Palette Knife as Ticket to Simplification

For Jane Boyd, the key to simplifying her paintings was simply to put down the paintbrush.

“When I gave up the brushes and started to paint only with the palette knife, I found that this approach was more comfortable,” says Boyd. “I’m like two different people, if I’m holding a brush or a knife. I love my array of palette knives. It lets me paint freer.”

Landscape painting
Jane Boyd, “Cinnamon Marsh,” 12 x 12

Boyd suggests that brushes equal detail in her world, but as she talks about it, it seems that there is a tactile attraction to palette knife painting, too. “I painted in acrylic in the past, but I like the spontaneity of alla prima painting in oil,” she says. “I so like oils and their butteriness. It’s like frosting a cake.”

landscape painting
Jane Boyd, “Home from the Woods,” 6 x 8

This approach suits her sensibility. “I like a feeling of a place in my paintings,” she says. “I don’t want to paint every single detail. I try to simplify it and get a feel about it. I go off into a zone and just paint. It’s more of a calm or a peaceful approach.”

landscape painting
Jane Boyd, “Burnt Autumn,” 6 x 6

Boyd admits that plein air painting has its difficulties, but while many painters work hard to tone down the tightness in their paintings and loosen up, Boyd merely needs to switch tools. There is a catch, though.

“If you look at a canvas and at the scene, you see that it’s hard to translate,” says Boyd. “To do it successfully, I have to really feel passionate about a scene and love what I’m looking at. I have to love the place, the sand and sea, the land and water. The quietness of it all.”

Landscape painting
Jane Boyd, “In the Pink,” 12 x 9

Many passages in Boyd’s paintings have muted color, so it may surprise you to hear Boyd talk enthusiastically about color. She says she has a fairly limited palette, but she’s always open to an interesting addition.

“I really like color, but I like to mix my own,” says the artist. “If I get a tube of something strange, I’ll see how many greens or grays that I can get from it. Sometimes I’ll add a stab of color, or a line, or a scrape at the end of painting to make it a little more interesting, but I paint alla prima, and I really just want to catch the moment as I see it and as I feel it. You can overwork it. The key is to know when to stop.”

landscape painting of a barn in the distance
Jane Boyd, “Barn Red,” 6 x 6

Boyd says she mostly uses spade-shaped palette knives, but occasionally will use other shapes, such as the knife with a straight edge at the tip. The size of the knife is dictated by the size of the painting surface, and on the degree of detail she is pursuing. Boyd likes to work on hard surfaces rather than stretched canvas. “I really like birch panels,” she says. “I buy them and put shellac or clear gesso on them because I like to let some of the wood show through.”

Landscape painting
Jane Boyd, September Chill,” 8 x 8

The painter, who splits her time between Toronto and Florida, likes her palette knives and hard panels for another reason. “The great thing with a hard surface and a palette knife is it’s easy to scrape it all off if the painting isn’t working.”

Boyd has also begun to include the medium cold wax mixed in with the oils: “I enjoy the lovely matte quality and once the painting is dry I polish the surface with a lint-free cloth and the surface of the work has a wonderful luminosity.”

This article was originally published in 2016 and recently updated.

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  1. Thank you Jane Boyd,
    Plein aire is a struggle at best and I don’t stand at an easel so the logistics get tricky. I have used palette knife and love it but forgot and I see you do it alla prima and I’m inspired again. OUr local club goes on paintouts which I go on too and now realize palette knife is one of the answers. Clouds might need the finesse of the brush though. A new adventure and thanks for the reminder and I also like the small size boards/canvas. Thanks again. Pen Slade


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