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Mar 2018

Scraping the Edge: Palette-Knife Paintings

Scraping the Edge: Palette-Knife Paintings

Looking for a way to get your high school students out of their painting rut? Have them try something new and different. Make them experiment with a technique that directly opposes their tendencies to paint up close and precise.

One semester, I had a painting class with a tremendous amount of skill in realism, yet they lacked creativity and motivation to try new things. Many of these students worked from drawing outlines and “filling in.”

In response, I designed this lesson as a forced experience in thinking about painting differently, and the results have been tremendous. I’ve used it in my class for several years, students taking on their own approaches, and each painting expressing the individual student’s painting personality.

Variety of palette knives.

THE CHALLENGE: Create a painting entirely using a palette knife. All blending, painting, drawing and texture must come directly from the palette knife, no pre-sketching allowed.

On the first day, students took out a variety of palette knives and practiced making marks using acrylic paints. They tried layering the paint using different techniques, they tried scraping the paint off, they tried dabbing, smooshing, splotching, and everything else they could think of to make something happen on their paper.

Their papers were covered with marks, some interesting, others not. Some colors mixed well, while others made the “mud” color we try to avoid in my classes—you know, that greenish-gray color you get when everything mixes too much. At the end of class, we discussed our experience. What was different about using palette knives? What do you like/dislike about the process? What discoveries did you make about color mixing and blending in this experiment?

DAY TWO, students needed to select a subject for their final piece. The possibilities were wide open, and students varied in their selections. Many selected animals or botanical subjects, but those who really wanted to venture outside their norm selected portraits. By choosing a subject they were interested in and intrigued by, many students were inspired to either photograph their subject, or find multiple images of their subject to work from.

Once the research phase was complete, students began composing their works on large Masonite boards (minimum of 16″ x 20″, but most went even bigger than this). As a budget-conscious art teacher, I have found Masonite board to be an inexpensive way to go big. It can be purchased at most home improvement stores in 8′ x 4′ sheets, and cut into many sizes for my classes.

Sheilla, grade 12, adding finishing touches to her elephant painting.


Caitlin, grade 12, working on her sunflower.

THE THIRD DAY, students started in with the paint. Some decided to gesso their boards, but others decided to just go for it. The rest of the time was spent working on paintings with individual critiques and discussions as needed. Most paintings took two weeks of 45-minute classes to complete. Each day, students built onto their paintings, using more color and values until the image was complete. Deciding when it was complete is always a debate, so some had to stop, take a break, and come back with fresh eyes several times before deciding the piece was done.

For this assignment, the focus was on trying new ways of painting and exploring the concept of “building color.” A discussion about Monet’s haystacks, with his use of different shades of white, helped students understand how layering in a palette-knife painting could work.

Discussing how artists experiment and push themselves to use new materials and expand their work in new ways also helped to inspire the finished work. Viewing other palette-knife paintings works also helped with color-mixing ideas and ways to develop three-dimensional form using multiple colors.

Projects that make students use new techniques and encourage new ways of thinking are important for development in visual arts. They help students understand that risk-taking can be rewarded with new ideas and understanding of their creative process.

Holding a friendly group critique session at the end of a project is a beneficial way to discuss our whole experience as a class. In addition to this in-class critique, students complete a self-evaluation and a portfolio review at the end of each quarter.

While this lesson was used in a high school painting class, modifications could easily be made to have it work for middle school. I would recommend selecting a subject for the students that easily translates to palette-knife painting, such as flowers, for the class to work from. Also limiting the color scheme to “monochromatic” could help them to understand more the nuances of the palette-knife idea. 


Eleanor, grade 12.


Abbie, grade 11.


Lauren, grade 11.


Caitlin, grade 12.


High school students will …
• use appropriate skill applications of various painting techniques, and compositional planning.
• experiment, plan, and produce artworks that explore unfamiliar tools through a self-selected idea or concept.
• apply color theory to mixing and blending of selected values.

• CREATING: Generating and conceptual- izing artistic ideas and work. Organizing and developing artistic ideas and work. Refining and completing artistic work.

• Plastic or metal palette knives
• Painting surface: any type would work, prefer Masonite board
• Acrylic paints (tempera for younger levels)

Shelagh Gamble teaches art at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria, Minnesota.


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