2018 Workshop Schedule. New workshops added! click here for details.
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Saturday, February 24, 2018

A Quick Way to Test Color for a Pastel Painting

'Follow Where it Leads Us'          12 x 18           pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $195
 A painting should begin with a plan. I have a few steps involved in my planning stage. I admit I sometimes skim over some of them but lately I have added a step that I won't skip. It is all about the color!

Color can be chaotic without thought and planning. 

Some artists are fortunate and  have a finely tuned sense of color.  They instinctively know just which colors to pick up. They make interesting and harmonious color choices seemingly without effort and without preplanning.  I admire that ability but I don't like to leave color to chance. I don't want to get halfway through a painting and become lost in the pile of pastels that is growing on my easel tray. I don't want to deal with color chaos.

Now I don't have to take my chances with color anymore. I make time to make a

Quick color notes
  • Color Note Studies are small scraps of paper (preferably the same paper/color of the painting) They are not detailed mini paintings.
  • Color Note Studies are simply marks on the paper that represent the various elements in the painting.  They can be a very loose abstracted series of marks.
  • Color Note Studies allow the artists to see how the colors selected for a painting will look together and their approximate relationships. 
  • The studies save the artist much frustration and saves pastel. We can visualize how a color palette will look before experimenting on a bigger piece of paper. Experiment on a tiny piece!
Today's painting was a demo for a private class. I was painting from a photo of a summer meadow filled with pink flowers. My concept was to turn the meadow into a fall scene with yellow flowers. The color study notes helped me see if my color choices would work for my concept.

Try This: Make a commitment to do a color note study for your next painting. Decide in advance what your palette will be and test out your choices on a scrap of paper.

Would you like more lessons on color? 
Consider joining my Patreon page. We will be exploring color for the month of March. I will share video demos, step by step photo demos and weekly color challenges. You can cancel at any time and once you are a patron you have access to all of the previous lessons and videos. At $4 a month it is a great value. Here is the link to check out the page. www.patreon.com/karenmargulis

Friday, February 23, 2018

When the Underpainting Speaks

'Oasis in the City'       11x14      pastel      ©Karen Margulis
available $175
The underpainting had the answer! I had unearthed another old very bad painting and couldn't wait to repurpose the Pastebord. I didn't even bother to wipe off the old painting. I just took a brush and rubbing alcohol and liquified the pastel. The result was a darkish drippy ethereal underpainting. I wasn't sure what it wanted to be so I let it sit on the easel for a couple of days.

The original painting on Pastelbord

After a wash with rubbing alcohol
 Now that I am looking at it I see a pond with trees and reflections. But yesterday I had turned it around and it was clear that this was my favorite garden in a Chicago park. Do you see it?
I pulled out a photo I took at Winnemac park last July. The prairie garden was teeming with bumblebees and coneflowers. I took some closeup photos but I loved this photo of the masses of flowers. (below)

Since we are working on Notans on my Patreon page I decided to do a notan thumbnail so I could simplify the shapes. My notions are below. The top one is not good. I was too literal to the darks and lights in the photon. The bottom version is stronger. But in the end I decided to flip the image to work better with the existing underpainting. That was fun! I love when an underpainting speaks and I choose to listen.

working with a two value thumbnails
more on Notan on my Patreon page.
Chicago Here I Come! Would You Like to Paint with Me?
I have added a new one day workshop in LaGrange, IL. The workshop is April 29th. I am excited because I can visit my kids in Chicago and spend a day sharing pastel tips and techniques!
Here are the details and registration information:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

New 2018 Workshops Added! Come Paint with Me!

'Wind Over the Dunes'         18x24        pastel      ©Karen Margulis
available $450
Workshop season has begun! Last week I got off to a great start with a wonderful workshop in Florida. I always love meeting and sharing with the artists who come to the workshops. Many times we are Facebook friends or have communicated by email or through Patreon. So we often feel like old friends even before we officially meet live and in person!

Come join me at a workshop!

If you follow my blog then we are friends! I may not know you but I am writing for you every day. I would love the opportunity to share with you in person. My workshops are filled with tips, techniques, demos, inspiration, motivation and fun! (and goodies) Registration is now open for New Mexico and Vermont and I just added a one day workshop in LaGrange IL! The details and links to register are below.

La Grange, IL One Day workshop

Santa Barbara, CA May 18-20  Expressive Pastels: Loosen Up and Add Spice to your Paintings. Details and registration: http://www.s-c-a-p-e.org/about-3-1/

Vermont, Plein air and studio in beautiful Vermont! One spot left! Hyde Park, VT
JUNE 21-24, 2018
Diane Szlachetka

Pecos NM, October 4-9  4 day Plein Air  $800 total. Workshop includes 4 days of instruction, 5 nights lodging 3 meals a day!

Lexington, Kentucky! August plein air. Details coming soon!

The demo from Florida on my easel!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Power of Neutrals in a Painting

'Island Mystique'           16x20         pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $595
I was so excited to find an old painting yesterday. Not because it was a good painting but because it was on a good board! It was probably one of the first larger Pastelbord surfaces I had purchased several years ago. I knew the painting had to go but the board would be easy to reuse. Pastelbord is a sanded surface on a hard board. They are wonderful but a bit expensive for my daily painting habit!

Have a look at the painting below. I remember liking it at the time it was finished but there was much about it that I knew could be done better. I love seeing an older painting and finally knowing what it needs. It is nice to know we actually do eventually improve our painting skills and knowledge.

But what did this painting need? I liked the point of view of the high horizon. I enjoyed the idea of a meadow filled with wildflowers. But the flowers and grasses were all screaming for attention. Even the distant trees were too saturated. It was obvious that I had fun with color but the painting no longer worked for me because I had discovered the power of neutrals! Read on for more on this idea.

The original painting on Pastelbord. It needed help!
Back to the drawing board! I had a photo of a misty scene from a visit to Nantucket Island. It was perfect for a reimagined painting. I took a stiff brush and brushed off the thickest layers of pastel. Then I used some rubbing alcohol and another stiff brush to liquify the remaining pastel. I let this wet pastel drip and while it was still wet I worked some Derwent Inktense sticks into the wet pastel. The Pastelbord take all kinds of abuse!  I started to redefine the painting adding the suggestion of a house and some Queen Annes Lace. Below is the new underpainting.

Brushed off and washed with  brush and alcohol
I liked the painting better already! I continued layering pastel using the Richard McKinley selection of Terry Ludwig pastels. This set contains a wonderful collection of neutrals...beautiful grayed down color. It was the perfect set for capturing a foggy island morning.

Halfway finished.
I added the finishing marks with some Girault pastels and a few Nupastels. The final marks were the bright intense green grasses. As I added these marks it became clear to me what I had done differently with this new painting......I had embraced the power of neutrals! Both paintings were inspired by misty New England landscapes. But the original version was all bright greens and pinks. It was almost garish! There were no neutrals to give balance to the riot of color. I now know better.
That was fun! I can't wait to take the next pastelbord in the pile!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Try an Unconventional Underpainting

'Light in the Woods'        9x12       pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $155
 It's a powerful tool that we all should embrace. Thumbnail sketches done before painting is one of the easiest things we can do to improve our work. Thumbnails help us simplify our subject. They help us create a stronger design. They help us establish a framework of values. The details should come later. We need to frame up the house before we can put up the walls and decorate!

Usually I like doing simple four value thumbnails for my landscape paintings. The 4 value thumbnail is based on the idea that most landscapes can be simplified into four values ...light, dark and two middle values. (John Carlson... Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting)

Notans are even more simplified. A Notan is a thumbnail or study containing only two values. Dark  and Light. Black and white. It is a simplified massing of shapes and value. To create a notan we have to decide whether the shapes in our scene are mostly dark or mostly light. The middle values are shifted to either black or white. Deborah Paris has written a wonderful article about Notan. Read it here. 

I decided to try doing some notans . A black Sharpie marker would be the perfect tool.  I chose the Magnum Sharpie which has a big chiseled tip to help me create big simple black shapes.

The Magnum Sharpie worked great for my little notan thumbnail. I used a 4x6 index card for the notan. I liked doing the notan. It made it easy to see the shapes. I could see if I had interesting shapes and arrangement of dark and light. It was also quick to do....no thumbnail excuses!

note: Sharpie markers are not archival so if you are concerned about using only archival materials use another method of creating a black underpainting.

I selected a piece of white Canson Mi-Teinte paper for my painting. The sharpie marker worked well on the paper and I was able to block in the dark shapes of the trees and the light shape of the sunlit tree and grass.
  I now had a nice value map to follow.

It was simple to reinforce the dark areas with pastels that were close in value to the black shapes. I could easily see if a pastel was too light when placed on top of the black marker shapes. It helped me keep my dark shapes strong which was important in order to create the feeling of strong sunlight on the tree and grass.

Sometimes it seems like we have too many choices when starting a painting. Using a notan and then actually recreating the same notan with marker as an underpainting is an unexpected but simple way to give a painting a strong start!

What's Happening on my Patreon Page
Today's painting is the subject for this week's step by step demo. You can follow along and see the painting from the notan stage to the finish.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Two Ways to Successfully Lead the Viewer

'Walk with Me'         16x20           pastel          ©Karen Margulis
available $250

I knew this. But for some reason it gave me an AHA Moment when I was thinking about it this morning. It is something I do on purpose for every painting and having to verbalize it made it clear! I love when that happens. I'd like to share my moment with you! It has to do with the composition or design of our paintings. This is the topic we are exploring over on my Patreon page. 

One of the important goals of a painting is to give the viewer and interesting visual journey. We need to give them a way to enter the painting, show them around, show them what is important and have them leave satisfied.  How do we accomplish all of this?

We need to PLAN for it and think about leading our viewer both in the underpainting....what we put underneath, AND what we put on top, or those final layers and marks.

Painting with a Plan.....Value Thumbnail and Notan

  • Today's painting was one of my Florida demos. I began the painting with a plan. I did a value thumbnail and a Notan. I thought about what I needed to do to hold the shapes together and guide the eye from the foreground up to and behind the tree. What would I put UNDERNEATH? I added a dark value pathway that would be under the grass but would subtly pull the eye back. I added theses dark shapes in the underpainting.
  • As the painting developed I added AREAS OF CONTRAST to attract and pull the eye around the painting. I used hard edges against soft, bright colors surrounded by duller colors, dark shapes of tree trunks against the light of the sky. The flowers also became little stepping stones into the painting.
Armed with this information makes it harder to get lost in the progress of a painting. I am much more likely to have a successful result.

Visit  www.patreon.com/karenmargulis  for more!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Adding Clarity to a Demo Painting

'Listen to the Voice of Nature'         16x20       pastel        ©Karen Margulis
 I am home from a wonderful weekend in Florida. I was hosted by the Shady Ladies Art Studio in Fernandina Beach for a 2 day pastel workshop. I left feeling inspired and energized by my enthusiastic and talented group of artists.  I did four demo paintings during the workshop and I took them out today and added some finishing touches.  This wildflower painting is a good example of the benefit of time away from a painting before adding the finishing marks.

I began this painting at the workshop with a watercolor underpainting. I wish I had taken a photo of the underpainting stage because the colors I used in the underpainting definitely influenced the way I responded to the painting. The sky was supposed to be blue but the peachy yellow underpainting didn't want to be blue! So I let it be peachy yellow.

The photo below shows where I stopped the demo. I had made my important points and it was time for the class to start painting. I am so glad I stopped when I did. I had gotten to the thinking part of the painting process....the time when you are almost finished but aren't quite sure what else to do. I need time away from the painting to I could evaluate it with fresh eyes.

The painting before the details were added
When I took the painting out I was excited to add the finishing touches. I was happy that I didn't paint the sky blue.The painting was still mostly soft and out of focus. I liked it but I knew it needed some more clarity in the important areas. I reminded myself of the concept I had for the painting....flowers dancing and singing in the wind.

  •  I needed to show the wind more effectively so I added more grasses and made sure to have them bent by the wind. I gradually added these grass marks staring with ruler greens and ending with brighter greens.
  • I needed the have the flowers woven into the grasses. I didn't want them to look pasted on the grass. I wove the grasses in and out and on top of some of the flowers.
  • I added some darker grasses for greater texture and interest.
  • I needed to add clarity you the tallest flowers. They were lost agains the sky. I darkened the sky color slightly and added lighter marks to the flowers.
  • Finally I decided that my flowers needed bumblebees. They were actually covered with bees and I clearly remember the buzz when I painted at this very place.
I will be sharing the other finished demo paintings during the week. Thanks for stopping by!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

New Winter Landscape Video Available!

'Winter's Palette'          11x14       pastel       ©Karen Margulis
It happens for every painting. I get to a point where I don't know what else to do. This is the time to stop! It doesn't mean you are finished but it does mean it is time to take a break and come back to the painting with fresh eyes.

When I am painting for a demo or for a video I am multi- tasking. I am painting and at the same time trying to explain what is going on inside my head. I get to the point where I need to step away and this is when the camera usually has to stop rolling. This is when I can slow down and really think about the steps I need to take to finish the painting.

I  posted the video demo for this painting on my Patreon page.  It is now available for viewing on my YouTube channel. Click here for the link:https://youtu.be/-gB9kQtORtA

The video stopped with the painting in the photo below. After we stopped filming and I took a break, I came back to the painting and refined three areas. Read on to see what I did to finish the painting.

The painting before the final marks

  •  Refine the Center of Interest or Most Important Area: I decided that the darker trees on the left were my focal area. I needed to refine this area while letting the other areas of the painting to have less information. I added more negative spaces in the tree trunks and more sky holes.
  • Create the Lead In to the painting and most important area. I needed to have a pathway for the viewer's eye to travel to my focal area. I enhanced the patterns of light and shadow on the snow and I added some detail to a few of the golden shrubs.
  • Add the Spices. I wanted to give the viewer a little treat when they arrived at the focal trees...a little eye candy! I chose red violet to paint some little accent marks on the tree trunks. 

If you enjoyed the video consider joining my Patreon page for more videos! $4 monthly subscription. www.patreon.com/karenmargulis

I did a quick color study to test my chosen palette

My reference photo Crested Butte, Colorado

Friday, February 16, 2018

Make Time for Exploration Studies

'Drama in the Sky'      10x10        pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available  $155
 I love getting milage from my favorite reference photos. I know many artists who prefer using new references for each painting. Once it has been painted, they are satisfied. I am quite happy to use a reference for many paintings. In fact it is a challenge for me to discover how many ways I can interpret the same scene. I call these paintings Exploration Studies.

I begin a series by making time to work up thumbnails with possible compositions. I think about how I can change the scene by changing the format and changing the focus. I developed a worksheet to help me visualize my possibilities.

Planning Worksheet
I begin the series by choosing one of the thumbnails to develop into a painting. It is such a good feeling to know that I have several more good ideas waiting in the wings. This prevents me from trying to put EVERYTHING I am excited about into one painting. This leads to stronger paintings.

Today's painting is my second exploration study. It is on 10x10 white Pastelmat paper. The focus was on the sky and I enjoyed creating some drama in the sky and keeping the ground quiet.

A quick thumbnail sketch for my 2nd exploration.
The focus is the sky!

The first painting done from the photo.
The focus was the buildings at the back of a meadow
You can find my Planning Worksheets in my Etsy shop Link here

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Exploring the Color RED

'Fantasy in Red'        5x7      pastel
Here is another Valentine's Day post from the archives. I am teaching a workshop this weekend!

I wasn't sure what I wanted to paint. I was busy packing for a winter get-away with my daughter. We are headed to Crested Butte Colorado for a little  relaxation before she finishes up her last couple of months of student teaching. I wasn't really focused on doing a daily painting but while organizing art supplies to take on my trip I found a piece of scrap paper with a poppy demo. My mind starting buzzing. Inspiration was born!

Some of my red pastels
 Why not play with red on Valentine's Day!  I decided to take the demo scrap and turn it into a painting. It was on a 5x7 piece of Uart so it had potential. I believe the scrap was used to show a student how to create light on a red flower and tree trunk.

the demo scrap
I grabbed a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol and spray the demo until the pastel began to drip. I took a paintbrush and started moving the wet pastel around. The result is below.

After an alcohol spray
Once the pastel was dry I was ready to rework the demo and paint some poppies from my imagination. I took out my tray of overflow red pastels and had fun exploring the various shades of red and pastel brands. It was a fun way to end a day of packing and organizing.

You just never know when inspiration will strike and where it comes from so stay open and go with your whims!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Let's Paint with Red!

'Love Red'         7x5       pastel       ©Karen Margulis
I love red. It isn't my top favorite color but I enjoy painting with red. There is something special about pushing a soft piece of red pastel into the paper and getting a rich vibrant mark.  So in honor of Valentine's Day I decided to paint with red.

I had a scrap piece of Uart paper that I had done a quick poppy bloom demo for a student. I decided to take some water to brush in the pastel. I had some watercolor handy from another project so I added a bit of red watercolor. Then just for fun I sprinkled some kosher salt all over the wet pigments.
The result was a cool underpainting. Perfect for some poppies.

The underpainting with watercolor, pastel and salt
 I really like the underpainting so I didn't want to cover it all up with pastel. I decided to paint the poppy blooms first then see what the background needed.

I still like the underpainting background!

 I decided it didn't need much so I very lightly scumbled some peach pastel keeping with the red theme. I added hints of a few stems and called it finished. That was fun!  How about painting some poppies? Here is a tip:

Progression of color for a red flower

  • Instead of using just one red pastel for a poppy consider building the bloom from dark to light and cool to warm.
  • Start with the darkest value violet or cool red that you see. I like to use purple and brick red for the shadowed part of the flower.
  • Increase the intensity and warmth of the reds as you layer the petals.
  • Use the side of the pastel to paint larger chunky petals.
  • Paint the petals in the direction that they would emerge from the center....how they grow.

If you like these tips and want more poppy tips have a look at my PDF demo available in my Etsy shop for $6. Link here:https://www.etsy.com/listing/263334117/pastel-painting-lesson-demo-pdf

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

An interesting Watercolor Technique

'Meadow Walk'         11x14       pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $165
 I think I will call it Watercolor Overpainting!  I'm sure you have heard of watercolor underpainitng for pastels. I love starting a pastel painting with a watercolor underpainting. But I unearthed an old painting that reminded me of another way to use watercolor with pastels. Water color splattered on top of the pastels! Take a closer look:

close up of watercolor splatters
The white and pink flower marks are really watercolor spots. To do this I painted my meadow and red poppies with pastels. I wanted to add a suggestion of smaller less distinct flowers. I loaded my paintbrush with watercolor and I tapped the brush over the lower meadow in my painting. (I covered the area that I didn't want to splatter with a piece of paper) I did use some white gouache to mix with my watercolor to make the colors more opaque.

It was a fun effect and I must try it again!! It is fun the things you discover when you play!

Today's painting was an older one and although I liked the flowers there was much that could have been better! I made some corrections and you can see them in the revised painting at the top of this post!

Before reworking the painting. See details of the changes on my Patreon page.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Tip for Dealing with The Big Empty

'Beyond the Meadow'         9x12         pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $155
It was a large expanse of mostly nothing. Sure there were flowers but they were so thick that they really weren't very interesting. It reminded me of a large meadow filled with both but grass. I call it THE BIG EMPTY.....that large expanse of nothing important that occurs often in a landscape foreground to mid ground. How we deal with The Big Empty can make or break the painting.

The question we must consider is how we will have the viewer move from the foreground into the painting and through the big empty? Our focus may be in the distance but we need to create a visual pathway to transport our viewers to this focus. Have a look at the reference photo for today's painting. (below)

my reference photo
The horizon was just about dividing the scene in half so I decided to raise the horizon to put more emphasis on the buildings and less on the sky. That left me with another problem.
The Big Empty!  I now had to deal with the large expanse of flowers that were not really very interesting in my photo. They were arranged in horizontal bands and if I painted them this way they would have created a barrier for entry into the painting. A fence of yellow flowers!

To deal with the Big Empty I created a SUGGESTED PATHWAY of dark that meandered under the flowers and grasses. This dark zig zag mass along with an arrangement of flowers to provide contrast would subtly lead the viewer through the meadow to the buildings in the distance.

TIP: Create visual pathways with areas of contrast to lead your viewer through the empty spaces.

My value thumbnail with the suggested pathway of dark
If you enjoyed this tip you will find an expanded exploration of composition and tips for leading the viewer through your paintings. This week there is a video demo of this painting as well as a new step by step photo demo and a bonus video on spices. I would love your support so I can continue to provide helpful content! www.patreon.com/karenmargulis

a quick color study 2.5 x 3.5 inches

Friday, February 09, 2018

Dealing with TMI in a Reference Photo

'Through the Bluebonnets'         9x12        pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $155
If you work from photos you may have run into this problem.  TMI. Too Much Information. Extra trees, unnecessary fence posts, garbage cans...you know what I mean! Often we get caught up in copying the photo and get frustrated trying to fit it all in and make the painting work. We forget that we have a powerful tool. We have the artistic license to edit the clutter in a photo and make changes if it leads to a better painting.

Edgar Degas reminds us to edit and compose in his quote.

"Even in front of nature one must compose"

Have a look at my reference photo below. When I first looked at it as a possible reference I thought it would be perfect. But on closer inspection I realized that there was some unnecessary information TMI that didn't support my concept of walking down a path lined with bluebonnets. I needed to edit! What might you change in this photo?

In our weekly challenge on Patreon we used this photo to create new compositions. We had some very thoughtful results and it was clear that dealing with the clutter and giving ourselves permission to make changes opens up a whole new world! Here are some ideas for changing this photo:
  • Change the format from landscape to portrait or maybe even square or panoramic.
  • Zoom into one small section and make it the focus.
  • Lower the horizon and make the sky play a bigger role.
  • Change the time of day or conditions for a different mood.
  • Eliminate the road and make it a meadow filled with flowers.
  • Change the shapes and sizes of the trees. 
  • Choose a tree to be the focus and downplay or remove others.

The step by step demo of my interpretation is available on Patreon. www.patreon.com/karenmargulis

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

What Do You Do When Nothing Inspires?

'Shine Your Light'           9x12         pastel        ©Karen Margulis
I've been organizing my reference photos this week. I have over 50,000 photos on my computer. All from my travels. Occasionally I open a folder and print a few that speak to me at the moment.  So my collection of printed photos has slowly grown. I should have no problem at all finding inspiration!

But sometimes I get lost. I have too many choices. I can't focus on just one image. I putter around and my painting window quickly closes. What does one do when everything and nothing inspires? When you can't make a decision?

I put away the photos and look around the studio. I find inspiration in often unlikely places when I open my mind and my eyes.

How do these pastels inspire?

Today I put away the piles of photos. I was overwhelmed with the choices. I was feeling defeated. As I was cleaning up a box of plein air studies caught my eye. I had taken them out for a private class. I looked through them and was drawn to one of the 5x7 studies. It brought back memories of a wonderful day paining in Ireland. What if I used this painting as my inspiration?

I pulled out a piece of light blue Colourfix sanded paper and went over to my easel. Then I spotted the tray of pastels left out from yesterday's painting. The palette was perfect for my painting idea. It was serendipity! My excitement returned and I was filled with inspiration. It was a good day in the studio once I allowed myself to be open to unexpected possibilities. 

5x7 plein air field study from Art in the Open Ireland Summer 2017