Of all the tools in my painting arsenal, the painting knife is obviously my favorite. With a painting knife, I can apply paint, spread paint, smooth paint, rough up paint, blend paint, and scrape paint. I can use it to apply a skinny line of paint to indicate twigs, a roof line, brick mortar, street lines, fences, tall grass, or anything I need a real thin line for. Now some very small details may not be possible with a knife and there are times you may reach for a brush for a certain effect. Still, first and foremost (at least for now), I’m a happy knife painter.

The art supply store near me has a rack of many kinds of knives. When you first see them, it may be intimidating and you may not know which knife to pick up first. Your worries are over. I’m here to help you.

First of all, some people call them palette knives, but that’s not really accurate. A palette knife is a knife you typically use to mix paints and/or scrape unwanted paint from your palette. It’s not very good for painting. Let me show you what a painting knife looks like to help demonstrate why.

The letter (a) shows the bend in the handle. Make sure the knife you buy has this bend in it. This is so you can hold it by the handle and apply paint without your knuckles touching the canvas and messing any paint applied to it earlier. A palette knife doesn’t have this bend since it’s just for scraping and mixing. I’ve never owned a palette knife. Painting knives can take care of all my palette knife needs. Another important feature to look for in your painting knife is (b) a flexible tip that won’t break when you bend it.

So let’s check out a variety of painting knives and pick the right one for you to start with. Every time I hit the art supply store, I check out their variety and sometimes find myself buying a new type to try out when I paint next. Sometimes, I like the new one and sometimes I find out it was a useless purchase. Let’s see what I currently own:

  1. This isn’t a knife at all, but a nylon wedge. Still, it’s a lot of fun to use to apply lots of paint on a larger canvas or to scrape paint around.
  2. This was my first knife I ever owned and is my favorite knife of all. I bought it for a beginning painting class in 1987 and it’s still the knife I use the most. I have no idea what size it is. I’ve posted another photo on the top of this blog to show you how large it measures. As you can see, it’s trowel shaped and you can use it like one would use a cement trowel – although on a smaller scale. This would be the knife I recommend you buy first due to its extreme versatility. Since most plein air paintings are relatively smaller than paintings you may paint in a studio, you can easily paint a plein air in 2-3 hours with just this knife. The side edges can give you nice thin lines. It’s also a good knife for mixing paint. I’ve used this knife so much, it’s razor sharp from being scraped on many canvases and panels. And, yes, I’ve cut my fingers on it a few times. Be warned.
  3. This is a longer version of my favorite knife.
  4. This is an even longer version of my favorite knife. The longer versions are especially handy if you want to make long thin lines.
  5. I read this one artist who recommended knives with rounded edges instead of sharp ones, so I bought one. I don’t find I use it very much. I like the sharp edges to help my out with sides of buildings and such.
  6. This is a larger version of the rounded knife and, again, I don’t find myself using it very much either.
  7. I do find myself using this large version, though! Especially when I work larger. I love loading this knife up with a lot of paint and going to town scraping and flinging paint fast. It makes for a lively painting and I don’t use this knife enough on my smaller panels when I go plein air. If I allowed myself to loosen up and not worry about small details, I bet I could get a very lively painting in a short time!
  8. Again, an artist I watched online really enjoyed painting with this knife, but I don’t care for it that much. It’s probably good for doing buildings and such.
  9. This is a smaller version of my favorite knife. Probably good for details. I use it every so often if I need a small dab of paint.
  10. I have no idea what this knife is good for. It seemed like a good idea at the time when I was purchasing it, but it holds so little paint, I can’t do anything with it. Definitely avoid this one.

There you have it. Like I said, I recommend knife no.2, although a longer version like nos. 3 or 4 might not be bad to add later. If you want to loosen up or paint larger, go for no. 7 or even the nylon wedge.

As for cost, we always hear you get what you pay for, but I’ve never gone for the most expensive knives. I’ve seen knives online for as much as $60-$90 each. Yikes, no thanks! The ones I buy are about 7 bucks each and they work fine for me. Again, I’ve recently discovered a terrific knife artist who uses only inexpensive plastic painting knives. I’ve never tried them. They look like they would break too easily. Plus they don’t come in the different varieties I’d like.

Well, I sure rambled a lot about knives when I ended up just recommending one kind. As you can tell, I’m pretty passionate about them, though. Here’s hoping you feel the same once you try them. But before you do, I have a few more supplies to recommend for you, which I’ll take care of next blog entry. After that, we get to try them out. See you then!