Tuesday, September 01, 2015

A Tip for Adding a Pathway to a Landscape Painting

'Beyond the Dunes'           8x10             pastel                ©Karen Margulis
I discovered a pathway to the sea. It was hidden by the bushes and brambles of the shore but I pushed aside some foliage and the path beckoned. The distant sea glimmered with light breaking through the parting clouds. The storm had passed and I needed to discover the treasures along the shore.

That is the story behind today's painting. My reference photo for the painting was taken many years ago on a Spring visit to the Outer Banks. But the memories are vivid. Painting from these memories never get old. Each time I resist a favorite scene I return with more knowledge and improved skills.

This time I painted the path to the sea but I decided it needed a figure....to complete the story but also to complete the composition. The path needed a reward at the end.

closeup of the figure in the distance

'The eye should not be led to where there is nothing to see'    Robert Henri

This is one of my favorite quotes. It guides all of my landscape paintings. How often do we paint pathways or roads or waterways with no regard to where they take the viewer? There needs to be a reason for going down the path....something interesting to discover....It doesn't have to be a thing. It can be a spot of color, an interesting mark, texture, a bit of contrast. Eye candy. Something to savor and enjoy or maybe just something unexpected.

I decided my painting needed a small figure at the end of the path. The figure is a small surprise but also finishes my story. All it took was three small marks of pastel to suggest the figure but is is enough. 

the underpainting.....just 4 values of yellow
P.S.  Remember that pathways are not always a physical path or road or waterway. We create visual pathways with the arrangement of shapes and lines and edges in a painting. The eye will naturally follow these suggested pathways so make sure they lead somewhere! (and not right off the paper)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Interpreting a Bad Reference Photo

'The Glow'                         16x20                 pastel               ©Karen Margulis
painting available $325
 I love a good bad photo. You know the kind of photo that has some good bones but has a few problems keeping it out of the family photo album. The bad photos make better paintings sometimes. Bad photos beg to be better. They free the artist to interpret...to make it personal.

Take today's painting. I was working from a bad photo. It was too dark. It looked like a night shot but I remember it being late afternoon. The colors were washed out and the composition/shapes were something to be desired.

the reference photo.....bad!
I began the painting with the idea that I would make it moody with a gray blue sky. I did an underpainitng with yellow orange and dark blues.

  • I moved the horizon up slightly to make room for some reflections.
  • I broke apart the big clump of trees making them into a more interesting grouping.
  • I added a smaller tree to the right for balance.
  • I decided I liked the block in color of yellow for the sky and water so I changed my color scheme.
  • The change in colors completely changed the mood of the painting but I like it better than the dark broodiness of the photo.
There is nothing like taking a bad photo and having fun making it into a more interesting painting!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

10 minutes to Better Paintings

'Pawley Impression'                 5x7                 pastel             ©Karen Margulis
click here to purchase $45
Do you want to create more painterly paintings?  Would you like to become a more confident painter?   Do you have 10 minutes a day to spare?  When I was working full time I was lucky if I could find any time to paint but I could always manage 10 minutes. What good can 10 minutes of painting do? The paintings in today's post are all 10 minute studies. Read on to see how they can help.

'Sea Days'        5x7         pastel
"Simplification is about finding large forms or planes, not minutia."  Ann Templeton

I believe the key to painterly work is to learn how to simplify the subject. If we can distill the subject into a collection of simple shapes and start with a good abstraction, we can then decide just how much detail we need to put in.  If we get caught up in the details we tend to tighten up and we can easily lose the freshness. How can we learn to simplify....that's where the 10 minutes comes in.

 I find that the more time I spend on a painting the more details I add and the 'tighter' my painting becomes.  If I want a fresh and loose painting I will stop before I think I am done and then I evaluate how much more I need. At this point I only allow myself one mark at a time. I want to quickly determine the big simple shapes and design of the painting and block them in.  Simplifying things quickly isn't magic it just takes practice...lots of it.  If you can devote 10 minutes a day to doing a quick study....your ability to simplify and paint with a quick and sure hand will improve. Here is a suggested exercise to try:
  • Set up a small area with precut paper size 5x7 or smaller. You should have quick and easy access to your supplies.
  • Have a stack of references photos...you don't want to spend your 10 minutes looking for  photo to paint.
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes. Don't draw your scene with a pencil....block in your big shapes with a pastel or paint brush for oils/acrylics.  You will tend to fill in the lines if your drawing is to precise.
  • Don't worry so much about color for your 10 minute studies....go with you intuition and play with color. The idea is to simplify in these studies not match the color in your references.
  • At the end of 10 minutes STOP. Now look at your study and decide what you would add or take away.  Learn from each study!  Save them and use them for future paintings.


I love doing these quick 10 minute studies and I know that I learn so much from doing them.  The more you do the easier it will be to simplify and to avoid getting bogged down with minutia!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Great Resource for Successful Watercolor Underpaintings

'Doing the Dance'             8x10                pastel              ©Karen Margulis
click here to purchase $145
I never understood the allure of watercolor underpaintings for pastels. When I would try them the results were wimpy washed out blobs of color. I envied artists who had mastered the technique....artists whose underpaintings could stand alone as finished work. I decided that I just didn't like watercolor underpaintings. It was an excuse.

The truth was I didn't know how do create a successful watercolor underpainting. There came a time that I decided to conquer my aversion. I paid close attention to the masters of the underpainting. Richard McKinley was a great help to me. He told me that if I wanted to do better underpaintings then to just do underpaintings.....lots of them. And I was not to worry about putting pastel on them. Just practice, practice and more practice.

the watercolor underpainting on Pastel Premiere white paper

It worked! I still have room for improvement but I now embrace watercolor and love the effects I can get. I have written several blog articles about the watercolor underpainting process. I decided to put all of these articles together into one resource. I made a Readlist with them.


What’s a Readlist? A group of web pages—articles, recipes, course materials, anything—bundled into an e-book you can send to your Kindle, iPad, or iPhone.  

If you would like to have the collection of blog articles on watercolor underpaintings all in one place click on the link below for my Readlist.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

How to Move Beyond Local Color

'Time for a Change'             12x16              pastel               ©Karen Margulis  
painting available in my Etsy shop        $165

 We have heard it before. Value does the work and color gets the glory. This means that we should be able to use any colors we want in a painting as long as the values are correct. So we can have purple cows and blue trees and they will be recognizable if we have the values in the right place.

We may know this to be true but how come it can be so difficult to put it into practice? How come it is so challenging sometimes to move beyond the local color? Skies don't always have to be blue and grass isn't always green. Being bold and unafraid can help. Being willing to take risks and try unexpected colors is important. But it doesn't always lead to a successful painting.

There is more to moving beyond local color than just being unafraid of using color. We need to understand how to use colors that are harmonious and work well together.

value underpainitng with a 305 Nupastel and alcohol wash
 In today's private class we played with color. We took a marsh scene and moved it beyond the local colors shown in the reference photo. The marsh grasses were green. The sky was washed out. We wanted to make the colors interesting but still make sense.  It was time for a little color theory and the use of a color wheel.

We talked about the properties of color and the color wheel. We explored the idea of using color schemes for choosing our palette for a painting. We discussed the practice of 'winging it' for color choices vs. having a plan for color. Winging it is exciting and can be fun but it doesn't always lead to a successful painting.

Having a plan for color is the best way for success. Especially when trying to move beyond local color.  My favorite book on color is 'Confident Color' by Nita Leland. It has a wonderful section devoted to the various color schemes that are possible. I love using this book to expand my palette and give me ideas for new color schemes. For today's demo I chose a Low Intensity Modern Triad. I liked this palette and will use it again. It is fun to find new ways to put together color!

The palette used for the painting 
 TIP: Choose a simple subject and plan to paint several versions using a different color scheme for each one. See how your color choices lead to very different results. Choose colors that you wouldn't usually choose.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Paint in One of my Favorite Places in US

'Take Me Back To Texas'                11x14            pastel              ©Karen Margulis
painting available $165
It was a place on my bucket list. I knew I would like it but I wasn't prepared to fall in love! It only took a drive into the countryside outside of Austin, Texas to know I would not only love it....I would be back! The Texas Hill Country during Bluebonnet season stole my heart!

Last April I was hosted by Marsha Young of the Butterfly Gallery in Dripping Springs Texas for a 3 day pastel workshop. The weather was wonderful, the Bluebonnets in bloom and everything begged to be painted. I was happy to share with a talented and enthusiastic group of artists. We learned a lot and made great memories.

I am happy to announce that I will be going back to this fantastic place next April! This time I will be team teaching with my good friend and fantastic artist, Marsha Savage. Marsha and I will be on a road trip on our way to Tuscon, Arizona for the Plein Air Convention. We couldn't resist planning a stop in Dripping Springs and Marsha Young was happy to host us again.

If you'd like to read a review of the last workshop visit my blog post (click here.) There is also a quick video of Mt Gainor Inn... one of the lodging choices and a painting location.

If the Texas Hill Country is on your bucket list consider joining us for up 3 day workshop next April. Details below.

April 9-11           'Painting the Texas Hill Country' team teaching with Karen Margulis and Marsha Savage
                            Dripping Springs, Texas

                            Saturday April 9 - Monday April 11th.

                            A  plein air workshop in the beautiful Texas Hill Country.
                            Paint the bluebonnets, wildflowers, barns and more!
                            Fee: $350. Lodging options in 2 local B&Bs are available.
                            contact Marsha Young for details and registration or you can register on
                            the Butterfly Gallery website here.

About today's painting: 11x14 on Uart 500. This was a demo painting for a private student. I began with a 4 value block-in with warm colors and did a dry wash. This scene was from one of the many photos I took  last April in Hill Country!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Painting Flowers with a Power Block-In

'Gently She Blooms'      5x7          pastel          ©Karen Margulis

There is something about the color black. Using it makes me feel powerful. But how many times are we told not to use black in a painting....it is deadly or dull. We are told to use other dark colors but to avoid black. I am guilty of both following and sharing this bit of advice. Today I was in the mood to break some 'rules'. 

I used a black pastel and did a Power Block-in! It emboldened me. It made me fearless. It was a great way to start my poppy painting.

I started with a black Nupastel and a piece of light gray pastel mat 5x7. I lightly drew my flower shapes and then boldly blocked in the shapes with the side of my pastel. Big Bold black strokes! I sprayed the block -in with workable fixative and let it dry.

The dark block- in gave form to my flowers. All I needed to do was develop the form and add the middle and lighter values. I kept the beginning layers dark. I used a few dark value pastels from my set of Terry Ludwig darks (a must have)

Terry Ludwig darks

I continued developing the form of the flowers going from dark to lighter and warmer. I like the painting at this stage. I can imagine finishing it with a few simple stem lines. But I was committed to finishing the painting so I worked on a background.

The background is made up of strokes of bold color, all Terry Ludwig pastels. I wanted it to be green but a cooler green to allow the flowers to come forward. I then returned to the flowers and added the finishing marks....some bright red orange highlights and a touch of blue.

That was a fun way to start a painting. I'm going to call it a Power Block-in. It was liberating! It really changed my state of mind from unsure and tentative to bold and almost reckless....and that is fun!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Secret for Success on Canson Paper

'The Secret Garden'             12x16            pastel             ©Karen Margulis
I began my pastel journey with Canson. Like many pastel artists I didn't really know any better. It was the only pastel paper available at our local Michaels hobby store. I wanted to try pastels so I used my coupon to buy some paper and a small set of Rembrandt pastels. I wasn't very successful.

The pastels were hard and scratchy and my paintings  didn't seem as rich and vibrant as the pastel paintings I saw in books. Was it the paper? Was it the pastels? Maybe it was just me?  I needed to get some lessons and knowledge under my belt. And now 10 years later I understand I needed time to mature as an artist and understand my materials. Canson is now my friend. 

So what is the secret to success on Canson Mi-Teintes paper?

It turns out that the secret isn't just one thing. It isn't just the pastels we use,  it is also the techniques we use that make a difference. I was very lucky to have Marsha Hamby Savage as my first teacher. At that time Marsha painted often on Canson. In fact many of the first pastels painting demos I ever saw were Marsha's landscapes on Canson.  The techniques she used then are ones I return to often especially if I am working on Canson.

Secret #1   Make sure you have a plan for your painting.
Canson paper is unlike sanded papers in that it doesn't take as many layers of pastel. It is easy to fill the tooth of the paper which will lead to dull flat and muddy paintings. If you have a plan then you will not have to experiment on your painting. You will be able to make marks and leave them alone....leading to less layers. For today's painting I did a 4 value thumbnail sketch and a Notan (black and white) These were the blueprints for my painting. I had a plan!

Secret #2 Begin the painting with hard pastels.
This is common advice for pastel paintings. I don't always follow this advice but on Canson I will always begin the painting with a block in using harder pastels. I like to use hard sticks such as Nupastels or polychromos or cretacolors hard pastels. These pastels have more binder so the pigment isn't released as readily. The tooth of the paper isn't filled as quickly. For today's painting I did a value block in with just 5 Nupastels. I blocked in the darks, lights and most intense colors. This is a wonderful way to start any painting!

Secret #3  Use a Light Touch 
The right touch is always a light touch and this is especially true when working on a non sanded surface. Think of the pastel as a feather. If you press too hard it will bend and break. Light strokes will allow for more layers....even with the softest pastels. I began today's painting with hard pastels and a light feather touch. After the initial block in I switched to softer pastels such as Terry Ludwig pastels. As the painting developed and I got to my final layers I used a heavier touch. For example, the flowers were all painted with one layer.....one heavy single mark for each bloom with a soft pastel.

starting to add some softer pastel layers


close up detail

The secret to success on Canson or any non sanded paper is really a combination of the right pastels and the technique of applying the pastels.....hard to soft, light to heavy, start with a plan....are the three things that I have found to help me not just to tolerate canon but to actually LOVE it!
Explore these techniques further in my PDF demo on Canson available for $6 on etsy.http://etsy.me/1aMpVwU

About the painting:   12 x 16 on burgundy Canson mi-teintes paper, smooth side.
This is a landscape from my trip to Sweden. It  depicts a patch of Monk's weed or Bishop's weed in the shadows. Monk's week was in bloom everywhere. It is an invasive weed introduced by monks in the Middle Ages. It was used to treat arthritis and gout. It is in the carrot family so the blooms look a lot like Queen Annes Lace which is probably why I love it!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Plein Air Lite: How to Pack Art Supplies for Vacation

'The Perfect View'                5x7       plein air pastel             ©Karen Margulis
I really don't unpack my suitcase. I do take out my clothes but all of the other travel supplies....including my art supplies stay packed and ready to go at a moments notice.  Next Friday I leave for my final adventure of summer.....a Caribbean cruise with my mom and sister. My sister won a free cruise and we are able to join her for the cost of the tax. I can't afford to stay home for that!

If you have followed my blog then you probably know I have made it a priority to downsize my pastel supplies for traveling. I have been through so many boxes and bags and easels that I have lost track. I have come to the conclusion that there is no one size fits all solution for plein air set ups and supplies. Every trip is different. Some trips are not even dedicated painting trips so how do we decide what to bring?

No matter what the purpose of a vacation or trip it pays to keep your supplies light and simple. I call it Plein Air Lite.

Here are some photos of what I am bringing on this cruise. I want to do some sketching/journaling as well as paint some pastel minis.

My pastels supplies
I am bringing a Heilman single sketchbox (Love!) I will be able to paint some 5x7s as well as my minis (2.5 x 3.5) Everything fits into a soft sided lunch box. I have a 5x7 portfolio book filled with paper which doubles as a finished painting holder, a piece of foamcore backing board, baby wipes, a washcloth to protect my painting surface and some mini Bankers's clips to clip my paper to the board.

The small zippered pouch on the right hold the precut paper for my mini paintings and an extra packet of wipes.

The Heilman box along with wipes, towel, backing board and paper/holder  fit in the lunchbox
Along with the pastels I am bringing a small sketchbook and watercolor postcards. I have a set of Caran d'ache watercolor pencils and a water brush as well as some black pens (Le Pen). A cruise ship is a wonderful place for sketching....especially sketching the figure!

The lunchbox with pastels and the zippered pouches all fit nicely in my backpack. I also have room for some art books and magazines. I have all of the supplies I need for a creative and relaxing....and LITE vacation. I can easily throw one of these items into my beach bag when heading to port or a nearby deck chair!

 Today's paintings are plein air studies done on a previous Caribbean cruise. They are done on the upper decks of the ship while sitting in a lounge chair! (available $50 each in my etsy shop)

If this sounds like a good way to paint and relax then consider joining me on my Caribbean Art Cruise in February. There a still a few spots available! Read more about the cruise here.http://www.kemstudios.blogspot.com/2015/07/how-to-practice-art-and-art-of.html

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Choosing Pastels to Paint The Glow of Sunshine

'A Little Slice of Heaven'               4x11                 pastel             ©Karen Margulis
purchase painting on Etsy  $75
 It is a must have color family. It is a bit illusive much like the effect that it helps capture in a painting. There is nothing quite like the warm glow of the sun as it gets lower in the horizon. Everything it touches glows with its warmth. No wonder it is called the Magic Hour!  But how do we capture this glow in a painting? What color is it? Salmony- pinkish -orangey -yellow?

A reader asked: "Can you recommend source for the light peach colours you use? Looked at portrait sets. Other sets seem to have dark yellows or oranges, not that lovely light peach colour."
There is a certain color family that I like to use for the glow of the setting sun. It really isn't one particular color or brand even. 

Since I don't write down color names or numbers it is always a gamble and often a surprise when it is time to replace a well used color. My goal is to find a color  and value to match as closely as I can. I do have several brands that I like to choose from. 

I browse through color charts online and order my selections open stock. I may not always get the exact color but I get something close and it keeps my palette fresh.  Here are a few of my favorite brands along with the color ranges I select from for the sunset glow. Click on the links to see more about each brand.

Unison pastels Red 1-18 www.unisoncolour.com

Unison pastels Orange 1-18 www.unisoncolour.com

Terry Ludwig Vibrants www.terryludwig.com

Great American Artworks  www.greatpastels.com

Schminke pastels   www.schmincke.de
As you can see I am showing a variety of colors from pink to peach to orange-yellow. I like to stock a variety of these colors. I use them not only in sunset clouds but also on the edges of tree trunks or anywhere the sun kisses. 

Do you have a favorite peachy color? I'd love for you to share in the comments!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

One Important Thing Every Painting Needs

'Enchanted Forest'          11x14          pastel            ©Karen Margulis

I stood at the edge of the enchanted forest. I entered the shelter of the tall trees and it was like entering a great cathedral. It was silent. Deep moss cushioned my steps. I looked around in awe. It was the forest of fairytales. Deep and dark and mysterious but somehow not at all threatening. We were in the forest on the grounds of Ekenas Slott in Sweden. Searching for mushrooms...and blueberries and beetles. Treasures of the woods. My friend wandered in search of treasure while I wandered with my camera....could I capture the awe and wonder that I felt? Could I capture the gentle whisper of the wind? Or the way the light filtered through the trees and illuminated the forest floor? Maybe not with photos but maybe with paint. This moment needed to be painted. It was my story and I wanted to share.

Treasures of the Enchanted Forest photo collage

I painted my enchanted forest and I painted it with passion and it expresses my heart and soul and hopefully it will speak to others.

So what does every painting need? A good composition? Strong value plan? Good color harmony? A good drawing and handling of the medium are important. These things all contribute to making a painting strong. But there is something else. A very important thing that sometimes is not given enough time and care to develop.

Every good painting needs a story.

The artist needs to have an emotional connection to the subject. This is possible when there is a story behind the subject. Especially if we work from photos we need to have first hand experience with the subject matter in the photo. There is a story behind every photo. Some are compelling. Some evoke strong feelings. Some are just dull and uninteresting with a story to match.
Choose the photos with a good story.

We will have a more intimate and successful painting if we are connected to the story behind our reference photo. The viewer may end up interpreting the painting in their own personal way but if it was painted with heart and soul it will speak loudly.

The value thumbnail, notan and reference photo

Fresh from the Forests of Sweden

 Painting Notes:  11x15 UArt 500 with a value underpainting using a dark blue Nupastel. All greens are from Terry Ludwig's full set of greens...the perfect set for painting enchanted forests!