Expand Your Palette by Learning to Paint With a Knife

Painting knives are good for making a variety of effects

Painting with a knife produces a different result from using a brush. Painting knives are excellent for producing a range of effects, from textured impasto work to sweeping areas of flat color and from watercolor to acrylics. Painting knives and palette knives are similar, and many people use the terms interchangeably, but 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 used for mixing paints and scraping palettes clean. It's not for applying paint onto a canvas. Palette knives 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.

Painting knives usually have semiflexible metal blades and wooden handles, 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 wet paint you've just applied. The blades may be pear-, diamond-, or trowel-shaped.

Although they're called knives, these tools aren't designed to cut like kitchen or craft knives. Painting or palette knives are blunt-edged, like butter knives, unless you 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're 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

Palette
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Look for a painting knife with a flexible blade and a good spring or bounce to it. Painting knives with narrower blades will bend more than knives with wider blades. 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 can 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 is relatively stiff, 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 to produce ridges.
  • Scrape back into the paint to reveal underlying layers, a technique called "sgraffito," from the Italian word meaning "to scratch."
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How to Clean a Painting Knife

Things Neatly Organized
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Painting knives are much easier to clean than brushes. Simply wipe off any excess paint with a cloth, then wipe the knife again with a clean cloth. If 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're working. Otherwise, you'll find traces of unwanted hues throughout your painting.