Mark Making with a Painting Knife

A look at the types of marks you can make when painting with a knife.

The range of marks you can produce when painting with a knife rather than a brush is quite varied and can produce beautiful effects. This list is an introduction to the possibilities.
 

Thin Lines

Painting knife or palette knife
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans

By dipping the edge of a painting knife into a pile of paint and then tapping the knife down on your canvas, you can produce very fine lines.

Hard Edges

Painting knife or palette knife
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans

Dip a painting knife into some paint then onto your canvas so the blade is at 90 degrees to the surface. Then tilt the knife to one side, press down firmly, and pull strongly to one side. This produces a painted area with a hard edge.

Exactly what shape you produce depends on how much paint you had on your knife, and how hard you pulled or scraped it across the surface. If you have gaps between the bits of paint on your knife, you'll produce gaps in the painted area (as shown by the paint adjacent to the knife in the photo).

Smearing

Painting knife or palette knife
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans

This is the "spread the butter or jam" technique of using a painting knife and the most common approach. You load a lump of paint onto the painting knife, tap it onto your canvas, then spread it around. Or, alternatively, squeeze out paint directly onto the canvas, then spread it around.

Flat Texture

Painting knife or palette knife
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans

You can spread out paint with a knife so that it'scompletely flat, with minimal texture, if any (see right-hand side of photo). By lifting your knife from the surface you can create a little ridge of paint, which can be built up into​ a interesting texture (see left-hand side of photo).


If you're working with acrylic paint, you'll need to work fast or add some glazing medium / retarder to your paint to give you more open time before the paint dries.

Press and Lift

Painting knife or palette knife
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans

Texture can be created by pressing a painting knife into paint, then onto the canvas, and lifting it. The results you get will depend on whether you move the knife sideways or just lift it straight off again.

Scratching

Painting knife or palette knife
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans

Call it sgraffito when you're wanting to sound good, but as far as technique goes it's just scratching into wet paint. A knife with a sharp point will give a narrow line, but any shape of knife can be used.

Thick 'n Thin

Knife painting
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans

By altering the pressure you're applying to the painting knife, you can move from laying down paint thickly to laying down very thin paint in a single stroke, without stopping. You'll get different results depending on whether you're using an opaque or transparent color, or a color with a strong undertone.

Double-Loading and Mixing Colors

Double loading color
Image © Marion Boddy-Evans

Double loading with color is a technique familiar to decorative painters that can produce beautiful results when used with a palette knife. As the name suggests, you put two (or more) colors onto your knife before you apply it to your canvas.

If you use a single, straight stroke, you'll get the two colors applied adjacent to one another. If you go over the stroke numerous times or move the knife from side to side, the colors will mix, and that's when beautiful things can really happen!