Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Importance of Research in Painting

'Plight of the Bumblebees'          18x24         pastel        ©Karen Margulis
I had a concept in mind. I wanted to paint a meadow and fill it with bees. But I was leaning towards an early morning sky instead of a bright blue-sky day.  I picture bees buzzing around flowers on a warm summer day so I wasn't sure if my concept would be a believable scenario. Do bees pollinate at dusk or sunrise or early morning or cloudy days? I obviously didn't know enough about bees and I didn't want to put bees into the wrong environment or conditions.

For paintings to be authentic and feel right they need to be true to real life.

Sure, we can get away with a lot when painting. After all we are the artists and can do whatever we want. But sometimes understanding the science and natural history behind a scene can  help make the painting better.

So I did a little research and asked Google if bees pollinated during overcast conditions or early morning. You learn something everyday and I learned that BUMBLEBEES do pollinate under many more conditions than honeybees. They are active at 40 degrees F and will pollinate early in the morning and later into the day as well as on cloudy, overcast , windy and even rainy days!  They are larger and carry more pollen and are more efficient than honeybees.

It was interesting information that helped me decide that it would be just fine to put some bumblebees into my early morning meadow. 

Oil stain underpainting on Uart 500 grade paper

close-up of the bumblebees
 It was a valuable lesson. Not just in learning about the difference between bumblebees and honeybees but it reinforced the importance of really knowing the landscape. To paint the truth we must know what is true.

Monday, February 08, 2016

How To Fix a Pastel Painting Problem

'Creekside Neighbors'         16x20        pastel          ©Karen Margulis
available $250
I knew there was a problem with the painting. It wasn't immediately clear but there was something that bothered me. I put the painting on a spare easel and went to bed.  In the morning the problem was clear. How could I have overlooked it? How come I painted it that way in the first place?  It would be a fairly easy fix.

the original demo painting as left from the demo
 So what was the problem? Have a look at the photo just above and see if you can spot the problem area.  It is the tree trunks on the trees on the left. They are just not interesting. My brain did a great job organizing them. They are nice and straight, the same size and shape and even leaning in the same direction. Boring!  They needed to have a more interesting relationship. They needed a bit of an adjustment.

Brushing out the boring tree trunks
I needed to change the direction of the way one of the trees was leaning. I also wanted to give the trunks a better shape. They needed to get thinner as they went higher.

How to fix the problem: 
I needed to brush off trunks to restore some tooth of the paper. It would be too hard to put the lighter value of the golden grasses over the dark trunks. I used a stiff and very worn bristle brush to brush off the tree trunks. There was a slight ghost image of the trunks but it would be easy to cover that with new pastel layers.

Once I brushed the old trunks off I simply repainted the trunks making sure that I kept them natural and interesting. It is sometimes difficult to get the nerve up to brush off an area in a painting that you generally like. What if you ruin it! The painting becomes precious. Don't let this happen. It is better to take a deep breath and dive in with the brush and make the changes. Remember....It's only paper!

Have you seen my latest YouTube video? I'd love for you to check it out and see how I paint grasses.
Here is the link:https://youtu.be/n-MNHNxm6y8

Sunday, February 07, 2016

How to Paint Grass with Pastels...New YouTube Video

'Lyrical Marsh'         5x7      pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $75
 Landscape painters have to deal with it and it can be a challenge. Meadows, fields, marshes, prairies....most landscapes include grasses of some sort. How much grass should we put in a painting? How can we paint grass that looks natural and believable?  I struggled with grasses and my paintings had many of the 'grass problems'. It was frustrating.

I have learned that all I need to do is SUGGEST a few pieces of grass and the viewer will fill in the rest. It has made a big difference and now I embrace the grass!

Pastels I used for the demo and video
I finally had a break in my schedule and decided to make a new Youtube video.In the video I share some tips for painting better grass....believable and authentic looking grass. The video is 16 minutes long during which I share  a demo of the different ways I paint grass. And I end with a demo of a 7 minute study of 'Lyrical Marsh' , the  5x7 pastel shown at the top of the post.

Please have a look at the video when you get a chance. I would love for you to give it a thumbs up and share it if you found it helpful! Here is the link:

If you are reading this post via email and the link does not work visit my blog directly at www.karenmargulis.com for the link to the video.

The many ways to paint grass....watch on YouTube
I decided to paint a larger version of the study using the same palette on an orange piece of Canson paper.
'Lyrical Marsh 2'         9x12      pastel on Canson           $125

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Unexpected Underpainting Colors

'River of Peace'           18x24         pastel           ©Karen Margulis
available $450
I don't know why I haven't used this color before now. It is one of my favorite colors but I have never used it for an underpainting. But when I was planning my demo painting for my  workshop yesterday a bright blue variation of turquoise caught my eye. I pulled four values of the color for my simple block-in. It would work for my lesson. 

Color will work if the values are right.

I was curious to see what would happen with a turquoise underpainting. I blocked in my big shapes with the four sticks. Dark trees, light sky and water and the two middle values for the ground and distant trees. I didn't get a photo of the block-in since this was a workshop demo but it was pretty! It was my favorite color after all.

The colors I used for the underpainting
The finished painting was actually quite true to the mood and feeling of the reference photo. The warm blues peeking through my foliage and grasses added just the right amount of coolness without being cold!

 It had been a cool and overcast morning on the grounds of Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in New Mexico. We were taking an afternoon walk on the grounds in preparation for the week's painting retreat. We walked along the river's edge listening to the music of the water over distant rocks.....  I am left with such inspiring memories and photos and can't wait to go back in October!                  (Join me for a wonderful painting retreat in Pecos New Mexico this Fall. Details here)

close-up photo
 Unexpected colors maybe... but a fun result. Imagine what other underpainting colors could do to transform this scene. I think I'll try some warm colors next....but they will be unexpected. This is what painting is all about. Fun!

The painting at the end of the demo. I spent another 30 minutes once home in the studio
PAINTING NOTE:  This painting is on Canson Mi-Teinte gray paper. In my last two blog posts I gave suggestions for getting started with pastels. I suggested using good paper. Many pastelists prefer sanded paper. I like it too but I love Canson. The trick is to use good pastels and have a LIGHT TOUCH. It is easier to build more layers when the pastel is applied with a whisper.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Choosing Paper for Pastel Painting

'Meadow Light'          13 x 18      pastel  on Uart        ©Karen Margulis
available  $175

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 even....no 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 form dakota Pastels!

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Exploring Pastels without Color

'River Study'        8x10      pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $125
It really is all about the touch. Yesterday I shared three suggestions for a successful start with pastels. My first suggestion was to start with the best pastels you can afford. Artist quality pastels do make a big difference. I also suggested using pastel paper and learning to use a light touch. I will expand on these suggestions in the next posts but a reader had such a good suggestion that I'd like to share so today's post and painting was born. Thank you Sue!

Sue reminded me that it is important for an artist to learn what pastels feel like to help decide whether the medium is right for them. Since it about the feel of pastel to paper why not just get a few greyscale pastels....black, white and a couple of grays. This way you can see what it feels like to make marks and paint with pastels without worrying about having enough or the right colors.
I like this idea. It still is important to get good quality pastels though to really get the feel for how nice pastels can be.

Black, white and gray study
I decided to try painting with a few grayscale pastels. I used black, white and 3 grays.  It was quite liberating to paint without thinking about color. I just had to think about the value....what should be dark or light or something in between. I can see how it would be a great way to get a feel for pastels by keeping things simple and less expensive.

 And the  grayscale experiment lead to more exploration.  I decided to use the black and white painting as a value roadmap. I sprayed it with workable fixative and let it dry. Then I added color. The fun part was deciding what kind of mood I wanted to create. I had my roadmap and could use any colors as long as the values matched. I decided to go for an overcast moody feeling. In the end I only used around 30 pastels for the color version.

Thanks to my blog readers for their very helpful suggestions for pastel sets and tips for getting started with pastels. Be sure to read the comments and keep them coming!
Part one of this post here. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

So You Want to Try Pastels....Three Suggestions

'Limitless'           9x12        pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $150
 I have three simple suggestions for success with pastels. You want to give soft pastels a try or  maybe you have but didn't like them or you weren't as successful as you would have liked....It is important to have a good start. These suggestions are for anyone who wishes to have success with pastels. There is so much to share but I will simplify and give just three tips.

1.  Make sure you invest in a few GOOD ARTIST QUALITY PASTELS. Buy the best you can afford
     even just to 'try them out' and I'll explain why.         

2. Use good pastel paper. Sanded papers are good but there are unsanded papers that work well with 
    GOOD pastels. Avoid using regular smooth sketchbook paper.

3. Practice your touch and apply the pastel with a LIGHT TOUCH. You can always press harder
    when needed but work at developing the sensitivity of a light touch....it is the key to successful 
    pastel painting.

These three tips are just the tip of the iceberg that is the wonderful world of pastels but it is a start. Read on as I explain the reasons for suggestion #1.


You need good pastels but you don't need thousands of them! You will want them once you get hooked but to get started you can do just fine with a set of 60-100 pastels. I painted today's wildflower landscape with a set of  60 Terry Ludwig pastels (Richard McKinley collection) All you need is a good range of values from a few rich darks to a beautiful colorful lights along with a variety of intense colors and muted grayed colors. This set has all of those things. There are several artist quality soft pastel sets that come in half-sticks. These sets are a good value and will give you a good start. I like Sennelier, Unison and Great American half sticks. Visit Dakota Pastels for a closer look.

Terry Ludwig set of 60 soft pastels....Ricjard McKinley collection

The most important thing is that you start with an artist quality set of soft pastels. If you have ever tried to drive an old car on it's last legs with manual everything then you know it will get you to your destination....but it will not be fun and it may be a struggle. Compare that to driving any luxury car with brand new everything.....it is a much better ride and you get to your destination faster and in comfort.
Pastels are the same.  Cheap ones  on cheap paper will allow you to paint but it may not be as easy or you may not like the results. The good pastels and paper are like a luxury car....you have a much better chance of enjoying the ride and getting good results!

I know. Nobody wants to spend money on supplies until they know they will use them and like them. So it is only natural to want to go to the local hobby store and buy a cheap box of pastels....just to try them out. The problem is these cheap pastels are like old cars....hard to make them work well.

  • An issue with the cheap pastels is that they tend to be on the hard side with more binder than pigment. It is hard to get wonderful fresh and juicy marks with them. 
  • The cheap sets have another drawback. They tend to consist of challenging colors....often they are mostly bright intense colors with no rich darks or lights only a black and white. Think crayon box colors. Paintings done with these colors and no neutrals will often look artificial...the greens are especially troublesome in the cheap sets. 
Often artists will get a cheap set and struggle and decide they don't like pastels or they aren't a good fit for them. (I hear this a lot!)  It usually isn't the artist but instead it is the pastels and papers they are using.

So the most important bit of advice I can offer to to treat yourself to the best quality pastels you can afford. If for some reason you don't like them you can always sell them on eBay!

My recommendation: 
You cannot go wrong with any set of pastels from Terry Ludwig. His pastels are handmade and come in the most wonderful range of colors and values. They are soft without being crumbly. The square shape allows for a wide variety of marks. Visit the website and have a look at the sets. They are all good. Choose the set that fits the subject matter you like to paint. www.terryludwig.com

Tomorrow I will talk about suggestion #2....Paper!

Beginning a painting with a quick drawing

The block-in....putting in the darks, lights and most intense colors

Close-up....Terry Ludwig pastels allow for a variety of marks

 You have come to the right place for pastel and general painting tips. My blog is filled with several years of daily posts about painting and pastels. Just use the search box or browse the archives. located on the sidebar.
I also have pastel demos in PDF format available in my Etsy shop here.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Every Artist Should Try This..Variation on a Theme

'Blue Sky on a Summer Day'        5x7      pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $75
If you do this you will never be at a loss for painting material. If you do this you will stretch and grow as an artist. If you do this you may just surprise yourself at how much you have in your head to draw on.  I love to do it.....I love to put on my 'what if' hat and see how many ways I can interpret the same subject. It is the perfect way to get milage out of a favorite reference and venture off into new territory.

I forgot how much I love this exercise but was reminded the other day when I decided to listen to the Artists Helping Artists radio interview with Quang Ho. (If you haven't had a chance to check out Leslies Saeta's show on Blog Talk Radio put it on your list! click here  Start with this interview and go through the archives. There are so many wonderful shows. I love listening to them when I putter around the studio. I will be the guest this Thursday at 1:00 so be sure to tune in here !)

12x24  pastel

 But back to the interview with Quang Ho. It was a wonderful and inspiring interview. Not only is he an amazing artist he is a great teacher and had many pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout the interview. One that really resonated with me was his advice to explore a theme when painting....to take a subject and find ways to interpret it. For example, take a painting and do it again in high key or low key or with thick paint or thin.....you get the idea. I know that when I do this exercise I learn more than if I painted several different subjects.

Why? Because I have already worked out composition and value and gotten familiar with the subject....now I am free to play and explore. And with play comes learning.

my reference photo

So for today's painting I decided to use the same reference photo from my recent Nantucket painting. I decided to change the mood of the painting by putting in a blue sky. I will continue to explore this scene.  I am making a list of the different ways I can change it. This will be an ongoing series and I will add to it whenever I get a new idea for a variation. Yes. Every artist should try this. Are you game?

the underpainting is soft pastel rubbed into uart paper

Monday, February 01, 2016

When Inspiration Strikes: How to Decide What to Paint

'Return to Iceland'           14x18        pastel            ©Karen Margulis
available $165
I think this a problem worthy of a series. It is something we all face....how to decide what to paint. Sometimes we have so many ideas we don't know where to begin or what to do first. Other times we have nothing. Either way it can be paralyzing. And so we end up not painting at all. I thought it might be fun and maybe even helpful if I verbalize my decision making process in a new series I will call 'When Inspiration Strikes". Here is the first installment:

Today was one of those 'Too Many Ideas' days for me. Finished with my commissions it was going to be a paint whatever I want day which is always a great thing. But I had too many things I wanted to try. Should I do the wildflowers up on the easel with the great underpainting all ready to go? Or maybe the 30x40 that I have in my head? Or maybe the stack of minis on the table? I puttered around the studio doing odds and ends but basically wasting time until I checked Facebook. Inspiration Strikes!

A small plein air study from  my Summer 2014 trip to Iceland
As I scrolled through my feed I saw a post from my friend Elinros from Iceland. She had posted her wonderful rose painting in response to the 5 day painting challenge that is going around Facebook. If you are not familiar with it you post a painting for 5 days and nominate another artist to post and nominate. It fills Facebook with art and is a lot of fun. Well Elinros nominated me and immediately I knew just what I wanted to paint.....Iceland of course!

I knew I had hit on the right subject because I couldn't get the paper out fast enough! I was inspired and it couldn't wait. I decided that I would pull out the plein air studies I had painted while on the 2014 Painter's Passport trip with Stan Sperlak. I would use the studies to paint a larger studio version.

Using up leftover acrylic paint to tone my Uart paper
 It has been 2 years since my trip so it would seem that the memories would have faded some. But all I had to do was put on my Iceland soundtrack and I was transported back to the day I painted the study. I felt it all....the wind, the chill in the air, my wet feet! But most of all I felt the excitement and wonder.

Playing with sky colors
 I didn't plan the painting or choose the pastels in advance. I simply looked at my study and responded. You can see that I tested colors for the sky right on the paper. It is not my usual way of working but it was fun to just let go. It was a great way to spend the afternoon.

Today it was a simple post on Facebook that got me focused on a totally different subject. I may ride this wave of inspiration until something else comes along that stops me in my tracks!
Thank you Elinros!
The sky is finished now for the grass
If you have not seen my travelog to Iceland you can see it here:  http://paintingiceland.blogspot.com

Don't forget to check out my 30 in 30 oils paintings that are available by auction! click here

Sunday, January 31, 2016

From Small to Large....Painting Big Pastels

Study for Summer Song      6x8       pastel      ©Karen Margulis
available $95
Today was wrap up day. The month of January has been a whirlwind of painting and emailing and working out details of my big projects. I finished on time and all the paintings have been approved. So between varnishing acrylics and wrapping up pastels I am taking a break to share the results of the big pastel paintings.  I posted photos and answered questions at the beginning of the project. You can read about it here: http://www.kemstudios.blogspot.com/2016/01/large-pastels-paintingsyour-questions.html

Below is a photo of the results. It is a good thing I organized my studio in December. I had room to work on all four 30 x 40 paintings at one time. In the end the client was pleased with the paintings. I had to make some small adjustments to the foreground details and I was ready to get them wrapped and shipped. I will share that process in another post. 

Making use of all of the easels!

'Under a Summer Sky'       30 x 40       pastel 

'Another Beautiful Day'      30 x 40     pastel

'Marsh Music'       30 x 40       pastel

'Summer Song'      30 x 40   pastel

Below are the 6x8 studies for the larger pieces. They were helpful in creating the larger paintings. I found myself working from the studies and not the reference photos. It was an interesting process to size up from 6x8 to 30x40. It is easy for one mark to suggest a clump of grass in a small painting but it doesn't quite translate to 30x40! I hope you enjoyed this peek at the finished paintings! It was an exciting project!

 Don't forget that my 30 in 30 oil paintings are on auction at Daily Paintworks. Opening bids start at $30! Click here to see and bid on them.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

How To Get it All Done....Reflections on the 30 Paintings in 30 Days Challenge

January Oil Paintings  all 5x7 on panel      ©Karen Margulis
available on Daily Paintworks Auction  $30 starting bid
What is it they say about the best laid plans?  I began the month of January with nothing on the schedule except a trip to Chicago to visit my granddaughter and teaching a one day workshop. I knew I would have plenty of time to participate in Leslie Saeta's 30 Paintings in 30 days challenge. It was going to be my month for devoting myself to getting comfortable with oils. 

I started strong. I made it to 14 oils paintings. I even added to the challenge by doing both an oil and pastel of each day's study. The pastel study helped me understand the oils better. 

But then opportunity knocked on my studio door in the way of two big commission projects requiring some very large paintings. Great news of course.....but they both had a deadline of the first week of February! The 30 in 30 challenge would have to wait. 

Somehow I still continued to paint as well as work on the commissions and at the end of this very crazy month of painting I managed to finish 56 paintings.....14 small oils, a variety of miscellaneous pastels, 4 30x40 pastels, 16 2x5 foot acrylic panels. Whew! It was a fun and productive month and I have gotten quite a few questions about how I manage to fit it all in. Read on for some tips!

All challenge oils paintings are available through Daily Paintworks on auction. In honor of the challenge the opening bid will be $30 each!

Tips for Getting More Painting Done
  • Make painting a priority. I speed through my chores and household obligations so I can paint.. If you want more time to paint find ways to optimize your time spent on other obligations. You can't really do it with 100% effort but I choose to put more effort into painting than cooking and cleaning (and happily my husband totally supports this!)
  • Organize your studio or painting supplies. This is so important especially if you have limited painting time or no real studio space. If you spend time fiddling with supplies it takes time away from creating. I spent a month organizing my supplies and it made a world of difference in how efficient I was able to be this month.
  • Keep a checklist and do the hard stuff first. The first thing I do each day is look at my checklist and tackle at least two of the hard things...things I put off or dread (which for me is usually paperwork) This clears my head and makes room for art. I find that the longer it stays on my list the more I dread it until it finally begins to bog me down. Don't put off the hard stuff and painting will feel like a reward.
  • Find a support system. You can't do it alone! Being an artist can be lonely. Having non-artist family members makes it even harder. Do what you can to have the support of your family. make sure they know how important time for art is to you. Find other artists to help you stay focused and just share the journey. Local art groups, online art friends, workshops ...make it a priority to find your art family!

Some of the 56 paintings completed January 2016

Friday, January 29, 2016

Choosing the Right Painting Music

'Southern Spring'        8x10         pastel         ©Karen Margulis
My paintings have soundtracks. I can look at a painting and hear the music that I was playing when I painted it.   When I have selected the right music for the painting it shows in the work. The painting flows and it becomes part of the dance. Music brings in another sensory experience to the mix.  But it has to be the right music.

I like to pick music that fits the theme or concept of my painting. If I am painting a Southwestern landscape I love to listen to Native American flute music. It puts me right in the middle of the desert. When I returned home from Iceland I began listening to Icelandic bands as I painted from my plein air studies and reference photos. The music took me back and became intertwined with the painting.

The Right Music

This week I have an epic project going on in the studio. Sixteen huge panels fill my studio and one by one I am painting them with southern landscapes in acrylic. It requires an epic soundtrack. I found the perfect 'Painting Large' music on Spotify. I created my own station consisting of epic movie soundtracks.....think Star Wars, Hunger Games, Pirates of the Caribbean. Big soundtracks played loud!  It elevates me and helps me rise to that task of big bold brushstrokes.

I am working on the last set of panels tonight and all I need to do is turn on my epic music to put me in the right frame of mind. Here are a few progress shots of painting #7

The block-in is the pink. I am starting the trees and background

Adding foliage and shadows on the path

Getting ready to paint the sky holes.

Finished! There is glare in this photo. I'll be sharing final photos soon
What do you listen to when you paint? I listen to music most of the time but sometimes I listen to talk radio or podcasts. I love listing to the radio program Artists Helping Artists with Leslie Saeta. Leslie and her guest hosts always have such great interviews. I am very excited to be the guest next Thursday February 4th so be sure to tune in!