Art Term Tuesday: Palette Knife

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

There are so many tools in a painter’s repertoire. The first object that likely comes to mind is, of course, a paintbrush. But there is another tool that is a quiet superstar for painters: the palette knife. A palette knife is a thin blade, usually made of steel, with a long handle for mixing colors and applying or removing paint from a canvas. An old tool, it was originally used to mix ground pigment with oil or egg white on a paint palette. They’re also useful, however, when actually painting; they can be used to create a broad array of textures, from sharp edges to blurry swaths of color, and to create paint as thin as a scrape to thick impasto layers.

An array of palette knives from a set by Liquitex.

Let’s see how these different applications and techniques look on the canvas.

First, in order to see the difference between paintbrush and palette knife application, we’ll look at a “traditional” painted landscape. Robert Scott Duncanson’s Adirondack Mountains, an 1868 painting, is a classic Hudson River Valley painting. The landscape is smooth, sleek, and glowing, and you have to be close before you’re able to make out Duncanson’s brushstrokes.

Compare Duncanson’s technique to Gustave Jacques Soskopf’s painting, Landscape. This painting also looks like a traditional landscape painting, but on closer inspection we can see that it has much more surface texture than Duncanson’s. This is particularly clear when we zoom in on the flowers, where a combination of paintbrush and palette has likely been used to capture texture. We get a hint at the use of the knife in the leaves, where we can see a deeper “groove” in their center, marking where the blade scraped through as the paint was deposited, creating the impression of the inner rib of the leaf.

As artists have evolved in their styles, we’ve seen the complementary evolution in the use of palette knives. Our first example of this is Norman Bradley’s 1984 painting, Autumn Park. While it’s still a landscape, depicting a lane and gate surrounded by autumnal foliage, Bradley’s technique is much more abstract. The texture that he employs is apparent, and when we look closely, we can see the multiple layers of paint. While there are individual brushstrokes, they are larger, chunkier swaths of color that were layered and applied with a palette knife. In order to do this, Bradley would have loaded one side of his knife with paint and then applied the pigment with a little bit of pressure to allow a transfer of pigment, ensuring the application was thick and ready for further scrapes and brushstrokes to be layered on top. The result is abstract and aesthetically rich, pulling you in to see the visual, and physical, texture within the scenery.

Our final painting looks as though it was fully executed with a palette knife. Catherine Blyth’s painting Lost Between contains layers upon layers of thickly slathered pigment. The most varied areas of paint were applied first, and then mostly covered over with thickly applied blue-gray pigment, leaving the most obvious areas of detail lost between the two layers. You can see the evidence of palette knife use in both the first and second layers, and the drag marks often stay parallel to each other – as would happen when transferring paint from a piece of metal onto a board. Both foreground and background were applied thickly, allowing for further texture as layer after layer was built up; by letting the more vibrant colors peek through the blue-gray, viewers are pulled in to try and unlock what can be seen beneath the layers.

The next time you come across a painting, see if you can pick out the different tools and application techniques present on the canvas. The thicker the paint and more varied the texture, the more likely the painter in question used a palette knife!

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