work to sweeping areas of flat color. A painting knife and a palette knife are very similar, and many people use the terms interchangeably. However, they are not the same.

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Choosing a Knife

Midsection of senior female artist mixing paint in studio
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Strictly speaking, a palette knife is a long, straight blade or spatula that is used for mixing paints and scraping a palette clean. It is not for applying paint onto a canvas. A palette knife can be made from metal, plastic, or wood and will either be completely straight or have a slightly cranked (bent) handle. The blade is very flexible, although plastic is less flexible than metal.

A painting knife usually has a semiflexible metal blade and a wood handle, although plastic ones are also available. You can recognize a painting knife by the large crank, or bend, in the handle. This design helps keep your knuckles out of any wet paint you've just applied. The blades may be pear-, diamond-, or trowel-shaped.

These knives won't cut. Although they're called knives, these tools are not designed to cut like a kitchen or craft knife. Rather, a painting or palette knife is a blunt-edged knife, like a butter knife, unless you specifically select one with a blade that has a sharp point.

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Painting Knife Shapes

Painter's palette, knives and tools, Istanbul, Turkey
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Unlike palette knives, painting knives come in a range of blade sizes and shapes. Some have relatively sharp tips, while others are blunt. Different-shaped painting knives obviously produce different effects.

  • A short blade produces angular strokes.
  • A long blade makes it easy to put down sweeps of color.
  • A rounded blade is great for dabbing spots of pigment and building layers.
  • A sharp-pointed blade allows you to scratch into the paint for sgraffito effects.

If you are unsure whether you're going to enjoy painting with a knife, buy a plastic one first and experiment.

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What to Look For in a Knife

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Look for a painting knife with a flexible blade that has a good spring or bounce to it. A painting knife with a narrower blade will bend more than a knife with a wider blade. The handle should be smooth and comfortable to hold. You don't want to get splinters from a wooden handle or have a knife that feels unbalanced. The blade of the knife should be firmly attached to the handle—you don't want it to rotate mid-stroke.

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How to Get Paint Onto a Painting Knife

Oil painting
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If you're able to get butter or jam onto a knife, then you already know what to do to get paint on a painting knife. For a broad swath of color, sweep the paint up from your palette with the long edge of the knife. For a fine point of paint, dip the tip instead. A painting knife can be used with any paint, including watercolor, but is particularly effective with paint that has a relatively stiff consistency to it, such as acrylic.

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How to Hold a Painting Knife

Detail of an artist holding a palette and a painting knife
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Hold the handle firmly. Placing your thumb on top is a good way to begin. Use your wrist to change the angle of the knife in relation to your paint. Pick up some paint from your palette using the tip or the side of the knife. Now experiment! Here are some techniques to try:

  • Use the long side of the blade to spread paint across your canvas as you would spread butter on a slice of bread.
  • Create a textured effect by pressing the blade with paint onto the surface.
  • Use just the tip of the blade to produce small dots.
  • Press the edge of the knife down to produce fine lines.
  • Press the blade flat down into the paint will produce ridges.
  • Scrape back into the paint to reveal underlying layers (called sgraffito).
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How to Clean a Painting Knife

Things Neatly Organized
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When it comes to cleaning, a painting knife is much easier to clean than a brush. All you need to do is wipe any excess paint off with a cloth, then wipe the knife again with a clean cloth. If a paint has dried on the knife, you can scrape it off using a damp cloth and another knife or a razor blade. Be sure to clean your knife between colors as you are working. Otherwise, you will find traces of unwanted hues throughout your painting.