The Making of “Khan Tengri”: Experimenting with a Palette Knife


“Khan Tengri” Tian Shan Mountains, China

Some paintings take years to gestate. This was one of those.

Back in 2012, we went to Xinjiang, China, and one of our most treasured stops was a long valley with a fantastic view of Khan Tengri Peak. This mountain is one of the most aesthetic peaks I have ever seen with my own eyes. The summit stands 7, 010 meters (23,000′) high at the convergent borders of three countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China. Because of its proximity to these sensitive borders, foreigners weren’t actually allowed in at that time. Fortunately, I also have a Chinese name, so somehow I was admitted, even after they found out I wasn’t exactly local.

When we got to the end of the road, we just followed the river until we got this amazing view. The clouds were moving quickly, building up around the peaks, and eventually obscuring them completely. By the time we headed back, it had begun to rain.

I have been thinking about painting this mountain ever since we saw it. I used to do highly detailed drawings on the canvas first, making a grid so I can accurately draw what I see on the laptop. The drawing alone can take several hours. Recently, I’ve tried a completely different tack, going straight to paint, right on the canvas. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing so much drawing over the last few years that I’m finally able to trust my ability to “get it right enough.”

I’ve been fascinated by artist Cynthia Rosen-Malter’s work with a palette knife, so a few months ago, I purchased a large knife that I had seen used by a local artist. Last week, I started using it to block in a series of small paintings on paper. The tool turned out to be very expressive, and I liked the excitement of the scrapes, strokes and smears. It had worked well with the small paintings. I wondered what it might be like to paint the whole thing with just the palette knife. With this in mind, I set a two-by-three-foot canvas on the easel, squeezed out some paint, and went for it.

The first session took five solid hours! Here’s what it looked like when I was done with the palette knife. The picture is a bit on the light side, but you get the idea.


You can see the scrape marks in the foreground section where the paint isn’t very thick. It felt like a good start, but I didn’t think I could get what I wanted with my current skill with a palette knife, so to refine the image some more, I started using a 1″ filbert brush. A couple of hours later, it looked like this.KT_WIP_2_FirstBrushes

As always, I find myself asking “is it DONE yet?” After letting it sit for most of the day, I decided to clean up some edges, refine the key shapes, and ensure that the cool and warm tones mingled properly. I really enjoyed painting all the snow!

KhanTengri_BeijiangChina_Acrylic_30M910x605This final image is closer to the actual chiaroscuro and color than are the work in progress pictures.

While the painting itself might have taken about nine hours, the whole thing took years, really. Then again, pretty much any art endeavor takes years, doesn’t it? Everything we do adds up to what we are capable of accomplishing now.

I used the following colors for the entire painting:

  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Dioxazine Purple
  • Raw Umber
  • Burnt Sienna
  • White
  • …and a smidgen of Black, once, as a tint