Thursday, October 30, 2014

Remember This When Painting Sky Holes


'Celebration'              12x18             pastel          ©Karen Margulis
available $145

Last night we  all moaned and groaned about sky holes. "They are a pain!" " I never get them right!" "I just don't like painting them."  But sky holes can make or break the success of our trees. I used to feel the same way about sky holes until I changed my attitude and slowed down. I began to enjoy them. Now I seek them out and find it oddly relaxing to paint them.

Sky holes... What are they? They are simply the negative spaces we see in the structure of the tree. They occur where there is a break in the foliage and often alongside the trunks and branches. They are not always sky color. These 'holes' are the color of whatever is behind the tree ( a bit darker value though) This could be sky but it might be other trees, mountains, water.

Here is something I try to remember when painting these sky holes:


  •  Stop: slow down and take your time. Rushing leads to messy skyholes that don't always make sense.
  • Squint: Squinting simplifies your reference tree and allows the light areas (the sky holes) to become more obvious. Look where they occur and what shape they are. They are not always round holes or squiggles.
  • Search: Find the skyholes and put them in. It is often a matter of putting in a hole, adding more foliage....and back and forth until it looks natural. It is a process. Try not to rush!
  • Avoid squiggles, circles or ornaments. Ornaments occur when the sky hole value is too light or the edges are all too sharp. The marks look stuck on the tree rather than breaks in the foliage.



Jennifur my studio cat is exhausted after a long day of classes!

Try This:  Plan to do a few studies in which you focus solely on a section of tree. Concentrate on creating believable skyholes in a small section of tree.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tips for More Lyrical Trees


'October's Song'           11.5 x 16             pastel            ©Karen Margulis
painting available $175
 Skyholes and Lyrical Limbs. Two of the things that I concentrate on when painting trees. When a tree is the focus of my painting I want to be sure it stands out as the star. I want this tree to have life...to dance....to be lyrical. Slowing down for skyhole placement is key and I will address this in another post. Then there are lyrical limbs.  What are Lyrical Limbs?

Below is a photo of non-lyrical limbs. This is a stiff and rigid tree trunk and branches.  We often create this type of tree when we draw the trunk and branches with a thick/soft pastel and we use too much pressure.

Stiff and boring trunk and limbs

This type of tree skeleton often leads to stiff and ordinary looking trees.  I try to avoid these dark and heavy trunks and branches in my trees. Below I have done some more Lyrical Limbs. These trunks and branches are drawn with a lighter hand and with the edge of the pastel stick.

Lyrical limbs dancing on my paper

How To Create Lyrical Limbs
  • Relax your grip! Hold the pastel stick loosely in your hand so that you can draw with more freedom. 
  • Dance. Use a light touch and allow the pastel to dance across the paper creating broken lines. 
  • Avoid pressing down to hard which leads to dark and heavy lines.
  • Use the sharp edge of the stick. I sometimes will use the sharp edge of a hard pastel to paint the thinnest branches.
  • Keep repeating "Lyrical Limbs, Lyrical Limbs, Lyrical Limbs" to remind yourself to loosen up!
  • Play some music to get you in a relaxed state of mind.


skyholes and lyrical limbs together


my reference photo
Painting Notes: Painting is on mat board with clear gesso toned orange. Workable fixative was used in the build up of the pastel layers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Simplify Autumn Trees with Clear Gesso

'Call Me Crimson'             8x10          pastel            ©Karen Margulis
painting available $145
 It's a toss up between autumn and spring. Both are challenging to paint. There is so much color and texture. In both seasons the trees put on a show. Some years are better than other but every year I am still challenged by the display.

The biggest problem I have in the fall is wanting to put too much into my paintings. I want the red tree and the fiery orange tree and of course I love the yellow ones.....and they are often found all together. How to edit this overload of information?


  • I first remind myself that all color is no color. I don't want everything to be screaming with color. One of every color tree might be overload for a painting. Why not keep it simple and concentrate on just one tree or a small grouping. I don't need them all in one painting!
  • I keep my trees simple by thinking of each tree as a lump of clay. I shape it into the general shape of the tree and block in the big simple shape. I use negative painting to carve away at the tree making the shape more interesting. (more on this tomorrow)
  • I don't paint every leaf. Instead of painting lots of leaves I use texture to suggest foliage. One of my favorite ways to get texture is to work on paper prepared with clear gesso. The clear gesso is gritty and provides texture. I apply the gesso with a gesso brush in random strokes. You can prepare the entire board with gesso or just the tree shape. Let it dry and paint. The pastel will go over the rough gesso and will appear textured/broken strokes.



Painting notes: This painting is on a piece of mat board prepared with Liquitex clear gesso. It is 8x10. There is no underpainting though I did blend the first layer to push it into the grooves of the dried gesso. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Three Tips for Collecting Blog Post Ideas

'Crossing Over'           16x20            pastel                ©Karen Margulis
painting available $250
 Sometimes the painting inspires the blog post. Sometimes a blog post inspires a painting. Sometimes I am stumped. I am at a loss for a blog post idea.  I sit in front of my computer staring at my daily painting on the screen and wonder what I will write. The wheels turn but nothing comes to mind. I am dry.

It can be a challenge to come up with interesting blog topics especially when I am committed to posting to my blog every day! Fortunately I find the 'Dry Days' to be few and far between. It is actually quite easy to come up with blog topics.  Here are three simple tips that help me generate new topic ideas.

demo painting before finishing touches

  • Keep a list of blog ideas. I keep mine on a dry erase board. When I get an idea I write it down. I refer to these ideas on those 'dry days'. The important thing is to write down the idea as soon as it occurs to you. I find if I wait I will have forgotten it.
  • Listen to feedback and comments not only on your blog but on others you may read. Comments and questions always lead to ideas for future posts. Write them down! I also get several art related daily email newsletters and they always provide food for thought and give me ideas for potential blog posts.
  • Ask your readers what they would like to read about! There is no better way to be sure your readers find your blog interesting and useful than by asking them what they want!
I love the 3rd tip. It is something I haven't done in awhile so here is your chance. What would you like for me to blog about?  Share your requests in the comment section below. And thanks for following my blog!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Studio Essential: Sticky Notes Help Improve Paintings


'The Cloud'                   18x24                 pastel            ©Karen Margulis
painting available $500
 Sticky Notes get a lot of use in my studio. I leave my notes everywhere. They help me stay on track. When they multiply too rapidly I know I need to slow down and prioritize but they do help me get my thoughts on paper.  One of my favorite uses for sticky notes is to help me resolve unfinished paintings.

Have you ever looked at an unfinished painting  and finally figured out what it needed but then forgot what that was once you had time to paint? 

Sticky notes to the rescue!  Yesterday I had a wonderful time teaching a workshop at the Cockerill Gallery in Austell Georgia. Ann Cockerill was fantastic and I had a chance to share with a group of talented artists!  I came home with three demos....almost finished but not quite. Each one served its purpose in my lessons but needed tweaking to be considered finished.

Before my finishing tweaks
In the morning I set them up on easels in my studio and studied them. What did they need? What didn't they need? What did I need to do to resolve them?  As the possible answers and solutions came to me I wrote them down on a sticky note and stuck the note to my painting board.  Now when I get a chance to paint I won't forget my thoughts about how to resolve each painting!


My possible resolution ideas for 'The Cloud'
Later in the day I had some time to paint so I returned to my paintings and notes and was able to put my ideas in action. Thank you Sticky Notes!

Painting notes: This was my lunchtime demo painted while my students enjoyed their lunch. It is on Uart paper 18x24. I blocked in the painting with reds and pinks and rubbed in this layer with pipe foam. I used Terry Ludwig pastels to finish.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Fun with Watercolor Underpaintings

'Reverie'             8x10           pastel           ©Karen Margulis
available $145
 It was about time for some underpainting fun! I used to begin most of my pastel paintings with some kind of wet underpainting. I loved doing alcohol washes, watercolor and oil underpaintings. I still do but lately I have bypassed the wet underpainting to a more direct technique with no underpainting at all.

I decided it was time to revisit the wet underpainting with my weekly pastel classes. We started with watercolor. What a fun change of pace!  I was reminded at the importance of practice. Any new (or rarely used) technique will feel strange at first. It isn't always easy to get the desired results.

Once is not enough!

Sometimes it is good to practice just the underpainting technique....not to even worry about the pastel application. Do underpainting after underpainting until it feels comfortable. The more you do the more you learn about what works and what doesn't.


watercolor underpainting fun!
After my 4th watercolor underpainting I still have a long way to go to have success but I am enjoying the process. I just have to realize that if I want to improve my watercolor underpaintings I have to revisit them more often!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Creating a Mood with Underpainting Colors

'Another Peaceful Day'             9x12             pastel           ©Karen Margulis
available $150 click here
 The possibilities are endless. I approach each blank piece of paper with eager anticipation. I feel empowered. I am about to create something from nothing. Hopefully it will be something compelling, or interesting or beautiful. It is up to me. I have the power to take a scene and create the mood I wish to express. And I don't have to be true to the scene. I can tweak it if I want.

I can make a landscape look bright and sunny. I can make it gray and moody. I can change the season or time of day. It's such a wonderful thing to be an artist!

There are many ways to create a mood in a painting but one of my favorite techniques is a simple four value underpainting. The mood is created by the colors that are selected for the underpainting.

color blocks to help evaluate underpainting colors
There is no right or wrong color to choose for the underpainting. Each choice will result in a different feeling to the painting because the underpainting colors will peek through the top layers. This will effect how the top layers will appear. For example warm colors underneath tend to create a sunnier, warmer feeling. How do we choose the underpainting colors?

  • Practice. The more we experiment and try different underpainting colors, the more intuitive our choices will become. Practice!!
  • Color Studies and Color Blocks are a quick way to judge how an underpainting color will appear. Choose a color and pick 4 values of the color. Make little blocks of color on a scrap piece of paper the same color as the paper you will paint on. Now choose the colors you might use for your top layers. Lightly layer the top colors over the underpainting blocks. Think of theses as quick test strips. It is better to try out colors in small blocks than experiment on your painting! ( I learned this great tip from Doug Dawson)
For the marsh painting in this post I wanted a moody, gray day feeling. When evaluating possible underpainting colors I decided the Red Violets gave me the mood I was after. I blocked in the painting with four values of Red Violet. You can see it peek through and unify the whole painting. 

TRY THIS: Cut 4-8 small pieces of paper.  4x6 or 5x7. Find a simple subject. Do at least 4 paintings using a different color for the underpainting in each study. Allow 15 minutes for each study. Compare your studies....what mood or feeling did each color create?


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Workshop Advice: Put on Your 'What If' Hat


'Pink Symphony'            11x14          pastel          ©Karen Margulis
available here $165
 I can happen to all of us. Stage fright. Performance anxiety. Fear of Failure. Going to a workshop can be exciting but also nerve wracking.  It doesn't matter if you are a student or the instructor and it doesn't matter if you are advanced or a beginner. We often put pressure on ourselves to be successful. In the words of a friend "I worry I will get egg on my face".

I know the feeling well.  But the pressure we put on ourselves to achieve in a workshop can backfire and cause us to freeze. I have some good advice:

Put on Your WHAT IF Hat and keep it on!

watercolor underpainting

What is a WHAT IF Hat?  It is an attitude. It is a state of mind. It is a liberating place to be. The What If attitude is the way we approach painting or any new situation such as a workshop. When things aren't going as planned and when we are struggling we just use the words WHAT IF.  And then try something different. For example, let's say your painting isn't working. Instead of getting frustrated or stressed ask yourself what you could do differently. Ask yourself 'What If" I did this....What if I tried that....and most important your remind yourself that IT IS ONLY PAPER.

yuck! I didn't like what was happening so I sprayed it down with water

I had to put on my What If Hat for today's painting. It wasn't going as planned. Instead of throwing it out I decided to try something else. I sprayed it with water...then worked some more. After several what if moments the painting started coming together.

The What If attitude can help us in a workshop experience. If we go into it with the only expectation that we will learn something new (and not paint a masterpiece) we will have a more successful experience. We need to leave all of our anxiety and fears at the door and remind ourselves that we are there to learn and try new things!




Painting Notes: 11x14 on Multimedia artboard with a watercolor underpainting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Confessions of a Seasonal Painter


'Reflection'             9x12            pastel            ©Karen Margulis

I am a seasonal painter.  I love painting the landscape in every season. Every season has moments that inspire me.  I love the colors of fall. I LOVE painting snow. Spring brings flowers and summer brings long days and Queen Annes Lace.  But.... I only like to paint each season in that season. I can't wait to paint snow but I need to wait for winter. I am funny like that.

Maybe it is because being present in the season inspires me. When I am surrounded by the smells and colors of fall and the first crisp clear days I want to capture these feelings in a painting. Sure I can look at photos of snow in the heat of summer but unless I am on top of a snow capped peak somewhere in the arctic.....I don't feel inspired to paint it.

It's getting cooler in Georgia and the leaves are starting to turn. The smell of Cinnamon brooms and pinecones greets us in the grocery store. This is a sure sign of fall. It feels only right that I should paint autumn landscapes. 

watercolor underpainting
The wonderful thing about being a seasonal painter is the excitement of revisiting a favorite subject as each new season arrives. It is always interesting to look back on previous years to see how I painted the season. How have I grown as an artist? Are my autumn trees changing? How? The answers to these questions are important. They help me understand where I have been and where I am going.

As fall arrives I begin my annual reflection and begin a new series of fall paintings. After a few weeks I will have exhausted this subject and will look forward to the next season.

Painting notes:  9x12 white Wallis paper with a watercolor underpainting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Benefits of Painting Without Glasses...and when it's time to put them back on!


'Here Comes the Sun'           8.5 x 11.5            pastel             ©Karen Margulis
available $145 
Painting this tree gave me fits!  I was very close to throwing it on the pile. I don't give up easily but I was not enjoying this painting at all. I looked like a big orange blob and no matter what I did it didn't want to cooperate.  Fortunately I had a dentist appointment giving me a break from the tree.

A break from a frustrating painting is always a good thing. I came back with a clear head and with less emotion. I stood back and looked at the sad tree. Why was it a blob? Well, it had no air or sky holes. But I didn't see many skyholes in my reference. I assumed it just had a lot of foliage.

Then I had a brainstorm!  I decided to put on my glasses and have a closer look. Ahhhh there were sky holes! Quite a few of them actually. I just didn't see them without my glasses.  I only need readers so I never put them on to paint. I enjoy how I see things as pleasantly soft. I see the big shapes and the important stuff. But I obviously didn't see the tiny skyholes in my very small reference photo.




I put the glasses back on and took my time to develop the tree. It was enjoyable finding the holes and negative spaces in the foliage and trunks. Having the glasses on help me give the tree a better shape. I was able to be more precise where it was important to be precise!

It was literally an eye-opener!  I guess I didn't realize how much I could see with the glasses!  And that's important to know. I don't always want to see everything!  I love that I don't get caught up in details and can see simply. I will keep my glasses off when painting unless there is an area that needs more refinement. I now have a new tool in my painting toolbox!


Block-in done without glasses


Sky holes done with my glasses on!


Monday, October 20, 2014

How to be Always Ready to Paint


'Peaceful Oasis'            4x6          plein air pastel            ©Karen Margulis   $40

Sometimes Simple is Best. Simple gets it done. If things are simple and easy to do....chances are we will do them. This is true for painting. We know we should paint more often. We know that painting on location or from life will improve our paintings but we don't always follow our own advice. This is often because we make it too complicated. We have too much stuff. Our supplies aren't organized. We don't have time to get it ready. So we don't. And we go out and wish we had supplies with us.

Keep supplies Simple and Always Ready!

Picnic lunch and a quick field study

This weekend my husband and I decided to take a drive to the mountains in his new convertible. I debated about bringing my pastels. My new Heilman baby box wasn't set up yet. My Gogh Box was a mess from my last trip. I didn't have time or energy to get either prepared. I'll just go and take pictures, I reasoned.

But then that nagging voice in my head reminded me that I would be sorry. I would want to paint if we were in a nice spot. So I grabbed my smallest pastel kit and threw it in the car. I am so glad I did. We picnicked at a wonderful spot with a creek that seemed miles away from the crowds of leaf peepers.

Have a look at my little kit. Everything I need to paint fits in this little case which is actually a book cover. I also have one that fits in a lunchbox. The important thing about this kit is that it is ALWAYS READY! It is always filled with pastels and a selection of papers. It holds enough supplies to paint and transport paintings up to 5x7. It is simple. It is ready. It is small. I enjoyed the time I spent painting the little creek thanks to my kit!


My Always Ready Pastel Kit
I have written a detailed post about this kit here. I also offer a pdf demo showing how I use a small kit to paint mini pastels on the go. Details here.





Sunday, October 19, 2014

On Seeing Colors....Is Dried Grass Brown?

'Autumn Comes to the Island'            8x10           pastel         ©Karen Margulis
sold
 How fortunate we are as artists. Even something as mundane as dried grasses can be seen as beautiful. Many would pass them without a second look. What is interesting about dead grass?  It's brown and ugly! But when we begin to see things through the eyes of an artist even the ugly becomes beautiful.

Brown is beautiful because brown is not just brown. Brown is purple and blue and orange. Brown stuff has subtle and beautiful colors. We just need to look carefully and allow our eyes to really see it.

close-up detail
I had a new student come to my studio this week. I was so excited to learn she had never painted before. She wanted to be an artist. She wanted to paint and she was coming to me for a lesson on pastel painting. The most rewarding part of the lesson was helping her to begin seeing things as an artist. We discussed how as beginners we tend to see and paint things the way we think they are...we are very literal and true to the shapes and colors that we learned as children.....such as tree trunks are brown and leaves are green and the sky is blue. But we can start to see things how they really are and when we do we are enriched and our paintings become more personal.

As I painted the demo for my student she asked why I didn't choose brown for the dried grasses. I didn't see them as brown but then I realized that I have learned to put aside what I think and allow myself to really see. I know that she will start looking at dead grass in a whole new light. And I am happy to share this discover with a new artist!

painting notes: 8x10 on Uart paper with a dry wash underpainting.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Secret to an Affordable Painting Trip


'Chamisa Impressions'               8x10             pastel     plein air         ©Karen Margulis
available for purchase $150
I am always looking for tips that make travel more affordable. The more I can save the more I can go! I got lucky on my recent trip to Abiquiu and the Richard McKinley workshop. Not only did I save money by sharing a rental car with a great new friend (Thanks Kris!)....we discovered how to save a lot of money on essentials...making this workshop trip more affordable.

The secret is Shop Smart....any discount or big grocery store will do.  We were able to stretch our food budget by stocking up on breakfast and lunch items. Since meals were not included in the workshop we were on our own. In the end we only had to purchase dinner each night.

Breakfast on the Go!
We knew we were going to an area that only had one convenience store, one restaurant and a pizza place. Limited options.  We decided to stock up before we left Santa Fe. We were going to go to Whole Foods which is great but can be pricey.  We settled on Walmart since they have good food prices and other essentials. I spent $50 and had plenty of breakfast, lunch and snack items. (I even brought snacks home...I had no time to snack!)  Here are some of our tips:
  • Water: you need to drink a lot of water on a painting trip. We saved money and space on water bottles by purchasing a jug of water and a cheap funnel to fill a couple of bottles each day.
  • Coffee:  a lot of hotels have individual coffee makers in the room. The coffee isn't always good but it is the lack of enough sugar and half and half that I miss. I bought some sugar and some Mini Moos half and half containers. They don't need to be refrigerated. Coffee was so much better!
  • Breakfast: We bought individual serving size oatmeal cups. All we had to do was heat some water in the coffee maker. Add a banana (and some powdered donuts) and we had breakfast!
  • Lunch: We bought peanut butter and jelly, bread, chips, apples and other goodies for lunch. I also bought some baggies, paper towels and plastic silverware so each night I could make a nice lunch. 
  • Wine Time: we had to go back to Whole Foods for the wine because our Walmart wasn't a Super Walmart. But overall we got everything we needed and more at our Walmart stop!
The Walmart stop is great if you have to fly to a location and can't bring all of the food and drinks with you. When I travel by car we do the same thing but sock up before we hit the road!

How do you save money when traveling? Feel free to share by commenting below!


****I'd like to add that we chose Walmart but I realize that many people do not like it and choose not to shop there. The point of this post was to share how we saved money by purchasing food to fix in our motel rooms. Any grocery store will do the job!

Friday, October 17, 2014

My Plein Air Process and all of my New Mexico Paintings

'Ghost Ranch 3'               8x10               pastel             ©Karen Margulis
available here $150
 Fast and Furious. That is how I feel when I am out painting on location. I want it all so I paint quickly. In yesterday's blog post I discussed my three goals for plein air painting. Today I'd like to share some insight into my typical process.

  • I paint small, no larger than 8x10. 
  • I paint directly with soft pastels, rarely doing an underpainting. I will sometimes tone the paper with pastel rubbed in or do a dry block-in.
  • I paint quickly establishing the big shapes first and then any needed details. Each painting takes from 20 minutes to an hour to finish. 
  • I don't use my typical light touch layering technique. Instead I use a firm and direct application of pastel. I shout instead of whisper.
  • I never go back and work on a painting in the studio. I leave them as studies.

 I painted 30 small studies (8x10 and 5x7)  while in New Mexico. Here they are in collages. Enjoy!




'Late Day Majesty'       5x7     pastel     $100

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Three Goals for Plein Air Painting

'Rain Dance'            10x12         pastel              ©Karen Margulis
purchase painting here $155
The weather forecast changed drastically. We were supposed to have 5 days of warm Blue Sky days. Then it changed. Bad weather was on the way and there was a chance for cloudy skies and rain. I wasn't happy about the rain but secretly I rejoiced about the possibility of clouds.  I love blue skies but clouds can make things so much more interesting.....and challenging to paint.

I have three goals for plein air painting and they all come together on an interesting weather day. It happened in Iceland and it happened for me in New Mexico. The forecast called for 90% chance of thunderstorms. The morning arrived with clouds....but also peeks of sun. It made for the most interesting painting conditions. I painted fast and furiously trying to meet my painting goals.

The group set up to paint the iconic view over Ghost Ranch
 Every artist who paints on location has their own reasons for painting outside. I have my own and they can be summarized into three goals:

  •  Work Quickly. As Richard McKinley reminded us...."It is vast and wonderful and we can't have it all"  I want it all but I know it can't all go into one painting. I scan the location and find a spot that offers several potential paintings. I choose to work quickly so I can paint more than one view. Working quickly also helps me better capture the mood and light of the place before it changes.
  • Work Small. I consider my plein air paintings studies. They are my notes in the form of a picture. I am taking notes on the colors and shapes and light that I see. Working small allows me to take more notes!
  • Just be out there. I don't listen to music when I paint on location. I want to involve all of my senses as I paint. I relish the wind, the sun, the cold and even the bugs. They are all a part of the experience. These things make the place real. They stay with me and help color the way I will interpret my reference photos back in the studio. 
The interesting weather really energized me. I managed to finish 10 studies on that wonderful day! These studies will continue to inspire me now that I am back home.


'Ghost Ranch 3'          8x10       pastel        plein air         $150

My photo of this amazing view!
Painting notes: The top painting is the studio painting done on Uart paper. The bottom painting is an 8x10 plein air painting done at the same spot.