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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Lessons From an Unexpected Painting

'After the Storm'                  9x12               pastel             ©Karen Margulis

Sometimes you paint something ahead of your time. Did that ever happen to you? The moment when you finish a painting and look at it in awe and wonder how you ever painted it and will you ever be able to do it again?  It might not happen again for awhile. But I am convinced that those paintings are telling us something. We need to set them aside and listen to what they are saying.

A few years ago I found an older painting of mine that I didn't listen to right away. Perhaps I wasn't ready to hear what it had to tell me. I was looking for a 16x20 gold frame to use at my daughter's wedding and came across the painting in the frame stacked in my storage studio space. It brought back memories. It was once my very favorite painting. (see below)

I can't remember exactly when I painted it but I know it was early in my pastel journey....back in 2006 or 2007?? But I DO remember how I felt when I painted it. I was excited. It was so different for me. I had been painting a lot of beach scenes and animals and even still life things. This was my first attempt at 'weeds'. I had an emotional connection to the scene and treasured the bad photo I had taken of a memorable evening. I painted this scene from my heart and soul. It meant something and it showed. The painting almost painted itself!

But I didn't really listen to the message it was giving me. I kept painting the same things....beaches, birds, food.....small daily paintings. Had I studied the painting I might have discovered my truth....the subject that really makes my heart sing is wildflowers and weedy stuff! The clue showed up before I was ready to listen.

Last night I was going through old reference photos and found the photo that inspired the painting. I decided to revisit it again and the latest version is at the top of this post!
Do you have a favorite painting that surprised you? What is it telling you?

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

What to do When you aren't Inspired

'A Perfect Ending'               8x10              pastel               ©Karen Margulis
available in my Etsy shop $175

"Inspiration comes from doing"      Robert Genn

That is excellent advice from Robert Genn and it was just what happened to me yesterday.  I had not painted in several days. I am busy getting ready for company and three big back to back trips this fall. But I was feeling the need to paint. The problem....I wasn't particularly inspired and I was tired. I am a better morning person but it was 6:00 pm and I decided to just try to paint. 

It wasn't working. I selected a wildflower meadow with a little red barn. I did an underpainting on a homemade board. The underpainting was blah but I soldiered on. I didn't get too far when I gave up. I wasn't feeling it! I could have thrown in the towel and walked away but I decided to change direction instead. I opened my unfiled photo box and pulled out an old friend photo.....this is a scene I've painted several times. It was speaking to me.

I brushed out the painting that was frustrating me and redrew my new composition. I jumped right in with a new and exciting palette and before long I was enjoying the process again! It was 7:30 before I knew it! I had entered the zone and was feeling inspired! I am so glad I decided to paint but even better I am glad I decided to stick with it!  Yes Robert is correct.....Inspiration comes from doing!

The uninspiring underpainting 

Brushing out old pastel and drawing the new scene.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Which Blue Pastels for a Night Sky?

'Listen to the Night Sounds'            16x20         pastel            ©Karen Margulis
available in my Etsy shop  $375

Do you have the right blue pastels to paint a night sky? I loved painting these Queen Anne's Lace under a night sky because it allowed me to use my set of blue Terrages by Diane Townsend. I also needed to supplement with some of my go to Terry Ludwig blues. You don't need to have these exact pastels to paint an effective night sky but you do need blue pastels that are the right value and intensity. We need those rich deep dark blues. NOW is the time to use them.

A common occurrence when painting a landscape with a blue daytime sky is that we sometimes paint the sky too dark for the time of day. When we reach for and use those rich dark blues our sky doesn't fit with the light we have on the ground. It looks like we have two different paintings....night sky what a sunny daytime ground.

It is easy to do this because often the reference photos we use over saturate and over polarize  the blue sky. It looks deep dark blue!  And in some parts of the world the sky IS deep dark blue in daytime. But when we reach for the dark blue pastels the sky looks too dark!  The answer is to use those darks but be sure to modify them by layering lighter value blues on top. Save those rich dark blues for the evening sky!

A few of the rich blues I used including Terry Ludwigs and Dine Townsend Terrages

I had a great time recreating this painting for my Silver level patrons. You can see a step by step demo later this month on my Patreon Page
I will be sharing more about the original sometime in November!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Step by Step to a Daisy Painting

'Joyful'              14x11        pastel                  ©Karen Margulis
$225 available in my Etsy shop

 It is the most challenging thing about painting. Knowing when to stop and actually STOPPING. It is especially challenging when working with an interesting underpainting. How much is too much? How do we keep from going too far and covering up the wonderful underpainting?

You've probably heard the familiar advice. Take a break. Put a frame or mat on the painting. Turn it upside down. Look at it in a mirror. Make sure the value in the underpainting is correct. (otherwise we cover it up trying to get it right.) Gradually build up your marks rather than making drastic changes. All of this is great advice. But it still is a challenge.

How about a little reminder from our friend Bob Ross.

“It gets to feel good and you want to just keep doing it, but the key is restraint.”  — Bob Ross

my reference photo

I love this quote. It is so true. We get painting and we start to enjoy the actual act of painting. We might even like what we are doing. But too much of a good thing isn't good! Stop sooner than later. Have restraint and don't overdo and overwork.  I could have painted grasses around my daisies all day long. It felt good! But I had to make myself stop and call it done. Thanks Bob for the reminder!

The watercolor underpainting

You can see the Step by Step demo for this painting over on my Patreon Page. I'd love for you to join us. It is a $4 a month pledge but I appreciate your support of my content!!

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

New You Tube Video: Have You Tried a Painting Punch List?

'Serenade to the Sea'               18x24               pastel             ©Karen Margulis
available $450

I don't know where the summer went! It seems like it was just beginning and I was at the IAPS convention in Albuquerque. It was a busy summer for sure with trips and helping family move to town and of course plenty of grammie and poppy time!  So when I realized I had not put the finishing touches on my IAPS demo paintings I thought it would be fun to make a YouTube video of the finishing process I use. 

I'd love for you to watch the video and see how I finish this painting using my Painting Punch List. If you haven't yet subscribed to my youtube channel please consider joining so you get notified as soon as a new video is released!

Click on the link below to watch the video!

This is the painting at the end of the demo at IAPS. It was almost done.....but not quite!

Sunday, September 08, 2019

The Magic of Black Paper: Painting on Uart Dark

'Dancing Queens'           12x9             pastel             ©Karen Margulis
available $250

I wanted to paint some poppies for a Patreon video demo. I love painting poppies. I really wanted these poppies to to appear as luminous and vibrant as they did in real life. I had the answer in my paper paper. I pulled out a piece of Uart Dark 600 which was the perfect choice. Why paint on dark paper? Here are a couple of reasons:

  •  VIBRANCY. Look at how bright and intense the pastels in the above painting appear on a black surface.  Pastels glow and come to life on a dark surface. Because the paper is black or dark....the lights and brights appear even lighter and brighter than they would on a lighter surface. (simultaneous contrast at work) 
  • TIP: When choosing a subject to paint on black choose something that will exploit the ability of the dark paper to make light and bright colors pop. Subjects such as flowers are wonderful candidates for black paper. 

Uart Dark is available in a variety of grit

  • CONTRAST: Black or dark paper can lead to stronger paintings. The dark tone provides the glue that holds everything together. It provides the much needed contrast with the middle and light values. If handled well the back paper can help unify shapes and prevent spottiness. I like to block in a painting with simple shapes of 2-4 values. These big areas of light and dark form the foundation for the detail and colors to follow. Working on a dark paper ensures that my darks are strong enough. (often we are afraid of pushing the darks too far and we end up with disjointed and weak paintings)
  • TIP: The Uart dark paper is dark but there are some pastels, notably the Terry Ludwig eggplant which is actually darker than the paper. I like to use these 'super darks' with restraint as accents. This makes the dark paper a perfect overall dark allowing my accents to pop!

If you'd like to learn more about Uart Dark check out my complete review here:

If you would like to learn more about painting flowers and see this a video of the poppy painting up close join us over on my Patreon group. This month our focus is wildflowers up close and personal!

Friday, September 06, 2019

Tips for Working on Canson Paper

'Old Friends'                 11x14               pastel             ©Karen Margulis
available $195

 Every once in awhile Canson Mi-Teintes paper calls out to me.  I tend to forget about it in favor of the sanded papers. Recently I came across a pad of Canson paper in different colors and decided to work on it.  I really enjoy it very much!  It is a different feeling to paint on this soft paper. What used to be frustrating is now enjoyable.

I've blogged about it before but I've decided that we are often turned off from Canson when we are learning to paint with pastels. We struggle with it. We can't seem to get the results we see in other pastel paintings. I think for the most part this is due to our inexperience and our tools.  We often are using hard or cheap student grade pastels. And we are very often heavy handed in our pastel application....this isn't a good combination for Canson.

  • Canson requires softer pastels if you want nice juicy marks. 
  • It also requires a light touch to build layers 
  • Since it doesn't hold as many layers of pastels you need a plan. Know in advance your value plan and color palette so you are not experimenting and filling up the tooth of the paper.
  • Try to get more tooth by lightly sanding your paper with fine sandpaper. This raises the nap of the paper giving more tooth to grip the pastel.
  • I don't do wet underpaintings on Canson but I do know some artists will liquify pastel with a bit of rubbing alcohol which dries quickly.
  • Experiment with the Canson colored papers. The middle gray papers work well for any subject. The warm reds, oranges and browns are nice for landscapes. The color of the paper will effect the mood of the painting so keep this in mind!

I used Diane Townsend Soft form pastels which are a great choice for unhanded papers

The underpainting on the smooth side of brown Canson Mi-Teintes paper

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Don't Let this Opportunity Pass you By!

'End of the Season'             12x9            pastel          ©Karen Margulis
available $175
The deadline is quickly approaching. I have a sticky note on my computer screen to remind me but still I procrastinate. I don't know why. Maybe I am hoping to create a masterpiece to enter? But then I risk forgetting and missing out completely on the opportunity to enter. 

It is time to enter the IAPS 2019 Web Show! You should plan to enter ASAP. Yes you! This is your chance to enter a wonderful online exhibition. It is easy to do. And you don't have to frame or ship your painting should you have one accepted. And did you know that this is the only web show that will give you a chance for points towards the IAPS Master's Circle? This is definitely the show to enter.

The deadline is coming! Get your entires in!

You may be thinking.....but I am not ready. I am not good enough. I am afraid of rejection. There are too many great artists so I don't have a chance. I am here to say that it is worth a try. You can't get in if you don't enter. I enter a few select exhibitions each year. Some I get in and many I don't get in. That comes with the territory. It just makes me determined to work at getting better and trying again.

Are you wondering how to choose the paintings to enter? I will address this in Friday's post. Until then go through your recent work or get to the easel and start painting! YOU have something to add to the pastel world! The deadline for entry is September 17 at midnight.

Here is the link to download the show prospectus:

Here is the link to enter the show: sd_iaps35.php

Pulling some possible entries. It is a process!

Monday, September 02, 2019

How to Get Very Chunky Pastel Marks

'Lost in the Tangle'             8x10             pastel                 ©Karen Margulis    
available $165     
 This painting called for chunky marks. I am working on a variety of wildflower paintings as part of my Labor Day Paint-a-thon.  I selected a photo I took several years ago on Nantucket Island. It is a close up of a tangle of weeds and wildflowers. I loved the wild abandon of the place and I wanted to capture that feeling in my painting.

I began with a textured surface. That would help me achieve automatic texture and depth. I coated a piece of Multimedia Artboard with a pumice and gesso mix that I had toned a neutral gray-brown.
Part of the challenge of working on a highly textured surface is getting the pastel to cover the texture. If you press too hard you use up a lot of expensive pastel. It is cringe-worthy sometimes.  One thing you can do is rub in the first layer which helps fill in some of the ridges. But in the case of this painting I wanted to preserve the dark underpainting as my 'dirt' layer. So instead I took out my collection of Diane Townsend Terrage pastels. They are chunky rectangular shaped pastels made with pumice. They are wonderful! I don't have many but I had enough greens for this painting.

The shape and consistency of these pastels allowed me to make thick and chunky marks as well as light coverage. It was the perfect combination. They are soft pastels but not so soft that they crumble when pressed into the paper. Have a look at more information from the Dakota Pastels website:


Origin: USA
Colors: 190
Size: 1/2"x 1"x1 3/4''
Terrages is a combination of the words terra (for earth) and gesture. The size, shape and consistency of the stick make them great for bold gesture strokes, but also responsive to a light touch. The Terrages are made with a mixture of traditional pigments and pumice resulting in colors that are very clean, not grey and chalky. Dark tones are particularly deep and clear. Terrages are very smooth in application; they don't feel extra gritty and don't get used up faster on coated papers. When working on a non-sanded surface the pumice 'opens' the surface of the paper aiding pigment bonding while also adding tooth for subsequent layering. Traditional pastels layer very well over the Terrages. Terrages are handmade and produced in very small batches; this along with changes in raw pigments does lead to some variation in colors.
This painting called for the Terrages!

An alcohol wash underpainting on a piece of Multimedia Artboard coated with gesso and pumice
In the end I used a variety of Terrages along with some Nupastels for grassy detail. I also used a steel pin to scrape away areas for even more texture. This was a fun painitng! Now onto the next one!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

New Video Release: How to Paint Better Shadows!

'Simple Pleasures'              8x10             pastel            sold

Shadows were the thing that challenged me the most....right after value!  When I would hear instructors talk about painting shadows I would be overwhelmed. Warm Light = cool shadows ...shadows on flat planes vs slanted....color and value of shadows.......It was too much information and I struggled to get my shadows to look believable.

I have learned some tips that have helped me. I have shared them in the past here on the blog and also through an in-depth unit on my Patreon Page. Today I am releasing one of the videos I shared in my Patreon unit on Light and Shadow. Click on the link below to see the video. Be sure to like and subscribe to my channel!

Here is the painting  before I fixed the 'bad' shadows. What changes do you think I made?

Head over to my Patreon Page for much more on painting light and shadows!

Friday, August 30, 2019

Are you Ready for Labor Day Paint-a-thon?

'Summer in Iceland'     7x11          pastel                ©Karen Margulis
available $150
I am sharing this post from my Patreon Page because I'd love for everyone to join us whether you are a Patron or not! 
Here is a challenge worth repeating! I did this challenge myself back in 2014. It was so much fun and I felt so energized and productive by the end of the weekend.  I am making a commitment to do this challenge again this year and thought it would be fun for our weekly challenge.......Introducing the Labor Day Paint-a-thon!Let me explain. 
When I did the challenge back in 2014 I was teaching in my studio so I had 12 easels. For the challenge I set up each easel with a painting. Some were older paintings that needed  a complete overhaul. Some were new paintings on blank paper.
  •  I took a pile of reference photos from a recent trip out west and matched the photos to the paper. 
  • I then went around the room and wrote down a story word for each painting......a word or two that expressed my concept for the painting. 
  • Next I went back around the room with a piece of soft vine charcoal and blacked on the big shapes of each painting. They were now ready for pastel! 
  •  I then spent any free time I had over the weekend to work on the paintings. Because I had spent time in the set up and planning stage I was able to complete all 12!
Below is a photo of the 2014 challenge paintings You can see the vine charcoal lines on each painting.   If you look closely you can see my Variation Challenge paintings on the wall behind my easels.

My studio set up for my last Paint-a-thon
This year I only have 5 easels set up in my studio but I think it is still a respectable number of paintings to attempt for a Paint-a-thon!  I am choosing up close and personal wildflowers as my theme. I will select 5 of my older reference photos with my personal challenge to find a way to reinterpret the photos in a new way.  I can't wait and I hope you will join me!
  • Set up at least 5 paintings to work on. They can either be brand new paper or a failed painting that needs a redo. If you only have one easel tape each painting to a separate piece of foam core so you can be more efficient.
  • Choose the reference photos. It is more fun to do a series or pick a theme.
  • Do some advance planning by putting a photo to a paper or painting. Come up with a story or concept for each painting and write down your story word so you don't forget.
  • Draw the simple shapes for each painting so that all of them are ready to go.
  • The key to success is to do this advance planning. This makes more efficient use of your painting time.
  • When it is time to paint turn up your favorite music and just let go! Don't overthink these paintings. This challenge is about having fun putting pastel to paper!

If you would like to share your working join us on Patreon we would love to have you! It is a $4 monthly subscription but you get a lot of great content and your support helps me spend time creating content for you!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

A Tip for More Interesting Flowers in a Landscape

'Pick Me!'             8x10             pastel                   ©Karen Margulis
available $165
It sneaks up on us. Our logical brains want to organize and put things in order and before we know it we have a line of trees or flowers in our painting. But our brains also delight in things that are irregular and unexpected. It gives us delight. I once heard Jove Wang say it very simply ....."Even is Boring." Our job as artists is to look for the even and break it up and make things uneven and less symmetrical.

It doesn't matter how experienced you are .....this phenomenon happens to all of us. Take today's painting of a sunflower field. I was happily painting and adding in my sunflower shapes. When I stepped back it was clear. I had a straight line of flowers that were the same size AND they were in the middle of the painting! Could I get any more boring?!

Can you find the line of flowers?

What Do We Do to Avoid Even?
  • We need to be aware. We need to be on the lookout for objects that our brains organize too neatly. 
  • We need to step back from our painting frequently. We often don't see these things when we are on top of the painting. Step back at least every 10 minutes. 
  • We need to overcome any fear of brushing out areas of a painting and redoing them. We have to remind ourselves that the painting is not precious and it is OK to brush out an area and try again. Even if we love the painting and don't want to ruin it....brushing something out will make it even better!

I used an old stiff paint brush to brush out the even flowers

Painting notes: This sunflower field was painted on a reclaimed painting done on mounted 8x10 Uart. I used rubbing alcohol to paint over the old failed painting.

Monday, August 26, 2019

A Foolproof Way to Choose Underpainting Colors for a Painting

'Mountain Magic'          9x12              pastel              ©Karen Margulis
available $165

You've probably heard it before. There is no right or wrong choice when it comes to selecting underpainting colors. That is both comforting and scary at the same time! Imagine facing that big piece of blank paper. It is waiting for you to get started. You need to put down something....but what?  You can't really make a wrong color choice.....or can you?

I have learned through a lot of trial and error that while there is no right or wrong color choice for underpaintings....the colors you choose do have an impact of the final painting. Color choice does matter. It effects how the subsequent layers appear. It can change the whole mood and tone of the painting.

After many many paintings I find that underpainting color choices have become fairly intuitive. But sometimes I just want to be sure without making a big commitment of paper. 
I don't want to experiment with color choices on a good piece of paper! So I resort to a foolproof method....taking color notes.

The plans for my poppy meadow series

Color notes for the paintings. Top colors are final layer choices. 

Color Notes are quick and easy to do. It is just a matter of trying out potential color choices on a small piece of scrap paper. It is so much easier to see a variety of choices together. You can then choose the color combination that best suits your goal for the painting.  Here are some tips:

  • Use the same type and color paper for both the color notes and the painting. The colors will look different on other papers so this is important!
  • There are three parts to taking the notes....part one: choose the underpainting colors and make some small squares. Part two: choose the colors that you might use for the final layers (often the local colors) Part three: Make the underpainitng squares again and this time lightly layer the final layer color on top. Now you can see and judge how the colors work together.
  • Often I like to keep things simple when choosing underpainting colors and select ONE color with FOUR values of the color. So my color notes include a dark, light, middle dark and middle light values. I used this method on all three poppy meadow paintings.
This is a foolproof way of choosing underpainting colors because you can see the results of your color choices on a small scale with little effort and expense. You can quickly try many combinations without wasting your good paper on experiments. You do your 'what ifs' on scrap paper!

'Wandering Through the Poppies'               18x24               pastel with purple underpainting     IAPS demo    
'Poppy Walk'                15x21             pastel with yellow underpainting             
The bottom two paintings shown in today's blog are the result of using Color Notes in the planning stage. Each painting was done using the same colors. The Underpainting colors are the only thing that is different for each one. I was able to judge my results with the small notes before I committed to the big piece of paper. You can see that each underpainting choice resulted in a sublet but different feel to each painting. All paintings on Uart 500 with a mix of Mount Vision and Terry Ludwig pastels.

Would you like to see a video demo of today's painting? Head over to my Patreon Page where we have been studying foregrounds, grasses and flowers in a landscape.

Friday, August 23, 2019

What If Weekend: Experimenting with a Fun Underpainting

'Meadow Dreams'            12x9             pastel            ©Karen Margulis
available $175

It's Friday and time for a weekend of painting and exploring the wonderful world of pastel. I am devoting every weekend to trying a new technique or discovery. It will give me the weekend to play with something new! Of course I invite you to join me as I make new discoveries.

This week's inspiration came from an old Pastel Journal from 2002. Artist Schelly Keefer shared her technique of using Caran d'Ache crayons for underpaintings. She took the underpainting further by choosing complementary colors. I couldn't wait to get into the studio and pull out my small set of Caran d'Ache crayons and give them a try!

Caran d'Ache Neocolors II water soluble crayons 

These Swiss made crayons are actually water soluble wax oil pastels. Here is some information from the website:

 Type: Water-soluble wax oil pastel
– Soft, velvety texture, does not crumble
– Ultra-high pigment concentration, superior covering power, luminous colours, excellent light resistance
– CE EN71 and ASTM D4236 compliant
– Techniques: Wet or dry drawing on various materials, watercolour, wash drawing, scraping or for applying to light panels.

The application of the Neocolors before doing an alcohol wash. It was a lot like using crayons.

I decided to use mostly local colors for my underpainting. I thought these colors might make the finished painting more vibrant. I did use dark blue for the dark dirt and the base of the trees .I did a quick drawing on Uart 400 grit paper and then applied the crayons. I didn't press too hard and used linear scribbles rather than solid color.

Then I wet the crayon with a bristle brush and alcohol.  I loved how intense and vibrant the colors were. They just exploded with color! I once used water and I liked like how some of the wax didn't dissolve leaving some interesting areas in the underpainting.

After brushing on rubbing alcohol I add some more Neocolors. 

 Once dry it was time for the pastels. I tried not to cover all of the interesting underpainting. The pastel went over the dried wash without a problem. I was able to get as many layers as I needed. The neocolors didn't  fill the tooth of the paper.

It was a quick and easy way to do a wet underpainting. It was also a lot of fun!  

Before adding the final grassy details. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Tips for a Watercolor Underpainting

'Journey's End'                 8x10             pastel              ©Karen Margulis
available $175

 It is elusive....that wonderful peek of watercolor under a thin veil of pastel. Sometimes I am successful and sometimes it doesn't go as planned. But I remind myself that the creation of a watercolor underpainting will influence the direction of my painting even if I completely cover it with pastel.

Still, that thought doesn't stop me from trying! I always approach a watercolor underpainting with the intent to allow a lot of it to show through the pastel layers. I want the wonderful drips, blooms and mingling of the paint to do much of the work.  But once I start layering pastel I often go farther than I wanted. Many a painting gets completely covered with pastel much to my dissappointment. How much pastel is too much? It is a personal preference. I love the contrast between the transparent watercolor and the opaque pastel so I want some of the watercolor to show. I've discovered some tips....
It is all about restraint. Work slowly and deliberately. Think about every pastel mark.

Here are some things I do to help me preserve the underpainting:

  • After the watercolor is dry I spend a few minutes evaluating it. Is there any area I love and want to be sure to save? Do I like the colors? Make note of these areas.
  • When I am ready to add pastel I begin by choosing colors and values that closely match the underpainting. I apply a VERY light layer so that I can hardly see the pastel. I will change color and value very gradually....small areas with a light touch. 
  • If I like the passage with this thin veil of pastel I will leave it and move on. In this way I don't get too heavy too quickly. I remind myself that it is OK to let the paper/underpainting show.
  • I find I most often overwork the pastel application  when I get too thick too fast. I then feel the need to keep adding heavier layers all over the painting. When I keep a light touch and work slowly I have more success.

Today's painting was inspired by my recent cruise to Alaska. I used a watercolor underpainting on an 8x10 piece of mounted vintage white Wallis paper.