Why Use Palette Knives?

When it comes to creating your own DIY abstract painting masterpiece, you are not limited to using just paint brushes. In fact, a very popular painting technique called impasto uses palette knives to apply paint in heavy layers. This results in very interesting textured paintings!

When you use thick paint or add some gel to fluid paints, you can increase the volume. This will allow the palette knives to create an impression similar to icing a cake. Some have also compared the process of applying thick paint with a palette knife to putting butter or jam on a piece of bread. It’s a much different process than painting with a brush, and one that creates some fascinating effects.

You may not recognize “impasto” when you first hear the name, but you’ll instantly recognizable an artwork that has been created using this painting technique. One of the most famous painters ever – Vincent van Gogh - often used this technique. And, in fact, his famous “Starry Night” painting is an example of this technique.

During the Baroque era, artists such as Rembrandt and Diego Velazquez used the impasto technique to create some of their defining artworks. With the thick, textured approach of impasto, they could create the impression of aging skin or the shimmering reflection of jewels on a polished suit of armor.

Many types of palette knives are available. You can try art stores, hardware stores, paint stores, and grocery stores (in the cooking utensil aisle). You can use either metal or plastic, although wood ones work just as well.

According to abstract artist Floy Ealy Edjole, wood handles might work best if your hand tends to move during the painting process. “I like wood because of the grip, which keeps your hand more steady when dragging the paint,” she says.

Don’t be afraid to try using different sizes for different textural indentations. And remember – the whole point of using a knife and not a brush is that the textured marks are meant to remain visible. You don’t need to try to smooth out the paint. You’re not just scraping paint across a surface in a flat motion -- you are creating the textured impasto effect.

When using a palette knife pay attention how you move your knife to create texture -- make sure you go in different directions, so the effect is interesting and not boring. Move your wrist in different directions, following the contours of the image you’re trying to shape.

Then test yourself: see if you can re-create textured elements from famous van Gogh paintings. See how the knife handles when you try to use it for tiny shapes of color, compared to how it handles when it’s used for sweeping areas of colors. You will be amazed with your creation!

To get a feel for what’s possible when you start painting with your palette knives, you should also take a look at the abstract paintings of greats such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, both of them known for their embrace of the impasto painting technique. These paintings will be an inspiration for you to experiment with these wonderful impasto painting techniques!