Monday, September 26, 2016

From the Archives: Packing for a Plein Air Trip

'Desert Sparkle'         5x7      pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $75
 The adventures will begin soon. It is time to pack. I don't like to pack for a plein air trip at the last minute. I like to spread out the project over a few weeks. It's is part of the fun anticipation of a trip. I set aside a table in my studio and lay out all of the things I think I need or would like to bring.

Then I go through it all. I eliminate most of it. I keep the bare minimum amount of supplies. I want to travel light and free. I want just enough to allow me to paint quick studies. I want to capture fleeting moments in time. I don't need to bring the contents of my studio with me. If it can't fit in my backpack or carry-on then it will stay home.

As I pack I'll share my process. Packing light isn't for everyone but perhaps you will like some of my ideas. Perhaps you will have tips of your own you'd like to share?

Packing Paper for a Plein Air Trip

Today I am packing paper. I won't be painting anything larger than 8x10 on a plein air trip. If I am teaching I will bring some 11x14 paper for demos.

Itoya Portfolio folders in two sizes....8x10 and 5x7

  •  I will bring an assortment of my favorite sanded pastel papers. Uart, Pastel Premier, Pastelmat, Multimedia Artboard .
       Tip: Bring paper that you are familiar with. Unless you have a lot of room and want to                     experiment and play it is safer to work on paper you know.
  • I am cutting full sheets of the papers into smaller sizes both 5x7 and 8x10. I use a ruler and scissors or utility knife to cut the paper. (saves money)
  • I am toning some of the Uart paper in my favorite plein air color (more on this later)
  • I am filling my Itoya plastic portfolio folders wit the cut paper. These folders have plastic sleeves that work great for protecting and transporting paper.
  • I put finished paintings back into the plastic sleeve of the folder. This is how I transport and protect my finished paintings. (yes a little residual pastel dust is left on the plastic but not enough to harm the painting.)
  • The plastic folders are great for sharing your work with others and keeping the paintings safe. 
  • The loaded folders are slipped into my backpack. The perfect solution for keeping both paper and paintings safe!
How to do store and transport paper and paintings on a plein air trip?

New Mexico Workshop Note: 
There are a couple of NEW openings for my October workshop in Pecos New Mexico. We are contacting those on the waitlist but anticipate an opening or two! It will be a pastel workshop retreat at the Pecos Benedictine Monastery in Pecos, New Mexico located in the Pecos River Canyon 25 miles east of Santa Fe. 

October 14-17, 2016   4 day workshop
 Arrive Thursday October 13th, workshop on Friday, Saturday, Sunday
  and Monday. Depart Tuesday October 18

$800  includes  workshop instruction 4 days and lodging for 5 nights. Lodging   
 includes 3 meals daily. 

To register for the workshop and secure your lodging please contact:
                          Bruce Wadsworth
                          Marketing/Retreat Director
                          Pecos Benedictine Monastery
                          Tues.-Sat. 9-3:00
                          (505)-757-6415 ex t12  (505)-946-7281 cell    

Plein air paintings done last October in New Mexico

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Small Step to Better Paintings

'Aspen Study'        2.5 x 3.5        pastel       ©Karen Margulis

No time to paint? It can be frustrating. We are told that in order to become better artists we need to paint miles of canvas. To get past the learning curve or get to the next level in our work we need to paint more often.....and more paintings!  The more 'starts' we have the more we learn. So what can we do when our painting time is limited?

Take a small step by painting smaller!
When I was working full time and wanting to take advantage of my very limited time at the easel I painted small. I would try to do a daily 5x7 study every day during my lunch break. Little paintings with a time limit taught me so much and contributed to my growth as a painter. But we can get similar results with even less time by painting mini pastels.

2.5 x 3. 5 inch mini pastel
I save all of my paper scraps and cut them into artist trading card size 2.5 x 3.5 inches. Frames and mats are readily available but I often paint minis just to learn....practice. I don't even need to be at an easel. All I need is a table and a box of pastels. I often paint minis when I am trying to practice a new idea or concept. This week I painted several minis with my new Terry Ludwig Stunning Yellow set. It allowed me to get to know the colors without using a lot of paper. I ended up with several studies for future paintings....and I contributed a few inches to my miles of canvas!

Why not paint some minis this weekend? I have a $5 PDF demo which shows a simple way to paint a small landscape.

 How To Paint a Mini Pastel PDF Demo available on Etsy click here

3.5 x 2.5  pastel

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Behind the Scenes: Today's Daily Painting

'Seaside Tangle'           8x10        pastel          ©Karen Margulis
available $155 
Happy First Day of Autumn! I find that I am very much a seasonal painter. My landscapes change to meet the season. I never paint snow unless it is winter! So I welcome the change from the very green landscapes of summer to the colorful and sometimes subtle colors of fall. For today's daily painting I selected a photo from a past trip to the California coast. I will be visiting California again this November so I am getting prepared!

I took the photo somewhere north of San Francisco. It was a cool foggy day which made the subtle colors in the meadows come alive. I remember being enchanted by the wonderful tangle of dried wildflowers and favorite subject!

alcohol wash underpainting on white Pastel Premier paper
I decided to work on white Pastel Premier sanded paper because I had a piece handy. I usually recommend choosing paper to suit your subject and not just choose the piece on the top of the pile. But in this case the white paper would work well for my idea.

I wanted to get some texture in the grasses so I decided to do an alcohol wash underpainting using softer pastels. I knew this would give me less tooth to work with but would also make some interesting thickening in the underpainting.

I selected various pink, mauve and purple pastels for the underpainting. These were the colors of the grasses so I thought this choice would give me a head start. These colors would look good peeking through the lighter grasses.

TIP: I have heard that Pastel Premiere doesn't take a very drippy alcohol wash so I was careful not to get the paper too wet. I had no problems.

I made use of my Terry Ludwig pastels especially the Richard McKInley landscape set. They were perfect for the subtle and gentle colors in my scene. The neutrals allowed me to create the depth and foggy feeling.

I like to make a color chart of a new box of pastels. Terry Ludwig makes it easy because he includes a blank chart. I decided to laminate my color chart. I hesitated at first because I thought it might change the colors. I did it anyway! I want to report that I don't notice any color change in the laminated laminate your charts!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Art Hack of the Week: What Can you Do with a Push Pin?

'Wild by the Sea'         7x5        pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $125
I am always on the lookout for art tools. It doesn't matter where I am shopping. I have even found great mini alligator clips at the grocery store! I call these finds my Art Hacks. I have found some great ones and have been introduced to many by my fellow artists.  I am introducing a new weekly blog topic devoted to these hacks. Enjoy this week's Art Hack!

Close up of the tangle of grasses and wildflowers
A few years ago I took a great workshop with Stan Sperlak and he introduced me to this week's tool.... a stainless steel push pin. Not your ordinary thumbtack or cheap-o plastic pin. These were long and substantial push pins. Humorously Stan gave us each one and called them sterling silver. We earned them at the end of the workshop!  I continue to use these pins in my work. Read on for the ways a push pin can be used for pastel painting.

Using a push pin for precision pastel removal

  • Push pins can be used to remove pastel with surgical precision. Simply scrape away the offending pastel mark. I painted my flower too fat. Instead of brushing it out all I had to do is scrape off some of the flower giving it a trim!
  • Push pins are great for straightening a horizon. It is challenging to get a nice straight horizon. The more pastel you add to make it straight the worse it can get. Use the pin to scrape away a thin line of can gradually get the horizon straight this way.
  • Push pins are helpful for adding texture. I used the tip of the pin to remove bits of pastel in my flower revealing the dark pastel layer underneath. This creates a feeling of texture in the bloom.
  • Push pins make great grasses and stems. Scrape linear marks into a grassy area to create the illusion of grass. You can also make a fine stem with a pin. See the photos above. It's like scratch art! Tip: You need a thick enough layer of pastel for this to work.
  • You can use a pin to attach your paper to your drawing board 
Order some push pins and keep one in your pastel box. How can you use a push pin in your work? Share in the comments!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tips for Working with Yellow Pastels

'Canyon Color'          11x14       pastel         ©Karen Margulis
available $175
As if you needed another reason to add to your pastel collection!  How about Chamisa in bloom?  Can you tell I am enjoying my new Terry Ludwig set of Stunning Yellows? I always enjoyed using yellow. I like a lot of yellow, sand, sky, sunlight!  But I always found yellow a challenging color to work with in pastel. I found it difficult to get it bright and sunny enough! I have some tips below but I have to say that this set of pastels is making the job easier!

Terry Ludwig's Stunning Yellows

Tips for working with Yellow

  • Start with orange. When building up a mass of yellow begin with darker values if possible. I like to start with the orange family then gradually build to the lightest and brightest yellows.
  • Use violets. Using the complement of yellow which is violet will help the yellows be more visually exciting. Surround yellows with violets (all kinds) or place them side by side for more interesting yellows.
  • Go darker. If your yellows don't seem bright enough try surrounding them with a darker value color. It will be like turning the lights on in a dark room!
  • Warm and cool. It helps to have a variety of warm orangey yellows and cooler lemon yellows in a mass of yellow.
  • Use Shouting marks. When you really want your yellow to stand harder. A few hard edged marks will contrast nicely with softer marks. These shouting marks will stand out!

2.5 x 3.5 color study
"For most people, yellow is a happy color. It generally energizes, relieves depression, improves memory and stimulates appetite."  Shirley Williams

Read more about yellow from Shirley on her color website here

close up of the chamisa details
TIP: Consider splitting a set of pastels with a friend. It is easy enough to cut the pastels in half. International reader....Terry Ludwig ships internationally. Sharing with a friend will help with the shipping cost!

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Ultimate Inspirational Experience

'Changes'       8x10      pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $145
If you love pastels please keep reading. Tuesday 9/20 at noon ET is the day to reserve your hotel room for the ultimate inspirational experience for pastel artists of all levels....IAPS 12. This year the Hotel Albuquerque opens reservations before convention registration so be sure to call to book your room.

Update from IAPS: The only number that will work for IAPS reservations is 866-505-7829. Please do not try to call the main hotel number, you will not get our IAPS rate, and they will not take your reservation.

If you have attended the convention then you already know the many benefits.....great demos and workshops by the pastel rock stars, the candy store (pastel vendors), the fun and friendship of the artists, the beautiful location in New Mexico....I could go on. But if you have not yet attended the convention please consider coming in 2017.

It doesn't matter how new you are to pastels. You will be inspired!

The year I first began painting with pastels the IAPS convention was in North Carolina for the first time. An easy drive away. I could have attended but I didn't feel like I was 'ready'. I know better now. There is something for everyone and everyone will welcome you and make you a part of the pastel family. Every time since I have gone to the biennial convention. (now as a part of the faculty) Every year I leave motivated and inspired.

Make your room reservations and start a special piggy bank labeled IAPS INSPIRATION. Save your pennies for the ultimate pastel inspirational experience!

The start....big simple shapes
I welcome your questions about the convention. If I don't have the answer I will do my best to find out.  Please send your questions to me at and I will answer them in an upcoming post.

Today's painting: I used a piece of white Pastelmat. I always forget how much I enjoy this paper!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sunday Studio Pastel Demo Video: Painting Aspens with Terry Ludwig's Stunning Yellows

'Stunning Yellow'           8x10       pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $145

 The box arrived yesterday and I was chomping at the bit. Terry Ludwig's new pastels are always a treat and I was especially excited to see these new 'Stunning Yellows'.  Of course they are just that...Stunning!  They are perfect for so many things that I love in the landscape....chamisa, sunflowers, bumblebees, daisies and of course aspens in the Fall!

I decided to try them for the first time live on Facebook!  The painting in this post is the result of my live demo with a few final marks of yellow and violet. You can see the video on my Youtube channel or my Facebook page. Be sure to like and share if you found the demo helpful!

Terry Ludwig pastels 'Stunning Yellows' all new colors! Click here for website

The demo painting is 8x10 on Uart 400 grit. I did a dry wash underpainting of the tree foliage using a terra-cotta Nupastel. 

I did use a few additional pastels for the painting. I happened to have a tray of colors I used for another autumn painting and some of these pastels were perfect for the aspens.

I hope you enjoyed the demo! Tell Terry you saw the set on my blog when you make your purchase (I know you want them ;)  )

Saturday, September 17, 2016

More on Pastel Paper: From the Archives

'Simply Peaceful'        12x18       pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $175
From the archives: More on choosing pastel paper.

 Paper choice does matter. Pastels perform differently on various types of paper so when you are starting out it is a good idea to try out a few and then stick with one you like until you are comfortable with it. I don't mind unsanded paper like Canson Mi-Teintes and use it often but my current favorite paper is Uart.

I love paper. I have a big assortment of all kinds or art paper. Fortunately I have a great paper rack to keep it on. I can't resist buying a new kind of paper or trying paper that another artist recommends. But if I had to downsize and keep only one brand of pastel paper I would keep my UArt paper.

If you haven't tried Uart let me give you 10 good reasons in no particular order.

1.  It comes in a nice color. All Uart is a manilla color. Kind of like a pale creamy yellow. I like it. Sometimes I find the middle gray papers a bit too dark. The Uart color isn't as bright as white paper but allows for nice luminous under paintings with watercolor and oil. It doesn't look as distracting when it isn't completely covered up. White paper showing through can be distracting.

2. Choice of Grit.  Uart comes in several grades of grit.  It is a sanded surface and unlike some brands Uart gives you a choice in grittiness. You can get a rough gritty paper in 240 and 320 grades. These papers hold many layers of pastel and stand up to more aggressive techniques. 800 is the smoothest paper able to handle fine detail.  I prefer 500 and 600 grade paper. It is a nice middle ground....not too rough and not too smooth.

3. Choice of size.  Uart gives you a choice of paper sizes including rolls!  I like to order 18x24 sheets and cut them to the size I like. I tend to paint small so 18x24 is big for me!

4. It stays flat!  This is a big selling point for me. Uart paper tends to stay flat with no waving or buckling when I do a wet underpainting. Every once in awhile I get it too wet and I have to flatten it but most of the time it dries nice and flat!

5. Good Price. Uart gives you choices in sizes which helps the price. I can get an 18x24 sheet at online art stores for around $6.50 with coupon. Cut into pieces it is just pennies per painting.

6. It comes Mounted as well as unmounted.   If you like working on boards, you can get Uart mounted to conservation board. You can also mount it yourself using a variety of methods.

7. It has a Uniform surface.  The sanded surface of Uart is nice and areas where it is rougher or smoother.  You always know what you will get. AND it tales all kinds of pastel with ease from the hardest to the softest.

8. It is reliable. Like #7 it is uniform in grit and always the same. I did once get a 'bad' batch that had a diagonal grit which I actually liked. Uart offered to replace it though. I would like the diagonal grit as an option!!

9. It is archival.  Uart paper is PH Neutral and Acid free so your paintings will last forever.

10.  You deserve it!  You don't need to wait until you think you are 'good enough' for sanded paper. Using Uart will actually help you become a better painter. You should always use the best materials that you can afford and Uart is the best paper for my money!  Give it a try with a sample pack from Dakota Pastels!

alcohol wash underpainting 

Friday, September 16, 2016

FAQ: Choosing Pastel Paper

'Into the Woods'      5x7         pastel on Uart       ©Karen Margulis
It really is a great question. If we have been painting with pastels for awhile we may take for granted all of the choices we make without much thought. Take paper for example. We are fortunate to have so many wonderful papers and supports to use for pastels. We tend to find our favorites and with experience we know when one surface suits the painting project.

But when we are new to pastels everything is a mystery! How many pastels do we need? What is a good set to buy? What about paper? What is the difference between sanded and unsanded paper? There are many questions and today's post is inspired by a question I received today.

"How do you decide when to use Uart and when to use MiTeintes?"

I had not really given that much thought. The choice has become so automatic. It is a great question for those new to the medium. Here are my thoughts....

alcohol wash underpainting on Uart sanded paper

Paper choice often depends on both the idea I have for the painting and my mood. I love most papers for different reasons but I do tend to use Uart and Canson MT the most and I will use them interchangeably most of the time.

  • If I am planning to do any kind of wet underpainting however I will use Uart sanded paper in 400 or 500 grit. Canson MT does not take a wet wash and is not as sturdy as Uart. 
  • If I want to try anything experimental such as adding texture with gesso and pumice or maybe experimenting with inks...I will choose Uart. It is versatile and stands up to abuse.
  • If I want to paint something quick and don't want to do an underpainting or tone paper I will choose Canson MT. I like that it comes in so many colors. I do prefer the smooth side and like to use the gray tones.
Note: Like may other artists I didn't like Canson MT when I was new to pastels. I found it unforgiving. Looking back I was using harder pastels which didn't give me the soft juicy look I admired. It really wasn't the paper...It was my pastels and my inexperience.

'Out of the Woods'        6x6        pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper        available $50

Thursday, September 15, 2016

An Exercise for Better Color

'A Quiet Spot'        9x12        pastel         ©Karen Margulis
available $145 
I just couldn't leave it alone. I tried. I had great intentions to paint a black and white landscape. But when it was all said and done Color won. It was a great exercise though. It really brought home the saying the value does the work and color gets the glory.

I started the exercise with a piece of white Canson paper. I only allowed myself to use black, white and a few values of gray pastels. I used a variety of pastels including Terry Ludwigs and Diane Townsend. Working in black and white was fun. It made me work! I had to be sure I had the values in the right place so that I could create volume and depth.

The black and white stage of the painting
Without the distraction of choosing color I was able to concentrate on developing the shape of the trees. Using John Carlson's idea that there are just four values in a landscape helped me create the illusion of depth and kept the values simple.  Darkest value = upright planes, Lightest value = sky
middle value = flat planes, middle dark value = slanted planes.

I came back into the studio after lunch and decided that despite the relative success of the exercise I wanted to play with color!  So I sprayed the black and white painting with workable fixative and painted on top with color! Because I had a value map already it was easier to choose color. The value did the work! I just followed the map.

Try This: Give the black and white exercise a try. Turn a reference photo into black and white to make it easier to see the values. (use a photo program or simply make a black and white copy) Can you leave it as a black and white painting? Or will you be tempted by Color like I was?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Step by Step Demo: Pastel Poppies in Pictures

'A Gentle Breeze'         8x10         pastel      ©Karen Margulis
available $145
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.  Join me today for a step by step demo in pictures of today's daily painting. I am working on an 8x10 piece of tan Canson Mi-Teintes paper. I begin with a dry wash underpainting using 3 values of pink. I establish the dark shapes first. I then paint the sky. I continue building the painting from big shapes of green down to the details of the flowers and grasses. I spray the grass a few times with workable fixative to create texture.

I thoroughly enjoyed painting these poppies and I hope you enjoy the process through my photos.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What is Painting From Within?

'The Marsh Spirit'           13x20           pastel          ©Karen Margulis
available $195     

It is all in there. If we really know and love a place it is all within us. We can recall it when needed. That is why I love painting from bad photos. It allows me to ignore the photo and paint what is inside my head and heart.  I recently read a quote from Degas that inspired my studio class today.

"It is very good to copy what one sees; it is much better to draw what you can't see any more but is in your memory. It is a transformation in which imagination and memory work together. You only reproduce what struck you, that is to say the necessary." Edgar Degas

In that spirit I decided it would be a good exercise to paint without reference photos today. Instead of going cold turkey we were allowed to choose a photo of a place we loved and do a thumbnail sketch. We could use the thumbnail to start the painting....but no photo at any time. This would force us to paint from our memory of the place. Some call this painting from memory or from imagination. I like to call it Painting from Within because I use information that is in my mind and in my heart.

The demo painting half done. I needed different pastels for my vision
TRY THIS: Trust that you have a lot of great information within. Try to paint without relying on a photo. Set a timer for 30 minutes. You can use the reference photo for the first 15 minutes. Put the photo away for the last 15 minutes.

I will share tips for painting from within in another blog post. Stay tuned!

Monday, September 12, 2016

How to Have a Successful Plein Air Experience

'Along the River'         5x7        oil on panel
Plein air painting can be frustrating. One of the premises of my workshop last week was how to take plein air from frustration to fun.  There is one word that sums it up......SIMPLIFY.  If you want to get the most out of the experience you need to start with this word in mind. Simplify everything!  Your supplies, your expectations, your paintings, your goals.

I know I used to make the whole plein air thing much to complicated. Especially my supplies. I was so afraid that I would need something so I filled a tall office cart so full of supplies that I couldn't even find what I wanted. Not to mention how difficult it was to drag the cart around and how long it took to set up!


  • Simplify your supplies. Try to limit your palette and support size. Ideally if you can fit your supplies into a backpack (rolling or not) you will have enough and be happier with your lighter load.
  • Simplify your expectations. Plein air is valuable. Think of the experience itself as the goal. Lower your expectations. Don't plan on completing framable masterpieces. Instead plan on enjoying the time out in nature gathering studies. Remove the pressure and have fun.
  • Simplify your paintings. It is tempting to want to put everything in the painting. So much is inspiring and it is often overwhelming. Simplify and do a few smaller studies.
  • Simplify your goals. Set mini goals for your plein air excursions. Don't try to accomplish everything you want right away.

'Riverside Delight'          5x7      oil on panel         ©Karen Margulis

I am new to oil painting. I think I only attempted plein air with oil once a few years ago so I approached the weekend with the midst of a beginner. I decided I would only work with oils but would start by painting things that I was comfortable painting with pastels. I didn't try to accomplish too much and just enjoyed taking baby steps. I SIMPLIFIED! I worked small with a limited palette and painted close up flowers....things I know best. I simplified my goals and only expected to have fun. And I did!

I finished 10 small studies this weekend

'violet'        5x7    oil on panel