Painting with Knives

Another old art piece of mine. This article was first published in an art newsletter dated 1998. The photos of my artwork that I’ve shared for this post range from the same year to 2001.

While oil painting this month, I’ve been having fun painting with knives. Frosting the cake is what I call it when I spread thick paints of color on my canvases, and then add flicks and swirls like a jolly decorator in a bakery.

Using a painting knife on canvas board.
Using a painting knife on canvas board.

Anyone who hasn’t tried painting with knives should give it a go. All you need is either a painting knife or a palette knife of your choice and several rags to clean your knife. I prefer using one knife to keep my painting area uncluttered. And the knife I prefer most is the painting knife. I enjoy the painting knife’s flexibility over the palette knife’s rigidness.

Just like brushes, knives come in a lot of shapes and sizes that lend themselves to various uses. The Dick Blick Company, where I buy my art supplies, explains the differences between painting knives and palette knives.

  • Painting knives are blunt with a slightly flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are used in place of a brush for applying paint colors, paste, pigments, and so forth directly onto the canvas or painting surface.
  • Palette knives are blunt with a very flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are primarily used for mixing paint colors, mediums, additives, paste, pigments, and so forth directly on the palette before applying them to a surface. Palette knives are symmetric, like a kitchen spatula.

I prefer using a large painting knife simply because it allows me to be freer when I apply paint to my canvas, leaving a variety of edges in the finished work, giving the artwork life and engaging the viewer with the painting.

Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.
Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.

Although I prefer painting on canvas, there are various kinds of surfaces to paint on. Stretched canvas allows me to dance the knife across the surface and create a variety of irregular shapes. This is why I use the less flexible painting knives because I prefer some control when I paint. Canvas board and Masonite let me control both knives better, but my pictures sometimes look motionless when I use a painting knife on them. I recommend using the more flexible palette knives on hard surfaces.

More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.
More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.

Whichever knife you choose, painting with knives gives your pictures abrupt color changes, making edges in the paint appear razor-sharp, which is nice when contrasting areas of your major focal points. But when an unimportant edge looks too sharp, a zigzag of the tip of the knife through the paint breaks any edge and puts it in its proper place.

Edges can be hard, soft, and lost. Using a variety of edges engages the viewer’s attention by preventing the picture from looking monotonous. I like to alter the edges in my paintings to enhance the rhythm and composition.

Lost edges look good in snow scenes.
Lost edges look good in snow scenes.

When hard edges are placed horizontally, they accelerate the movement of the viewer’s eye. When placed vertically, the eye of the viewer comes to a sudden stop.

Soft edges slow down horizontal lines and allow passage through vertical ones. Creating soft edges with a brush is easy; with a knife, not so much. That’s where the flicks and swirls I mentioned earlier come in play.

A mixture of hard and soft edges creates a type of movement like a driver operating a car with both the accelerator and brake at the same time. These stop and go edges are called  broken edges and are sometimes described as a Morse Code type of painting.

Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.
Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.

Lost edges are almost invisible edges and help keep the viewer’s attention focused on where the hard edges are. Lost edges play a major role of supporting hard edges, which, as I mentioned earlier, are often found in the main subject. You can see lost edges in the shadow areas of my paintings as well as in the main subjects. Using lost edges with hard edges lets the main subject look as though it is truly part of the scene, and not like it was cut out and pasted on. And equally important, lost edges keep the viewer’s eye flowing evenly from one area to another.

When painting lost edges, I find it’s important to use colors equal to or close to one another in value to keep contrasting values from creating hard value edges. Plus, to avoid hard chromatic edges, I use colors in the same temperature range. This unifies the elements of a painting and creates pathways, like light flowing from one room into another.

The paint dances across the field grass.
The paint dances across the field grass.

I recommend that every artist try doing an entire painting strictly with palette knives. Go ahead and give it a go. And most of all, have fun.

Allow Mistakes [painting]

The three paintings shown below are from 1986 when I wanted to show a deer running through a winter landscape. They are painting sketches filled with mistakes I made while learning about deer and the art of painting. Each painting sketch gets better, but they all contain obvious errors that detract from each picture. Fortunately, I was never afraid to make mistakes while I painted, which helped me grow as an artist. After all, making art is a lifelong process of making mistakes.

"Deer Running, Sketch 1"
Deer Running, Sketch 1, Acrylic
"Deer Running, Sketch 2"
Deer Running, Sketch 2, Acrylic
"Deer Running, Sketch 3"
Deer Running, Sketch 3, Acrylic

While mistakes are often blows to the ego, they’re also beautiful learning lessons. And learning art is achieving the knowledge of which mistakes to correct and which ones to keep. Did you know that good paintings are full of wonderful accidents that the artist refused to fix?

TV painter Bob Ross called his mistakes “happy accidents” because they sparked his creativity and urged him to try new methods. As you study your subject and the painting process, you must not worry about the results or be afraid to paint something “ugly.” As you grow, you will learn how to spot errors and mistakes and problems in your art and find solutions for correcting them. There are many how-to books and Internet sites that will teach you. Just look for their banner headlines:


While you paint, learn not to think too much about the result. Set yourself a goal, but don’t force the painting along. When you’re painting, lose yourself in the act of applying a variety of dark and light and big and small brushstrokes of color that tell different stories within the big picture. Painting, like writing or making music, is about emotions and the landscape they create. The result won’t be perfect, but it will be true.

"People Reading Stock Exchange"
People Reading Stock Exchange, Norman Rockwell

No matter what, allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them, like Norman Rockwell did when he mistakenly painted the three-legged boy in this picture of an illustration he did for The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, the boy in the red shirt has three legs. Two with their knees locked, and a third with the knee bent so that he can rest his hand on it. Rockwell was embarrassed, naturally, when the error was printed for the multitude of Post subscribers to see, but he never repeated this mistake in any of his 4,000-plus paintings.

Never stop learning.

Writing Backstory

According to many that teach the craft of writing fiction, the backstory consists of events, sometimes traumatic, that have happened to your character(s) before the opening of the story. In novel construction, back story often holds the key to character motivation. It isn’t necessary that the reader know it, but it’s essential that the author does, and limits questions for backstory to emotionally important or memorable highlights.

  • What significant something happened in the first seven years of your character’s life that most influenced his/her future?
  • Did physical appearance influence his/her vulnerability?
  • Did mother/father get along? If there was friction, what was the cause and how did it influence your character’s later years?
  • What one incident in school is he/she unable to forget? Favorite teacher? Why?
  • Who did he/she think of as an enemy? Why? How did it affect them? Influence them?
  • What was your character’s most embarrassing moment? How did it affect them? Influence them?
  • Was he/she ever betrayed by a friend? How did it affect them? Influence them?
  • What occupation was the first to intrigue your character?
  • Does he/she ever recollect first love experience? How did it affect them? Influence them?

Interesting characters are what intrigue and hold the reader’s attention. Writers acheive this by creating character charts, or character sketches. This is a technique for character development which has information that is both demographic (age, sex, income) and psychographic (tastes, habits, etc.), as well as a brief list of observed character traits—hairdo, eyes, jewelry, clothing—that stimulates a writer’s creative guesswork about what motivates characters.

What Are Round and Flat Characters?

Round Characters:

Major characters and major supporting characters in fiction are called round characters, as they are well-rounded people in the context of the story. They are complex, emotional, and have many layers of different feelings. And each has strengths, weaknesses, and qualities that distinguish them from the rest of the characters. The lead character (and sometimes one or two other major characters) is given opportunity to grow—to improve upon himself and flourish by the end of the story.

Well-rounded characters include the villain, or antagonist. The antagonist is equal in importance to the protagonist, and is a confrontational character motivated to cheat and harm the main character. Complex and emotional people, despite their dishonesty, questionable morals, and cowardice—three ingredients to every villain’s downfall—well-rounded antagonists seem to leap from the pages.

An antagonist does not have to be a person. It can be an element instead. But it still has to have a personality. I write stories about a ridge and its supernatural power over the populace. That kind of antagonist is an internal obstacle not an external one, like the Barrens and the shape-shifting creature in Stephen King’s It. These types of antagonists must have a heart that can be destroyed in order for the protagonist to become a hero.

Flat Characters:

Unlike well-rounded characters, flat characters are minor characters that authors use as props in a story. Think of waiters, cab drivers, pizza delivery persons, etc. They are not well developed, have no depth or scope, and they never grow and evolve during the story. Instead, they stay set in their ways. Their roles in a story are short and specific: to advance the plot, or provide a necessary setting. They may even contribute in conversation, usually to pass along important information. That’s all.

Creating Fictional Places

Before I begin developing my characters, I either draw or take photographs and make maps of where my main characters live. I want to be able to see where they are while I write, and what the areas look like should I want to use location description in my stories. This exercise pleases my artistic muse while I begin to build my storyline—a.k.a. plot.

Many of my stories happen in a fictional community called Ravenwood, of which I have drawn extensive maps of the place and houses for my characters to live in. I include interiors and exteriors of major places, and pencil in furniture placement and notes about wall hangings and knickknacks and what books are inside bookcases (if important). I also list what color the walls are, or if they’re wallpapered and what pattern they are. Some floors are carpeted, others are bare wood with throw rugs.

Informative maps also let me know where my characters are, what they’re doing, and importantly—what they see at the moment I write about them. Whenever someone rearranges a room or adds something new, it goes onto my map inside my notebook.

Parker Evans House Map
Sample of an informative map ready for furniture placement.