Studio visit: Matthew Langley and the palette knife

My neighbor and fellow abstract painter Matthew Langley and I have always agreed that process is important–that how an abstract painter paints is as revealing as what he or she paints.

At art school in the eighties and early nineties, during a period of
intensely tactile materiality for abstract painting, Langley and I both
embraced the work of painters like Terry Winters, Brice Marden, Susan
Rothenberg, Bill Jensen, Elizabeth Murray, and Jake Berthot. I think
Langley, who is from DC, would also include Color Field Painting on his
list of important influences. While I was picking up a few of my
paintings from his studio the other day, we discussed the unfinished
painting that was sitting on his easel.

[Image above: Matthew Langley’s studio.]

A finished painting.

Langley works with the grid, taping off sections, building up layers of color, scribing lines into the thick paint to further define the grid, and completing the painting with a thin coat of matte white. The thick, colorful underpainting peeks through.

Detail from the painting above.
A finished painting hanging above Langley’s desk.

The unfinished painting.
Never having seen Langley’s work in progress before, I was surprised by the raucous color and painterly brio evident in the underpainting, which he slaps on using drywall taping knives. Why, I asked, does he always cover it up, opting for an admittedly more elegant but less expressive resolution that only allows hints of color to peek through the surface?

His use of knives also reminded me that painting techniques go in and out of fashion. We talked about the historic replacement of the brush with the palette knife, and how its use was once considered avant-garde, then became the go-to technique of Sunday painters, and is now considered too kitschy to indulge. Or, I suggested to a skeptical Langley, maybe not. Could it be time to revisit kitschy palette knife painting?

Related posts:
Rejecting the New: Abstract painting in the 1980s (2013)
How long does it take Brice Marden to make a painting? (2012)

Last chance to see “Colorfield Remix” in DC (2007)


  1. Nothing wrong with the palette knife; it all depends on how you use it:)
    I like these paintings.

  2. Because of the effect "Hawthorne on Painting" had on me in undergrad it was those P-town mudhead surfaces I romanticized. I value the knife for the immediacy and slightly unpredictable nature of the drag/pull, especially when the consistency of my acrylic paint ranges from buttery-to-cake frosting-to-molding putty.

  3. thanks for posting and thank you Sharon for the lovely article. As of late tonight – I've been thinking about your comment and trying to develop a strategy on how that could work, and making sure to avaiod the 1950's sunday painter look. It scares me a bit to be honest….

  4. I somehow discovered Matthew Langley's work a few months ago (probably via Pinterest, to be honest), and I love these paintings. I was curious about his technique, so I googled (I think that is now a lower-case verb) for it, and I was pleasantly surprised to find your article. Thanks so much for posting it!

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