Artist Spotlight – Brent Cotton Demonstrates How to Use Color and the Palette Knife

I recently interviewed a fantastic artist by the name of Brent Cotton. He has shared some of his valuable thoughts and processes on painting.

Here is a short statement from his website:

“I’m inspired by mood and drama, the fleeting effects of light.  I hope my paintings bring a sense of peace to the viewer, perhaps conjure up a memory.  My goal is to show God’s glory in my work, he’s blessed me so richly and I’m so fortunate to be making a living doing what I love.”

My questions and his answers are below.

Brent Painting 'En Plein Air' in his driftboat; October on the Bitterroot River, Montana
Brent Cotton Painting On A Boat

(Before diving into this post, make sure to pick up a copy of my free Landscape Painting Starter Kit.)

What Do You Enjoy Most About Painting?

So many things, but I would say the best part of the painting experience is the challenge of putting on canvas what my mind envisions and trying to convey the mood, light and drama that I’ve witnessed or have imagined.

I enjoy the process and watching the piece develop according to plan, or perhaps going in a direction that I hadn’t expected. Being open to the journey and battle that each painting presents.

Brent Cotton, Under The Tall Cottonwoods
Brent Cotton, Under The Tall Cottonwoods

Is Painting Your Full-Time Job, or Something on the Side?

I paint full-time and feel very fortunate to be able to derive a good living from pursuing my passion. Although my wife does joke that I’m a full-time fly fisherman that paints on the side.

Brent Cotton, Red Sky Morning
Brent Cotton, Red Sky Morning

Do You Teach Art at All?

I have limited teaching experience, but I do enjoy doing it occasionally. The only time I teach is at an annual workshop retreat here in western Montana at Triple Creek Ranch. This is an event geared more for collectors to gain an understanding of the painting process, but some of the folks are budding artists. Truthfully I don’t consider myself a very good teacher. I have way too many bad habits to pass along, but it does get me out of my comfort zone and challenges me.

For more information on the workshop in October here’s the link.

Brent Cotton, Early Summer
Brent Cotton, Early Summer

What Are Some of the Biggest Struggles You Face as an Artist Other Than Actually Creating the Art?

As a husband, and father of two small children, I think the toughest part is managing my time well and juggling the other duties and obligations of life. The business aspect of the profession requires a fair amount of work and upkeep. It’s fairly time-consuming and some days I feel like I’m winging it and treading water with deadlines and commitments piling up.

Brent Cotton, Morning Glory
Brent Cotton, Morning Glory

What Are Your Favorite Subjects to Paint and Why?

Backlit subjects, light bouncing off water, slices of rural life and sporting pursuits are all favorite motifs. I’ll never tire of depicting a solitary fly fisherman out enjoying the peace and rhythm of the river, or a simple pastoral scene that calms the spirit. I like to create pieces that provide an escape from the hectic lives we lead, something to be transported into or back to a simpler time.

Brent Cotton, Morning On The Missouri
Brent Cotton, Morning On The Missouri

Where Do You Find Painting Inspiration?

Knee deep in a trout stream would be one constant source of inspiration. Also, hiking the forests near my home with our children, or driving the backroads of Montana. I’m always in search of the magic light, mood, or atmosphere that makes me slam on the brakes or pause and reflect.

Brent Cotton, Time Stands Still
Brent Cotton, Time Stands Still

How Long on Average Does It Take You to Complete Your Paintings?

It really depends on size and complexity, but on average a piece will take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. Sometimes I labor over pieces for months before I finally get them to my liking.

Brent Cotton, I've Got Your Back
Brent Cotton, I’ve Got Your Back

Some of Your Paintings Have a Lovely Texture to Them. Are You Using a Palette Knife to Create This Texture?

I use the palette knife for about 75% of my pieces. I like to use large hardware store brushes to get a block in and then transition to the knife for all the refining and finish work. I like texture but want to use it in a subtle manner and not overwhelm the viewer with it.

The knife is capable of some very cool effects and I am now more comfortable using it than I am a brush.

Brent Cotton, First Light
Brent Cotton, First Light

What Type of Brush Do You Most Frequently Use? (Fan, Filbert, Etc).

I like flats for the most part, filberts too. Like I mentioned above, the brushes I reach for most often are just cheap hardware store brushes that I abuse. They allow me to cover the canvas quickly and leave a little layer of paint that I can manipulate with the knife.

Brent Cotton, March On The Upper Blackfoot
Brent Cotton, March On The Upper Blackfoot

What Is Your General Painting Process From Start to Finish?

Every piece is slightly different but I would say my most common method of working is as follows:

1. Block in the major shapes with the big brushes, leaving a thin layer of paint that I can work into wet on wet. Usually the mass is blocked in with a relatively neutral middle tone for that particular mass. I’ll add lighter and darker accents as I go along.

2. I typically try to establish my lightest lights and darkest darks so I can adjust all the values in relation to those extremes. At this time I also usually transition to the palette knife and refine the big shapes by either laying on thicker paint or scraping off some of the initial block in. I feel Iike a sculptor, adding and subtracting color and doing a lot of negative painting, painting the shapes around the object to suggest form.

3. Once I’m happy with the initial refining I might let the piece dry at this point so I can come back the next day or so and do some glazing or maybe some dry brush/dry knife work over the top and continue to refine the piece.

4. I do tend to work from top to bottom for the most part but will bounce around all over the piece too. Theoretically, when I reach the bottom I’m usually 90% completed minus some final glazing or small details.

Brent Cotton, Evening Fire
Brent Cotton, Evening Fire

Do You Have Any Tips for Someone Looking To Take Up Painting?

I would suggest someone who is truly interested in creating representational art should first and foremost try to work from life. You will glean so much information and skill by doing that. Not only will your eyes see what photography misses, it also helps you to simplify and boil the subject down to the essence.

I used to paint en plein air solely and that helped my landscape painting immensely. Now that I’m predominately a studio painter I feel I can still create works that are realistic and believable because of that experience early on in my career. Setting up a still life or working from a live model is invaluable too.

Brent Cotton, Clearing The Underbrush
Brent Cotton, Clearing The Underbrush

Which Artists Inspire You?

Too many great artists from the past and present to mention them all but a few favorites would be: (deceased) Sargent, Zorn, Inness, Remington, Whistler, Homer, Ogden Pleissner, James Reynolds, (living) Richard Schmid, T. Alan Lawson, Doug Fryer, Russell Chatham and Thomas Daly.

Brent Cotton, Dawn Breaking Over The West Fork
Brent Cotton, Dawn Breaking Over The West Fork


I would like to say a huge thanks to Brent Cotton for taking the time to share his artistic thoughts and processes. His work is stunning and there is much to learn from him, particularly his use of color to create the illusion of light and his use of the palette knife.

Few people seem to recognize the true potential of the palette knife. It is much more than just a tool for mixing paint on your palette!

Here is Brent Cotton’s website.

Brent Cotton, Bonfire At Twilight
Brent Cotton, Bonfire At Twilight

Want to Learn More?

You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.

Thanks for Reading!

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.

8 comments on “Artist Spotlight – Brent Cotton Demonstrates How to Use Color and the Palette Knife”

  1. Wow! I’ve never thought using a palette knife could render such beautiful detail! I’ve always associated it with the heavy daubed look! Inspiring! I’ve also never painted outdoors but his tip on how it helps refine your vision is giving me the nudge to try it!

    • Yes his knife work is very inspiring and shows what is possible. I think you would love painting outdoors so I certainly recommend you give it a try!



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