Lisa Elley’s studio smells like heaven.
Art people get it, and painters in particular; the earthy, welcoming smell of oil paint, invoking the stillness of a softly lit museum hall, the tranquility of a studio or, for those of us in retail, the promise and potential of a fully stocked paint department.
Painting almost exclusively with palette knives, Lisa has been nicknamed the “Knife Queen.” Her paintings are colorful, lush and inspired by the natural world. While palette knife painting can sometimes be seen as an intimidating style of painting, Lisa describes it as freeing and energizing.
In hopes of better understanding how we might inspire painters, creatives and novices to explore the possibilities of knife painting, I visited Lisa in her studio to learn more.
Lisa’s studio, located in downtown San Jose, CA, is nestled in Little Italy behind, appropriately, a little Italian cafe. A path leads to a vine covered awning and a bright red barn, a scene that Lisa might paint. Inside, paintings line the walls from floor to ceiling, emanating color with orange sunsets, golden aspens and cerulean skies. A hundred or so RGM palette knives are at the ready. MABEF easels cradle Lisa’s works in progress and tables pushed together create a workstation where we can see several sketches, sketchbooks, plein air easels, a palette loaded with color and a large monitor for referencing photographs.
It didn’t take long to get comfortable; shortly after stepping into Lisa’s studio, surrounded by her flowers, trees, shorelines and mountain ridges, we sat down to discuss what motivates her as a working artist and what is it, exactly, about painting with a palette knife that has her hooked.
From Brush To Knife
Let’s start at the beginning. What got you into painting?
“I’ve always been artistic – I grew up in New Zealand, a very beautiful little country with gorgeous scenery, but I always wanted to travel and explore the inspiration to be found in discovering new places. I didn’t do anything until after my kids were born; I enrolled myself in an oil painting class. I studied under this fascinating crusty old New Yorker painter who was full on old school. I learned about Gustav Caillebotte, the French Impressionist painter who painted with a palette knife. I thought, Oh, that’s cool! I want to try that. I went from painting once a week to painting everyday. I was completely hooked.”
What is it about palette knives that hooked you?
“It’s looser, more gestural. When I paint with a brush, I agonize far too much over the details. The knife completely loosened me up. I’m an energetic person…and because wet-in-wet needs to be completed ala prima, you need to do it somewhat fast, with confidence and gusto. With brush painting I would spend several weeks on a painting, but the knife painting is like swish-swish-swish done! I get into my flow state.”
The marks you make look so intentional; a petal in just one stroke. Is there any fussing that you do or is it pretty straightforward?
“One shot: lay it down, don’t mess with it. I mean, I’ll scrape it off if it’s horrible, or just wrong, but I generally don’t because that’s a waste of paint. Every time you mess with it, it muddies the color. That’s the fun of it, the total abandon of palette knife painting. You just go for it.”
As we got to know Lisa more, we got to know her knives as well. Her expansive “family” comes in all shapes, sizes and personalities. While she frequently refers to her “workhorse,” the #6, she also demonstrates how various shapes are perfectly suited for branches, grass or delicate reflections on water.
In addition to knives, what materials do you use?
“My favorite two brands are Gamblin and Utrecht; when I’m using acrylic I use Golden. I clean up with odorless mineral spirits. I use a little bit to thin my darker colors; the lighter you get [with color] the more texture you put on. White is the thickest and the dark colors are thinner. If I’m using acrylic I’ll use a little bit of molding paste or cold wax, but generally it’s just paint, and lots of it. With oil paints I can create stiffer peaks and ridges with the knife, and it’s shinier, which I like. I use acrylic when I have a time sensitive piece to complete.”
Your studio is absolutely packed with artwork! And you have some in storage… How many paintings do you produce a year?
“On average, I produce a couple hundred a year. I paint every day for at least an hour or two; which is why I do so many smaller paintings.”
How do you make it all happen on a daily basis?
“To be a full time professional artist, you need to be obsessed. When I want something, I really go for it. There is a lot of time management involved. I only spend 20% of my time painting, the rest is business. I have a sales and marketing background so I actually enjoy that side of it. I don’t have a problem promoting my own art, because I love art. It’s not like selling Dixie cups. It’s something I put all my energy, my heart, my passion into… so it’s not that hard to sell it.”
So what drives you to create? How are you “obsessed?”
“My vision is to share my gift and spread joy and connection. My paintings uplift me, and they uplift other people. I often sell my art online so I don’t get to see people’s reactions, but sometimes they take the time to email me. “When I first saw your painting, I cried…” I mean… I’m amazed when I hear that, it’s totally validating, and it’s like, boom, that’s why I do what I do.”
Do you ever struggle with the painter’s equivalent of writer’s block?
“Nope. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant… I just… create my own passion for it. I love to paint so I just paint. When I’m not painting, I think about painting.”
Tell us more about this “Deep Impasto™” technique!
“Well, first of all, I trademarked it! Deep Impasto™ is thicker; I pipe it on. I practice with icing, because icing is cheaper than paint. You lay out a scene and pipe portions of it. The combination makes for a cool effect. Connection with people is key to all of it… it may not bring me a fancy award but people are excited by it, they want to try it, and that’s what it is all about.”
Lisa’s Instagram is full of fun process photos, plein air selfies and paint session time lapses. Her personality shines through with each post! Also, emojis.
What role does social media play in your work?
“Instagram is a source of inspiration as well as a community for creatives. Being an artist is a solitary career; you’re holed up in your studio. Interactions online don’t have the same hit of dopamine you get from having a meaningful conversation in real life, but it’s pretty good! As an artist it’s really important to have a social media presence; it’s a big opportunity and it’s all free.”
Aside from inspiration and community, how does social media help build business?
“Well, I sell directly through my Instagram, and my website. Instagram drives traffic to my website and is also linked to my Facebook shop, so people can check out right on that platform. I do giclée prints of all my art—I have an Etsy shop as well.”
Why do you think people should try painting with a knife?
“Some people stress out about their art.There are a lot of people who worry about it, but that is defeating the whole point. The point is to find your flow state, and your happiness. Palette knife painting is freeing, it lets you get there.”
What’s the value of live painting?
“I paint at events, trade shows, weddings. Live painting is fun and terrifying. There needs to be a certain amount of adrenaline associated with it, the pressure of not messing up. People are pretty curious. A lot of people will observe for a while… I can tell when they are thinking “I can do that. I want to try that.” When I’m somewhere like NAMTA or the Plein Air show, people ask me, “What would you use this knife for?” I can totally explain it, but it does interrupt my flow state. When you go to see a concert pianist, do you ask them, What are you playing? So, I’m in a state of semi-flow.”
What roles can demos play in inspiring people?
“I’m currently putting together some demos that are like a live painting session with a little bit of demonstrating. I point out the knife, say, my workhorse—the RGM Number 6; I plan ahead to explain it. I take a more systematic or formulaic approach, a Bob Ross approach. It builds confidence…usually the step-by-step method helps people deal with the overload. First the sky, then the water, then the foreground. People with not a lot of skill can execute something so beautifully they can’t believe what they’ve made!”
Interviews with artists always leave me creatively invigorated. I am enthralled with their obsessions and observations; I also deeply appreciate the hard proof that there is no one way to be a professional artist. As members of the art supply industry, a community that supports these individuals, we can take inspiration from the discoveries they make with the tools we stock day in and day out.
How might we use this information to jazz up oil painting workshops? Or enrich live painting experiences?
Here are some tips inspired by Lisa: educate your team on these techniques by allowing them to play during a staff-meeting or during a shift. For an in-store play area, consider using frosting (what Lisa practices with for her Deep Impasto™ technique) instead of paint; get some $.99 tubs from the grocery in different colors so customers can practice mixing colors.It can stay out all day, it’s non-toxic and relatively easy clean up. That, and you won’t waste any precious paint!
Helping people embrace the freeing, energizing nature of knife painting is a multi-faceted task, but the first step is learning from the artists, like Lisa Elley, who use these tools every day with enthusiasm and verve. What are your takeaways? Let us know in the comments below.
Photography by Tal Even-Kesef