Palette Knife Painting Basics and a simple Tutorial for Beginners

Palette knife painting

Unlike painting with brushes, you can easily add depth when you are painting with a palette knife. This creates works of art that use the third dimension to influence the perception of light. A spatula or palette knife painting can be used in oil as well as in acrylic paints to create sculptural structures.

In this article, you will find out which famous artists used this technique, what you need for it, and how the method works best.

Van Gogh made the palette knife painting popular

Probably the most famous artist who used to create numerous paintings with a palette knife is none other than Vincent van Gogh. The Dutch artist is world-famous for his use of the impasto technique, in which paint is applied in very thick layers to the painting surface.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

For the Impasto technique, painters use either brushes or palette knives to apply the paint paste-like to the surface.


Before we take a closer look at how the spatula technique works, you need to know its basics. After all, the method can only work successfully with the right paint and the right tools.

Differences between the palette knife technique for acrylic and oil painting

  • Oil paint is inherently extremely thick and dries only very slowly, which is why it is predestined for application with a palette knife. The paint should be so pasty that it keeps its shape after application and does not drip. Long drying times are advantageous for making corrections to the composition. Often imbalances are only discovered when the work is observed with a little detachment and a clear view.
  • Acrylic paint is also suitable for the spatula painting if you know how to modify the paint. Acrylic paint dries much faster than oil paint and should be mixed with a drying delay agent so that it does not start to dry up within a few minutes. Depending on the viscosity of the paint, it is also advisable to enrich the acrylic paint with a little sculpting paste to give it the necessary thickness.
  • However, the spatula technique does not work with watercolor paints, as they do not contain enough binding agent and are therefore more suitable for a transparent paint application.

The right tool for a spatula painting

Palette Knife Painting Basics and a simple Tutorial for Beginners

Painting knife, palette knife, or paint spatula?

The term painting spatula is often used synonymously for painting knives and palette knives altogether. Although both types of tools are suitable for the spatula technique and are offered in a variety of sizes and shapes as well as combination bundles, a distinction should be made at this point:

The painting knife has an angled blade so that the artist’s hands do not touch the surface when working on the painting. As the name suggests, painting knives are used directly to apply paint to the surface.

In terms of shape, palette knives look more like a spatula. They do not have an angled blade and are not (usually) used for direct application of paint. Instead, you should use a palette knife for paint mixing or remove paint residues from the surface of your palette. Since the tip of a palette knife is not narrow, they are only partially suitable for applying paint strokes to the painting surface.

Note: The term painting spatula ignores this distinction and describes all instruments that can be used in the spatula technique. In the end, many objects are suitable for this technique: Painting knives, palette knives, spatulas, or even expired credit cards.

Tutorial for your first palette knife painting

If you are using a painting knife for the first time and you are used to a brush instead, it will feel unfamiliar at first. You have to realize that you can’t paint many details anymore, because you lack the accuracy with the knife. It is much more important how the color strokes run, the speed of the painting, and the composition of the picture.

But one after the other:

Step 1: The Painting Surface

You should choose a stable base that can withstand the rough paint application. Especially when the paint is drying, cracks in the paint will quickly appear if the surface contracts too much. A painting surface primed with Gesso is ideal.

Step 2: The first layer of paint

As the spatula technique is a rather rough way to apply the paint, you should paint the surface according to your motif with the first layer of paint. You don’t have to be 100% accurate here. Still, if you can already allocate individual parts of the picture to individual color families, then you should cover the whole picture with color accordingly.

The first layer of paint ensures that the pure white of the background does not shine through in places that have not been perfectly filled.

The first layer of paint is usually chosen rather conservatively. This means quite low contrasts and no glaring colors. It is applied with a large brush and should not cost you too much time.

Step 3: Handling the spatula tool

As soon as the first layer has dried, you can start using the palette knife. How you hold the edge is entirely up to you and does not follow any rules. The best way is to hold it in the way that feels natural to you. If you want to change the color, you must wipe the blade of the tool thoroughly each time you want to change the color, so that you don’t accidentally re-spread older paint residue.

When working on the image, choose the size of the blade according to the size of the area to be painted and the character of the object. For example, a calm lake in the foreground of your image is best treated with large knives that cover a wide area and have a very soft surface. A stormy sea, on the other hand, is in motion and foams up a lot of water spray. The restlessness of the ocean can, therefore, be expressed in many small, short spatula strokes.

Step 4: Creating more layers

The primer is just one of many layers you will apply. Depending on how coarse or fine you want to work, you can work your way up to layer by layer to better emphasize the details of the subject.

It is essential that the final result looks vivid and that the surface structure of the paint matches your ideas.

Step 5: Allow enough drying time

If you are satisfied with your work, you should let it dry long enough. Depending on whether you have used acrylic or oil paint for your painting, the drying times vary greatly.

Oil paint that has been applied thickly using the spatula technique sometimes takes several months until the inner layers of paint have dried. Acrylic paints that have been thickened with a modeling paste usually only need a few days to dry completely.

Either way: Make sure that the whole painting is dry before you transport it over a long distance.

More about learning how to paint with a palette knife

The palette knife technique with acrylic paint or oil paint creates expressive art that uses a relief-like surface structure to be able to represent the essence of the motif structurally.

Another option is the mixed-use of brush painting and palette knife painting, which combines the harmony and precision of the brush with the surface finish of the knife.

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