Having fun with the palette knife

Thursday, July 16th, 2009 @ 4:03 am | Abstract Art, New Paintings
Abstract Thing, painting by Marten Jansen

This is just a thingy from 1999 to keep you busy while I’m working on new paintings.

Because the schools are out, this is a prime moment to address the art and/or design students among you and talk about art materials. As mentioned before my primary tool is the palette knife now (but not used in the painting on the left). I can’t tell you how to use the palette knife because that’s entirely personal. In other words: you put some paint on your knife and then onto the canvas. You can apply the paint thick or thin, there are no rules. What does matter is the size of the knife you use: larger knives will leave a very different impression than small knives.
I use the knife for two things: create areas of color, but I also use the knife to paint lines.

Small triangular palette knife

Small triangular palette knife (edge 2 cm, 0.8 in)

As you can see, I don’t clean my palette knives very often. Contrary to popular belief, I do shower.

Single-edge palette knife

Single-edge palette knife (edge 5 cm, 2 in)

Drawing lines with the palette knife

Drawing lines with the palette knife

For drawing lines the knife doesn’t look like the right tool, but you can create very expressive lines in the following way: just put a blob of paint on the upper half of your knife (like the small triangular one, above) and then, with the tip, start painting a line. You’ll run out of paint after an inch or so, but when you reload the knife’s tip with paint, don’t overpaint any faint spots and don’t fill in gaps in the line segment you made. Most of the time (unless you really think you have to make a correction) leave the line segment in its original state, or else you’ll ruin the expressive effect, and the line segment will become messier every time you work on it. It’ll take some practice but it’s a really expressive way of painting.

As you’ll see, using oil paint or acrylic paint, AS IS, to use on the palette knife, is unsatisfactory. What you need is paint with BODY. For this, mix oil paint with acrylic modelling paste and some liquin impasto. Officially, oils and acrylics don’t mix, but unofficially they do. I do recommend using oil paint, as opposed to mixing acrylic paint with acrylic modelling paste, because oil paint simply has more quality. For acrylic modelling paste look for a kind that is essentially transparent. Such paste will still look milky-white in the pot, but in thin layers (or mixed with something) will be almost transparent. Don’t use modelling paste to which a (white) pigment has been added, because you want to leave the color of your oils in tact. Because it’s acrylics, the modelling paste will still affect the color of the mix, making it look matted and dull. That’s where the liquin impasto (LI) comes in, because, miraculously, a little bit of LI will considerably improve the color or the mix, making it much deeper, almost restoring the oil paint’s original color. Be sure not to mix the LI with the oil first, because then the LI won’t properly attach to the acrylics (I think). Just mix the three components together or add the LI last (which is best). The LI makes the mix rather slow drying, with is good, because the acrylics/oils mix is very quick to dry, too quick to my taste. Experiment with proportions. Start mixing acrylics and oils in different proportions. Too little oil will reduce the strength of color, too much oil will produce a putty-like substance that is difficult to process and doesn’t look good. You won’t need to add much LI, just enough to restore the depth of color.

[By the way, this post has been updated. Before, I was ramblingĀ  about alkyd modelling paste — what I meant was liquin impasto].


Big triangular palette knife

Big triangular palette knife (edge: 5.5 cm, 2.2 in)

For completeness I have included a pic of a third type palette knife, which may look more familiar than the single-edge knife, but I prefer the single edge. A large triangular knife is unwieldy.

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