Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Using Clear Gesso to Simplify Autumn Trees

'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 soon!)
  • 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. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Three Reasons to Try Instagram

'Dancing Light'         9x12       pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $165

Are you on Instagram yet? If not I have three good reasons for you to try it. If you already use Instagram I have a reason for you to visit Instagram today!

In case you are not familiar with Instagram it is a social networking app that allows you to share photos and videos on your phone. It is very easy to use. You either take a photo with the app or use a photo / video from your photo albums on your phone. There are filters you can use to enhance your photo. You can write something about the photo if you'd like and add hashtags # that allow others to find your posts. I will share more about using Instagram in future blog articles but for now I want to convince you to try it (or use it more often)

Underpainting on gray Canson Mi-Teintes paper

Three Reasons to Try Instagram
  • It is all about the IMAGERY. Artists are visual and there is nothing more appealing than having the chance to browse a lot of good art without the extra visual clutter that is found on Facebook. I love reading my Facebook feed because of my artist friends and their wonderful art but I often get hung up and distracted by the other stuff.....videos, political stuff, recipes, cat and dogs....and on and on. I follow artists on Instagram and get to enjoy their art and photos without any distractions. Many artists post behind the scenes photos which are always interesting.
  • It is QUICK. Since your feed consists of images with minimal text, it is a a quick way to browse and see some inspiring art and photos. I know many who prefer not to do Facebook because they feel it is a time waster. Instagram doesn't zap as much time since it is fast and easy to scroll through images.
  • It is EASY. Really. Once you sign up and create your profile you can add your artist friends and family and friends if you wish. You will also get suggestions and I have discovered many wonderful artists from these suggestions. Posting a photo or video is also very easy and user friendly. 
Convinced? I invite you to start or revive your Instagram account and see what you've been missing. Instagram can be used for marketing and I will share more ideas in another post but it is also just a simple way to get a quick dose of inspiration!  Download the app today!

***** I am 25 followers short of 2000 and to celebrate I am offering a print of one of my autumn tree paintings. Head over to my Instagram account today and follow me or leave a comment mentioning the print and you will be entered to win the print. Drawing on Friday!  I am @KarenMargulis on Instagram or click here.

Close up detail
About today's painting: 9x12 on Gray Canson Mi-teintes unsanded paper. This is a scene from the monastery in Pecos New Mexico. The late afternoon light was dancing through the grasses teasing the little blanket flowers who were hiding out in the shade.

Monday, October 24, 2016

An Amazing Underpainting Technique

'Autumn Evening'         9x12         pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $155
I cannot resist an art store. So when my friend and I found ourselves in Santa Fe last week with some extra time to spare we made a stop at Artisans, an art store in Sante Fe New Mexico. We didn't really need anything but you never know what treasure you might find.

And I found a wonderful treasure! My favorite Art Graf squares in primary colors! You may have read about or tired these Art Graf pigment blocks. I have used the earth toned squares for underpainting and I loved the results. They are a strange thing....they feel waxy almost like a crayon but when applied to paper and wet with water or alcohol they EXPLODE with rich color.
It takes very little application to get a rich and dark resulting tone. They are fantastic for toning paper or for underpainting for pastels.

Art Graf squares in primary colors for wonderful possibilities

I had to buy this set of primary colors! I was excited for the possibilities since it is easy to layer and mix the pigment of the squares. I tried the squares for my aspen demo at my workshop  and I was thrilled with the rich results. (see Friday's post here)
One evening at the workshop we had a paper toning party and all of the artists had fun using the Art Graf to tone paper and create underpaintings. We are now all fans! You can find the Art Graf squares on Amazon and I have also seen them online at Cheap Joes. Below you can see how I used the primary color squares for today's painting.

I applied the Art Graf lightly by coloring on my sanded paper (Pastel Premier white)

After wetting the pigment with water and a brush.

Starting to add pastel over the underpainting

The finished painting
Thank you to all of you who commented with their guesses for Friday's painting. Great ideas for underpainting. I love all of the possibilities and I look forward to exploring these Art Graf squares!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Secret to Choosing Underpainting Colors...From the Archives

'Sunflowers 2'            5x7            pastel  (complementary underpainting)           ©Karen Margulis

It's like choosing the right wine.  Some wines go better with a dish than others. How do you know? How do you decide?  You can take someone else's advice but then you are taking a chance. Wouldn't it be better if you just knew...if you had experience with the wine and the dish you would be able to make an informed decision. Knowing what something tastes like is the key.  And that is the secret to underpaintings.  Really!

The more underpaintings you do and the more color combinations and paper colors you try...the more intuitive your choices will be.  Are you ready to be an Underpainting Connoisseur?  

You have to be motivated and willing to put in some time at the easel. You have to be ready to try new techniques and try different colors.  One of the very best exercises I ever did to expand my understanding of the possibilities of underpaintings is Richard McKinley's Underpainting Exercise. You can find it in his book 'Pastel Pointers' or on his blog here. I highly recommend doing this exercise.

I just did it for the second time along with my class of hard working artists. We chose simple subjects and painted small (5x7) After four hours we had finished 8 paintings based on the exercise. We did 4 wet underpaintings and chose 4 different paper colors. We used the same color palette for all of the paintings. (see my results below)

At the end of the session we discussed which underpainting/color choice we liked best. The answer was surprising!  I will share the answer with you tomorrow. Which version do you like best? Answer in the comments or on my facebook page.

value sensitive underpainting with alcohol wash

oil stain underpainting

watercolor underpainting with warm and cool

black paper

white paper

cool tone paper

warm tone paper

Friday, October 21, 2016

Guess the Mystery Underpainting

'Just in Time for Gold'          9x12         pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available  $155
How about a little weekend fun? Today's painting was done on Uart 500 grit sanded pastel paper as a demo for my recent workshop in Pecos New Mexico. I am planning on sharing more about the underpainting but I thought it would be fun if you tried to guess what I did. I'll give you some clues and you can write your guess in the comments. I will answer with details in Monday's post. (I have special visitors this weekend)

  • It is a wet underpainting.
  • I used a brush
  • It is an unusual product
  • It was a lot of fun!
I love playing with different underpainting techniques. I am often asked how I decide what technique to use. I will answer what, why and how for this painting on Monday and will share some other underpainting posts from the archives this weekend while I enjoy my granddaughter!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Do You Have Grass Box?

'Memories of the South'       12x18       pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $165
I don't know what I would do without my grass box. I know my marshes and meadow paintings would not be as interesting. I know that it wouldn't be as easy to create painterly grasses. Keeping a grass box is a new habit of mine but I don't know what I was waiting for!

What is a grass box you may be wondering?  It is a small box of pastels that I use exclusively for painting the finishing touches in any marsh or meadow painting. Any landscape that has grassy bits can be a challenge. If you paint too many grass blades or make them too thick and regular you risk creating a fence of grass. A grass fence is a visual barrier. It can prevent the viewer from entering or moving back into a painting. A grass box makes it easy to always paint lyrical grasses.

My collection of grass pastels along with a small banker's clasp used for scratching grass marks in soft pastel passages.
What is in my grass box?

  • Some harder pastels such as Nupastels and Rembrandts. These pastels have more binder than softer pastels so they make a crisper mark.
  • Some harder Russian pastels given to me by a friend. These harder and round sticks make wonderful painterly grasses.
  • A variety of earthy colors for both green and dried grass. I add to this box when I find a grass color that I can't I've without!
  • A few 'spicy' greens...greens that are intense for those special bits of eye candy.
  • A metal Banker's Clasp that can be used to scratch grass marks into a passage of thick pastel.
Having a box of pastels that work well for those finishing marks in a grassy area is a useful tool but it also helps to practice making effective and lyrical grass marks. You may be interested in my blog article on painting grass here:

Painting Notes: This is one of the demo paintings I did for my recent workshop with the Piedmont Pastel Society. It is on Uart pastel paper with an alcohol wash underpainting.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Back From Nature ... A Plein Air Pastel Retreat


I have returned from nature! I am in Santa Fe getting ready to head home to Georgia tomorrow. It was a wonderful week at the monastery in Pecos New Mexico. Internet was spotty so I took a break from the blog to concentrate on the workshop and what a workshop it was!  I had 18 eager and talented artists join me for 4 days of plein air painting surrounded by spectacular scenery.

I was thrilled to have several artists from last years workshop return as well as two artists from my art cruise. It was also fantastic to welcome new friends. We had a great group and their enthusiasm was contagious. In the photo above we are posing after receiving a special treat. Terry Ludwig generously sent a box of pastel hearts with one of our Colorado artists. Everyone was thrilled with them and I know that orders will be placed. Thank you Terry!

The nice thing about having the workshop at the monastery was having all of our needs taken care of. We stayed on the property to paint and ate all of our meals together. We had a big common room available for demos, lessons and sharing. 

We had downtime as well and it was spent walking the grounds or relaxing on the patio just taking in the view. Since there was no tv and limited phone and Internet we had to entertain ourselves with good old fashioned conversation and laughs. Each evening we had an optional get together. One night we had fun toning paper!


I didn't do a good job taking photos of my demo paintings so I will photograph the ones I have when I return home. I am anxious to get back into the studio to paint. I have so many inspiring photos! I'll be back to regular blogging this week! Here is a look at our lodging.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

When Not to Paint and What to do Instead

Sometimes I just have to let go of the urgency to paint. I am always driven and inspired to paint especially when I travel but sometimes I need to make a choice. Do I paint or do I simply explore and gather images? Most of the time when I explore a new place I choose the latter.  If I only have a short time at a place I often channel my urge to create by picking up my camera rather than a pastel.

I challenge myself to search for interesting compositions and light with my camera. I look for compelling shapes, textures and color. I try to take photos that tell a story of the place. Sometimes it is said that one recalls more when it is experienced without a camera but I find it to be just the opposite.

Using my camera allows me to immerse myself in the scene with more sensitivity. Subtle things like light on a dried seed pod might be easily overlooked. But through the lens of my camera it is elevated.


I tend to take two kinds of photos when exploring. One is when I take many photos without regard to composition. These photos are for reference. They remind me of shapes,colors, textures. I don't care if they are 'bad' photos. They serve to remind me of the place.

The second type of photo is when I am thoughtful about composing an interesting photo. I slow down and take my time looking for the right light and composition. Both types of photos will be used for paintings but it is really the act of looking for subject matter that is the key to successful future paintings. Taking photos allows me to see with more sensitivity. I can get more material in a short amount of time.

I hoped you enjoy these photos from my visit to Salida Colorado. The camera I am using is a Canon G7x.


Sunday, October 09, 2016

Inspiration in Colorado


It was an inspiring day!  We began with a morning hike on S Mountain. It was filled with the things I love.....big views and scrubby brush! I took many photos that I know will inspire my work this fall. Next we walked along the river for more great scenery. One of the highlights of the morning were our gallery visits. We were fortunate that Joshua Been was in his gallery and we had a great visit.

Joshua's work is amazing and it was a pleasure to see it in person. It was fun to see how he works. He kindly posed for a photo in front of his easel. Check out the piles of paint! 

Joshua is also a generous teacher and innovator. He has designed plein air set ups that are light weight and compact. If you are in the market for a plein air set up I would recommend taking a closer look. He has also written a book called 'Learn to See, Learn to Paint' which I bought and can't wait to read!  I'll be blogging more about the book and special pen. Visit Joshua's website for more on what he offers.

The day wasn't over though! After lunch we took a drive and I was so inspired that I had to take out my pastels to paint when we got back to the house. I painted the neighbor's aspen tree that was holding on to a few yellow leaves. My fingers were itching to paint something after being filled with beauty!

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Another Option for Toning Sanded Pastel Paper

'Feel This Moment'         18x24             pastel         ©Karen Margulis
click here to purchase $450
It is time to tone some more paper. I love Uart sanded pastel paper but I prefer a middle value gray-brown paper for my quick landscape studies.  I like the way the color looks when it peeks through my pastel layers. It is not at all distracting so I don't have to do any kind of underpainting. I can just pick up my softest pastels and quickly respond to the scene in front of me. Back in the day my go-to paper for plein air studies was Wallis Belgian Mist. I had to find a replacement when it was no longer available and I have several ways I like to tone my Uart paper. I shared one option in last week's blog post. Here is another option:

My Belgian Mist substitute
One of my students came up with the idea of using her used pastel dust to tone Uart sanded paper. She saves her dust and made a pastel with it. It was a nice warm neutral gray similar to the belgian mist tone. I didn't get a photo of her sample but I do have a jar of collected dust so I will try my own.

In the meantime I decided I would mix some acrylic paint to match belgian mist and use it very thinly to tone some sanded paper. Before I got around to that I happened to be in Home Depot and found a small sample jar of 'oops' paint...samples that were rejected. It was very close to the color I wanted and best of all it was only 50 cents!  I toned a piece of Uart 240 grit....I found it to be the closet mach to the Wallis grittiness.

Result: It was slightly lighter when dry and also a bit warmer than the belgian mist. But I liked it. I put it to the test with a large painting 18x24 (see top)  I loved it!  I didn't do any kind of underpainting or block in for the painting. I just went right in with my soft pastels ( a mix of Terry Ludwig and Diane Townsend)  You can see places where it peeks through and I like the effect. 

UPDATE: Since I originally wrote this post I have discovered another good paint for toning paper. It is Atelier Interactive acrylic paint  in Toning Grey Yellow. Be sure you thin any acrylic paint so that it doesn't fill the tooth of the paper.

Friday, October 07, 2016

How to Add Shimmer to Your Pastel Paintings

'Quietly She Whispers'         6x6         pastel         ©Karen Margulis
available $95
 I couldn't leave town without trying them.  I finished my errands and packing in the morning so I could have some studio time. Yesterday I found a set of pearlescent watercolors at Hobby Lobby and had to get them. They were only $5 so I didn't have high expectations. You usually get what you pay for but you never know.....they might have been a great surprise.

Well you do get what you pay for and the watercolors were not exactly amazing. But they were kind of interesting. They were certainly beautiful in the pans but on paper they were very weak. I persevered and in the end the color dried light but with a subtle shimmer. Not bad actually.

cheap pearlescent watercolors

underpainting with the pearlescent watercolors
If you click on the underpainting photo to enlarge it you can see the shimmer. I decided to paint a soft moody and foggy landscape. I enjoyed the shimmer and it got me wanting more. I have several sets of pearlescent pastels so I grabbed my set of Diane Townsend metallic pastels. Now we were talking!

These pastels are supper soft and will cripple if you press to hard but they go on like butter and the shimmer is beautiful. It sadly isn't well captured in a photo. The shimmer is much more subtle in person.
Diane Townsend metallic pastels
If you want to add some shimmer to your pastels try a pearlescent underpainting and metallic pastels. These are other ways and I will share them in future blog posts.

And now for some shameless self promotion......Next week it will be time to register online for the 2017 IAPS convention. I am on the faculty and will be presenting a two hour demo on the Landscape in Bloom and a seminar on blogging for artists. Even if you are not interested in flowers I will be sharing and demonstrating many of my top LANDSCAPE tips and techniques. I am planning a fun and information packed demo!  Study the preview on the IAPS website so you will be ready to register! click here for the preview.