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Out of the Comfort Zone: Giving Up Control

Recently I signed up for another workshop at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. This one was a painting knife class. For those of you who are fans of Bob Ross you'll be familiar with some of the effects he got from using painting knives occasionally on his show. While I have painted with oils before I had never used a painting knife - not to be confused with a palette knife. (The difference is in the handle; painting knives have a bent handle to allow space for your knuckles as you grip the knife so that you don't rub them in the paint on your surface. Palette knives usually have a straight handle and are used for mixing paint on your palette. Not that this is a hard and fast rule. Many artists use the terms interchangeably as palette knives can also be used for painting if that's what you like.)

While it was fun to learn something new this was definitely a step outside of my comfort zone. If you check out my portfolio you will see that a lot of my work, both paintings and drawings, are very soft, smooth and precise. With a painting knife you can add a surprising amount of detail, but there is definitely a level of control you give up in comparison to using brushes. I had to get used to my painting having a lot more texture (which I kind of liked) and not being able to be as precise as I normally would (which was frustrating). Maybe that will come with more practice as time goes on. As you can tell from the little study painting I did first, (despite it having gotten smooshed on my way home), I struggled with this the most.

What was particularly aggravating was getting used to using different gestures and arm movements than I was used to. Normally, painting with a brush requires a lot of wrist and finger movements whereas painting with a knife uses bigger movements with the elbow and shoulder. That made getting details just the way I wanted them particularly challenging. It seemed as though I was either putting down too much paint where I didn't want it, blending things that I didn't want to blend because it took longer to dry, or pulling up paint that I wanted to stay where I had put it. AAARRRRGGGG!!! Many times I was sorely tempted to just go back in with a brush and "fix" things, but I am proud to say that I completed my piece without touching one!

This was definitely a lesson in patience as well as a lesson in giving up some of the control I normally have on how much detail I can put in, but I still enjoyed it. I am going to try a few more paintings using a knife and see if I can improve my skill level with practice. Sometimes it's fun to just let loose and accept those "happy accidents" that happen along the way, as Bob would say.

If you've ever used a painting/palette knife before in your work let me know in the comments what you think of the technique. Do you prefer them to brushes? Do you find it more challenging or more liberating? Also, feel free to share examples of your work!

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