Inside the Studio: Palette Knife Painting

Written by Clare Brebner

Most Monday evenings, Hamid Ayoub can be found at the Ottawa School of Art with an armful of canvases and a case full of tools. He comes to teach a unique painting course, where not a single paintbrush is required. Instead, he shows his students how to create a painting, start to finish, using palette knives.

What’s a palette knife? For those unfamiliar, a palette knife is a blunt, flexible tool often made out of plastic or metal that can be used for mixing and applying paint. They come in a variety of shapes, each useful for a different task. Artists will often use them simply as a mixing tool, but in Ayoub’s class he demonstrates how to use them beyond the palette.

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Painting with a palette knife has a few distinct advantages: not only is the texture of the paint luxurious, but the colours are intense, and it’s incredibly fast to work with. Beverly, a student in the class agrees. “It’s faster,” she says, having already laid down the background of her painting within the first few minutes of class. “I love the texture…seeing different artists that had done it inspired me to try it.” The students work quickly and intuitively to build an image, some from imagination and others from reference pictures.

At the center of Ayoub’s painting course are the pillars of visual art: the elements and principles of design. Each week he introduces a different one; during my visit in his classroom, his lesson was all about pattern. Using heavily patterned fabric as a prop, he explains its uses within painting, craft, and even commercial industry. Ayoub emphasizes the need for new students and experienced artists alike to remember the elements and principles of design: “we forget them. They are basic, but if you keep them in mind while practicing it will help you have a successful masterpiece.”

Ayoub began teaching in Sudan, and after a period living in West Africa and travelling, he came to Ottawa. Here he began volunteering with the Ottawa School of Art’s outreach program, through which he offered classes for seniors. Now he teaches his palette knife painting class in the general interest program, where a mix of complete newcomers and experienced artists are able to learn his techniques.

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Each student ends up with a unique painting, despite working with the same theme presented by Ayoub. “They develop their own way, and I give individual feedback,” he says. This becomes clear as the paintings progress; some are working on landscapes, while others remain abstract. Everyone in the class appears to be pursuing their own interests, calmly exploring paint, and the studio feels very relaxed. As the students work on their canvases, Ayoub travels the room to give advice. He praises the practical, studio environment, and what it can provide for artists: “if anyone wants to explore, this is the place.”