Saturday 1 October 2011

The Oily Knife, part 2: Knife

Having decided to paint out of doors with oils, I made a few expeditions with brushes (this was a fair few years ago, before I had children). But... you still need solvents in the field to thin the paint and clean the brushes in between colours. And I don't really like the thought of spilling turpentine or linseed oil. They cost money, and they're bound to be bad for the field or its denizens. So... I decided to do away with brushes. Finicky things, brushes. Need cleaning. Don't like being dropped in the mud. What I need is something hard and shiny like... a knife!
Two painting knives and a colour shaper: my favoured painting tools.
Of course, painting with knives isn't new. Artists used to use palette knives to mix colours on their palettes. Then they would switch to a brush and soothe the painting into being with its soft filaments. But one day (I conjecture), someone forgot which implement they were holding, and spread a wodge of paint onto the canvas with their palette knife. It looked good. They did it again. Then someone else (probably) redesigned the palette knife, adding a double bend to the handle so that the artist didn't accidentally get his or her knuckles in the paint, and the painting knife was born.

Good painting knives have a springy, flexible blade. They come in a variety of shapes, but I like the one in the foreground (Winsor and Newton No. 27) for most things, especially large, smooth expanses of colour. The smaller knife (Winsor and Newton No. 24) is useful for finicky bits. It's got a bent over point on the end; I haven't had this knife very long, and I'm still working out how to make good use of this feature. The soft silicon Colour Shaper, at the back, is a curious thing, but it's useful for incising curved lines into thick paint. I use it to make my signature.

The only cleaning that a painting knife needs is the occasional wipe with a cloth. You can use them with acrylics or with oils, but, to be honest, I don't like how they feel with acrylic. Acrylic doesn't seem to be as mobile as oil paint - proably because it dries too quickly. I end up dragging the knife through acrylic paint, instead of gently smoothing it.

I first took a knife out into the field around 2002. I liked the results. I have a dreadful tendency to overwork a painting, to put too many details in. Big brushes help me to loosen up my style, but palette knifes are better. Great broad sweeps, choppy little blocks of colour, splodgy impasto dabs... I feel like an Impressionist! (And yes, the Impressionists did use palette knives on occasion. With oils, of course.)

Monet, "A Seascape, Shipping by Moonlight" Cezanne, "Le lac d'Annecy" Turner, "Snow Storm"
Some examples of Impressionist and related paintings made - in part - with palette or painting knives
Pissaro, "The Pond at Montfoucault" Courbet, "The Wave"

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