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various palette and painting knives on a table

Painting and Palette Knives and How To Use Them

Painting and Palette Knives

When you hear “painting knife” you immediately think of oil paint, but painting and palette knives can also be used with acrylics. Because acrylics dry so fast, you don’t get the muddy mixing of colors you sometimes get with oils.


There are many uses for painting and palette knives no matter what medium you use.

Speaking of mediums, painting knives are great to use with thick gel mediums to create wonderful textures in your work.

I have a post on how to use acrylic mediums if you would like to experiment with them.

These knives come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are not exactly “knifeish” (new word. Hey, I’m artistic)in that they are usually dull.

Painting and palette knives can be made of plastic, wood or metal. You don’t need to purchase a dozen different knives. You only need the basic shapes in a few different sizes to accomplish most techniques.

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The Difference Between Painting and Palette Knives

Most people use the term palette knife for any knife they use for painting. A painting knife and a palette knife are actually two different things as I explain below.

It really doesn’t matter what you call them as long as they work for you but I thought I would explain the difference just for reference.

I actually know of an artist that doesn’t own a knife but instead uses old credit cards cut in various shapes. The only real rule you need to follow in painting is “do what works for you”.

painting knives in a glass jar

Palette Knives

Palette knives are generally used for mixing paint on a palette, although they are sometimes used in the painting itself. These knives usually have a flat handle or a handle with a very slight bend.

I prefer metal blades as they have a bit more “spring” to them and are easier to clean.

Palette knives are great for scraping paint off a glass palette or mistakes from your painting. They are mostly used for mixing paint on your palette.

painting knives in a blue box with yellow lettering

Painting Knives

Painting knives have more of a bend on the handle. This makes it easier to keep your fingers out of the wet paint on your surface.

You can get a variety of textures and effects with painting knives as described below. Remember to clean them after each use because a knife with dried paint built up on the edge is of no use.

Here again I prefer the metal knives because they are much easier to clean. Wipe them after each use and wash them when you are finished your painting.

Make sure they dry thoroughly before storing.

I have had a few that have gotten rust on the blade. If paint dries onto the blade you can sometimes scrape it off with a sharp knife, but usually acrylic paint is easy to wash off metal knives.

palette and painting knives on a table

Painting Surface

A palette knife or painting knife can be used on almost any surface. If you are using a lot of thick paint or doing the piece entirely with knives, a Masonite board or canvas board might be best.

A stretched canvas can still work with a painting knife, but if you use a lot of paint it tends to weigh the canvas down and it can sag and the paint may crack over time.

Any firm surface will give you the best results. Doing an underpainting first to stain the canvas or board will give you the best effect.

This underpainting will show through when you scrape off paint in certain areas.

Think about the overall composition of your painting when deciding on a color for the underpainting.

Generally, an earthy tone works best, but again it depends on the type of work you are doing.


Thick paint works best with painting knives. I tend to paint in thin glazes of color and so I use fluid acrylics.

While you can use a palette knife or painting knife to spread the paint, you will not get the texture you want.

Thick heavy body paint or paint mixed with a texture medium is the best paint to work with knives.

You can achieve wonderful textures for rocks, mountains, foliage or just about anything with a knife and thick paint.

If you aren’t sure which type of paint to buy you can check out my post on how to choose the right acrylic paint.

Techniques with Painting Knives

There are various techniques you can use with a painting knife to give you the desired effect in your art work. Practice some of these to see how they work with the various knives and to see how changing the angle will give you a different effect.

Lines: Scrape a little paint onto the edge of your knife and dab it onto your canvas. This can make a thin line for things such as a fence, windowsill or tree.

You will need to reload the knife frequently as you are only using the edge. I actually find the angled palette knife very useful for this technique.

blue and brown paint and painting knife on canvasScraping: A sharp pointed blade can be used for scraping in a technique called sgraffito, which is taken from an Italian word that means “to scratch”.

Scraping or sgraffito is used when you want to scrape the paint away from a mistake or scrape paint to expose some of the underpainting.

You can also use it to scrape in a tree trunk or other thin object. Use a small knife on its edge to gently scrape the paint away from an area.

Wipe the knife after each scrape to prevent mixing of colors.

Dabbing: You can use a knife with a rounded tip to dab on dots of color or to build up texture. Dip the tip of the knife into the paint to pick up a small amount of color and then gently dab it on your surface.

brown paint being applied to a canvas with a painting knifeSweeping: A long blade is used to produce sweeps of color such as putting snow on mountain tops.

This technique can also be used to spread paint across a wide area to make a body of water or field. You can also use it to blend two colors directly on your surface.

Use the long edge of the knife to grab paint from your palette and “sweep” it onto your surface like you would spread jam or butter on bread.

Make sure your knife is clean because dried paint on the knife can leave ridges or grooves in the paint.

painting knives with text overlay Painting knives how to use them with acrylics

There are no rules for applying paint to a surface.

Grab a few knives and some paint and experiment with different marks and techniques. Take notes as you experiment about the different effects you get so you can reproduce them in your painting.

I have Parkinson’s so I get some wonderful “happy mistakes” when I use a painting knife on my really shaky days. Creativity is limitless.

Thanks for reading

Digital signature Marilyn with butterfly

6 thoughts on “Painting and Palette Knives and How To Use Them”

  1. Jihan M Ghanim

    Hi Marilyn;

    I was so lucky to find your website ,may Allah bless you.

    Sudan – Khartoum

  2. Judy Shrimpton

    Thanks for your post on painting with knives
    I will be giving it a go you have inspired me in to trying something new
    Can you mix anything into paint to get different textures? I had thought of mixing fine sand in .
    I have mostly used canvases to paint on but recently used wood which I quite like an now painting on stones the services being rough an smooth but always interesting now I’m retired I have time to enjoy my hobbies Judy

  3. Hi Marilyn,
    Nice to meet someone who has a sense of humour when faced with life’s hurdles ( Trembling Art ). I enjoyed your post, painting knives have always been a pain for me, your advice is invaluable.
    Looking forward to learning about mediums etc.
    I’m a late bloomer with painting although I had a heads start as I did charcoal art when I was young, love a good land/ sea scape. I’m at the stage where I don’t throw as many paintings away.
    I will now subscribe to your channel, thanks again for this post.
    Dave M ( AUSTRALIA ) ???

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