This month’s project features a technique as well as a subject — painting with a knife, using a reference photo I took on Iona last summer as a starting point. Iona is a much-painted island with turquoise waters, white sandy beaches, and jaggered dark rocks; famous for its abbey. (Click on the photo to get a larger version.)
A painting knife gives quite different marks to a brush, and is ideal for mixing colours together on a painting itself to give visually intriguing results. For the sake of this painting project, the whole painting need not be created using a knife, but mark making with a knife must be evident. Don’t think knives are for oils or acrylics only; they create interesting results with watercolour too.
The fundamental technique of knife painting is the same as you use for spreading jam on bread: you pick up some jam (paint) and spread it as thickly or thinly as you desire; if there’s butter (other wet paint) on the bread, it will mix in depending on how much pressure you apply. Tapping at the surface with the knife, either flat or on an edge, gives different marks again. And if it all goes horribly wrong, you simply scrape it all off and start again.
There are many different shapes of painting knives available. My favourite has long been this one with a longish flat edge and a sharp point that is perfect for scratching into paint (in artspeak: sgraffito). If you don’t have one, a piece of stiff card or plastic will do a similar job , though a knife has the advantage of being comfortable to hold in the hand and a degree of ‘bounce’ in the metal).
The Scottish Colourists Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell often painted on Iona in summer. Contemporary Scottish painter Frances MacDonald continues the tradition, saying on her website that “she finds delight in the juxtaposition of angular rock and white sand. Her use of the palette knife creates a dynamism and animation in each painting, She works her paint across the canvas in angular lines; her assured marks arrived at through careful elimination of aesthetic non-essentials.” For online catalogues of her paintings, see the Scottish Gallery‘s website here and here (click on ‘view catalogue’ link on the pages). Another artist to look at for knife painting is Kyffin Williams (read my blog here).
To have your painting included in the project gallery, email me a photo on
ideally with a few sentences about it (think of the things you might say when talking to a friend about it). I’ll post photos with first names only, unless you ask me otherwise.