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Saturday, January 16, 2021

A Sad Commission Story

      'Sunrise Over the Marsh'  32 x 42            pastel      ©Karen Margulis    available in my Etsy shop  $900

I am not very strict when it comes to commissions. I don't require payment in advance or a deposit. I don't recommend it but I have never had a problem. I only take on commissions for subjects that I would paint anyway. In other words it is just another daily painting for me should the client not want it in the end. That has never happened. The only issue I have ever had were due to the wrong measurements by the client. This is now the second time this has happened even though I am very careful to make sure they know what size they need and ask them to consider the size of frames especially for large paintings. 

I painted and delivered two very large pastels in December without a problem so I eagerly started on this third large commission. It was a subject I loved and I was happy to paint it so large. The client settled on 32x42 landscape format after many back and forth communications. In the end it was not the orientation they wanted. It was a definite miscommunication and we are both at fault. Lesson learned. Big lesson learned! I guess it is time for a written contract with detailed requests. 

At first I was sad and disappointed. But I enjoyed painting and it truly gave me an excuse to paint large!I would do it more often if I had room to store finished paintings this size! Now what? I listed the painting in my Etsy shop. It is possible someone will be looking for a large marsh painting! Until then I am enjoying it in my studio!

Here are a few photos of the painting along with some closeups!  The painting is on Uart 400 cut from a roll. I used Nupastels for the first layers, Mount Vision pastels for the bulk of the painting and Terry Ludwig pastels for the finish. I did use the Nupastels at the end for some of the grasses. 


Thursday, January 14, 2021

Have You Tried a Black and White Underpainting?

                       'Forest Magic'          10x8            pastel           ©Karen Margulis     available $275

A black and white underpainting was an unexpected delight. I have been working with 3 and 4 value thumbnails and underpaintings but I decided to limit them to just two values. It suited my dramatic subject. 

You may have heard the quotes about two favorites are:

"Value does the work but Color gets the Glory"
"Value gives the form and Color provides the emotion"

If we can just get the values right then we can use any color and the picture will look correct. Easy enough?  Not always. Just what does it mean to "get the right value" ?  First we need to be able to see the values in our subject. Next we need to block in our paintings with a strong value map. We need to see the correct value and put them in the right place taking care not to be too spotty.

For today's painting I decided to make a strong value underpainting using a two value thumbnail using just black and white (notan) It was the perfect choice to allow me to capture the drama of the light and shadows in my forest scene.  Here is my notan:

I used Art Graf pigment squares on white LuxArchival sanded paper to create a wet black and white underpainting. You can see on the photo below the strong darks. In this photo I have started adding pastel layers. The black and white roadmap was helpful. It reminded me to keep the shadowed areas dark enough to allow the sunlit tree to glow. 


I used the Notanizer app on my iPhone to create the black and white thumbnail. I was able to adjust my reference photo to show black and white, notan as well as 3 and 4 values. It was fun to use! I review the app today on my Patreon Page.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Tips for Effective Value Thumbnails

        'Lavender Magic'                  9x12               pastel              ©Karen Margulis         $275

Do you do your thumbnails? I never did a very good job at doing thumbnail sketches. They seemed like a waste of my time. I would rather just get to the fun part and paint. But I like to play when I paint. I don't want to think to hard. I don't want to agonize of every stroke, color and value choice.

A thumbnail a day makes it easier to play!

That's right. Doing a thumbnail makes it easier to let go and paint with passion and still have success. But the thumbnail has to be effective. It really isn't enough to scribble some lines and call it a thumbnail. Nor is it necessary to spend a lot of time on a painstaking mini sketch full of details. There is a happy medium and it really will help. Below I share some tips for a more effective thumbnail. One you can actually use to start your painting.

My value thumbnail

  • A value thumbnail is best when the subject is simplified into 4-6 big simple shapes. The shapes should be connected or massed and assigned a value. The value should be what is MOST prevalent in the shape....example: a group of trees may have several values but has more darks than anything else so this mass of trees would be assigned a dark value. The trees will be modified as the painting develops.
  • A value thumbnail is more effective when it is small (between business card and post card size) and when you can see the borders of the sketch.
  • A value thumbnail works best when the shapes are massed in with solid flat marks. Scribbly loose marks make it difficult to see the values.

                               I used an assortment of Terry Ludwig and Diane Townsend pastels

It is Value Bootcamp month over in my Patreon group!  You can see the video demo for this painting. Consider joining us. It is just a $4 monthly. pledge!

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Tips for Simplifying Tree Paintings

      'Peace'                      9x12            pastel            ©Karen Margulis         available on Etsy $275

 It suddenly hit me yesterday when prepping for a demo. We often make things more complicated than they have to be. From everything to setting up and starting a painting to the actual painting process is always a challenge to keep things simple.

Take trees for example. I avoided painting trees for years because I believed them to be too hard....too complicated. I didn't know how to simplify them. I didn't know how to simplify anything involved with painting. I wish I had pictures of the huge cart of supplies I would haul to pastel class! Live and learn!

Trees don't have to be complicated. They are just shapes after all. Once I learned how to simplify a tree into a basic shape and then carve and mould it like it was a lump of clay, painting trees became doable. Now I enjoy painting trees. Starting and keeping things simple has been the key.

Ideas for Simplifying Trees

  • Look at the overall shape of the tree. Is it oval? Square? Round? Triangular?  Does it have lots of little section of foliage?  Block in this big simple shape.
  • Pay attention to the silhouette of the tree....If it was just a big flat shape what would the outer edges look like? 
  • Make sure the shape you block in for the tree is an interesting shape. You want an interesting positive shape as well as have the shape around the tree (negative space) be interesting.
  • Don't let the symbol your brain has for a tree cause you to make a plain, boring and orderly shape.
  • Observe carefully. Be a good observer of trees. Pay attention to how they grow, what kind of foliage do they have? Where do their branches come from?
  • Practice, Practice and practice some more. Don't avoid what frustrates you. (but don't obsess about it either, balance practice with difficult subjects with subjects you have success with.)


Thursday, January 07, 2021

Pastel Demo Q&A Session!

       'A Time of Reflection'                 9x12                 pastel               ©Karen Margulis    available $275

I miss in person classes and workshops! One of the things I miss is the live give and take when I would do a demo. I enjoy talking while I paint and that is a hallmark of my video demos but it is no substitute to a live demo when I get to field questions!  I thought it would be fun to post a Q&A session from a live class. The painting I did was different but the questions apply to this latest painting. 

Q: How do you go about choosing the colors for the painting. Do you think about the value of each color?
A: When I paint a landscape I think about value and color. I also think about the layering I will do. I ask myself what colors will go underneath my final colors. I begin by choosing these 'underneath' colors. I choose block- in colors. I then choose the darkest values I will use. This is what I call my 'dirt'.  Then I choose the colors I will use for each element of the painting.....the sky, the grass, etc. keeping in mind the layers I will use for each element.

Q: Do you worry about the values of each element?
A: Yes to some extent. I know that each element will have a range of values. The sky for example often has darker to lighter values. I make sure I have a range of values as well as colors.

Q: The Sky in your photo isn't as dark as the water. How do you deal with that?
A: The color of the sky is reflected in the water. Sometimes you wish to show more water than sky. In this case I remind myself that a typical blue sky will get darker and cooler as it gets higher. As a result the water will reflect the dark blue in the foreground (even though we don't see it in the photo) And as a reminder we often make blue skies too dark because the photos show them as a dark clear blue. This leads to paintings that look more like twilight than daytime.

Q:Which comes first the reflections or the water?
A: I like to block in the reflections with downward vertical strokes first. I then blend them downward with my finger. Next I put in the water with horizontal strokes. If there are things floating on the water they are put in last.

Q: How do you simplify a busy photo? There are so many leaves and changes in light and dark in the photo it is hard to know how to simplify it.
A: It begins at the beginning! I block in the painting with big SIMPLE shapes. I look at the grouping of trees and notice that they are mostly a darkish mass. (although not as dark as the photos suggests) I block in the tree shapes with one dark value. Then I adjust and add the lighter leaves.
I usually take some liberties with the photo. I don't copy it exactly rather I prefer to interpret it with my own marks. I try to create a visual journey for the viewer. 

Here is the value thumbnail I used to help me start the painting


I began this painting with a simple four value block in using 4 values of green.

It is Value Bootcamp month! Join us to dive deep into the concept of value with lessons, demos and challenges!

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Do You Do an Annual Painting? It isn't too Late!

'Another Beautiful Day'             7x12             pastel            ©Karen Margulis       available at Etsy $275

Another new year and another annual painting! Every year for the last three years I have painted the same march view for my first painitng of the year. I challenge myself to do something different. Last year my annual painitng was in oil! This year there was a double challenge. I wanted to totally change the mood and color palette of the marsh AND I had to paint with my non dominant left hand. I had a shoulder strain so I was giving my right arm a rest. I loved this double challenge to start the year! It is also great fun to compare the new painting to the previous versions. (Scroll down to see them)

I encourage you to start this New Year exercise if you haven't already. It is a great way to see your progress form year to year and it is fun to revisit an old friend every year. What a wonderful way to start the year. ....without fear!  If you want to start, it isn't too late. Choose a favorite subject and paint. Make sure you take a photo so you have a reference should your original be sold or lost! 

Here are the pastels I used for the painting. They are a combination of Terry Ludwig and Diane Townsend Soft form pastels. I am also working on a piece of Mingart sanded paper in a dark charcoal color.  I made swatches of the pastels I used so you can see them more clearly. This is something new I am doing for all of my Patreon demos!

 Join us on Patreon this year! We are sharing our annual paintings on the community page. $4 a month gives you access to a wonderful community of artists and so much more!

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Painting with my Non Dominant Hand and Patreon Index!

      'Fairytale Forest'              9x12             pastel            ©Karen Margulis    available on Etsy $195

I have been away from the easel for the past two weeks. I strained my shoulder and needed to give it a rest! It was good to regroup and relax after a crazy year! My shoulder is not 100% but I just can't stay away from the easel any longer! I decided it would be good to paint with my non dominant left hand for awhile. After a few awkward marks it felt better. This all blue painitng is my first attempt. The next one was better with more control. Although I like the abstract quality of this one! It may be the start of something interesting for the new year?

What are you planning for your art life in 2021?  I have moved most of my workshops to an online format once again. I will be adding more variety in offerings as well. I have also added now content to my Patreon group. There will now be lessons broken into levels. I will have a Beginner's Corner, a Next Level intermediate offering and the In the Zone advanced lessons. I am so excited for another full year of sharing on Patreon! If you have ever considered joining or coming back have a look at the index I am sharing below. I have three years of content all available to patrons for just a $4 or $6 monthly pledge. And now you can easily find the older content. 

If you are looking for a group of supportive like minded artists and a way to get motivated to paint and really improve your paintings consider joining us this year!  Have a look at


Sunday, December 27, 2020

New Video Demo Release! Working with a Budget Limited Palette Set of Pastels

                       9x12 pastel on Uart 400 with Daler Rowney Pastels         ©Karen Margulis       sold  

If you are just getting started with pastels you may not have many pastels or you may not wish to invest a lot of money right away. You can paint with a small set of limited palette pastels! In February 2020 on my Patreon Page we explored a budget set of 16 pastels. I am now releasing this Patreon demo video to show you how you can paint a marsh with a very limited set of pastels! Click here to watch the video on my YouTube channel:

Consider joining me on Patreon for much more on working with budget pastels sets! This year I will be reviewing moderate priced sets! I just ordered 3 half stick sets from Dakota Pastels and I can't wait to use them! 

I used the Daler Rowney set of 16 pastels for my demos and lessons. I am told that the Blick brand soft pastel is the same. You can find a similar set here:


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Challenge: Use ONLY Nupastels!

        'Winter Comes Softly'                 8x10                 pastel                 ©Karen Margulis      $255 on Etsy

I have box lids filled with Nupastels in various states of use. I tend to use them at the end stage of a painting especially those with a lot of grass and weeds! But I do also use harder pastels such as Nupastels for wet underpaintings. Hard pastels don't fill the tooth of the paper as quickly as the softer pastels and don't get gummy when wet.

Last week I was doing an alcohol wash underpainting with Nupastels when it occurred to me that it would be a fun challenge to keep using the Nupastels for the entire painting. I know there are many artists who do this but I tend to want the softer pastels to give me more variety and thicker marks. Would I be frustrated with just the Nupastels?

After a successful start and a few additional layers I was tempted to end the challenge. I wanted to grab my softer pastels for the snow. But I persisted. I just pressed much harder when it came to painting the thicker snow drifts. In the end I was able to stick with the challenge and I liked it so much that I painted three more winter scenes with Nupastels only!

Will I retire my softer pastels? No! But it is great to know that it is possible to have success with the less expensive harder pastels.  Note that I used LuxArchival sanded paper which is a dream! I need to now expand my challenge to Nupastels on Canson unsanded paper!

                                        a selection of Nupastels that I used for this painting      

The painting after the first layer and an alcohol wash

Join us over on Patreon for more on using hard pastels!                                  


Friday, December 18, 2020

Hold Back on the White when Painting Snow!

       'Winter Sun'                   8x10                 pastel                 ©Karen Margulis      sold

I never use white pastels. Well.....maybe sometimes but very rarely do I ever use a pure white stick of pastel in a painting.  I recently bought a chalkboard and chalk (for fun) and it reminded me of how chalky a pure white pastel can look. I prefer colorful lights.  When something is supposed to be white like clouds or snow I first look for the colors that are present in the surroundings. White things reflect the colors that surround them so they rarely appear pure chalky white.

When I am faced with painting something white I reach for my favorite light pastels...Diane Townsend Soft pastels. These lights are almost white but lean towards a pale color.  I call them 'Almost Whites'.  I love love Terry Ludwig, Sennelier and Schminke Almost Whites but I seem to reach most often for the Diane Townsends. I like the ever so slight gritty texture and how it they sound scratchy when using them.

I don't use a specific color name but when I am low I just order open stock. I like to keep a pale (almost white) version of each primary and secondary color on the color, blue, yellow,orange,violet and green.  Basically I want a warm and cool light.

The next time you are painting something white and reach for the pure white....stop and look for the color. Choose a pale light instead of the white. Reserve that pure white for the highlight if it is even necessary.


Monday, December 14, 2020

A Tip for Working on a Textured Surface with Pastels

                         ' City Sidewalks'          10x8            pastel            ©Karen Margulis     $250

I am working on a winter cityscape series and I am hooked on this surface!  I have used these home made boards in the past and I love them but I am finding them to be a great choice for these cityscapes. I made the boards by using tinted clear gesso on Canson art boards. I tinted the gesso with some mid value warm brown acrylic paint an applied it with random brushstrokes onto the board. I also prepped some boards with acrylic micaceous oxide paint which is a gritty dark gray paint. 

After working with these textured boards for awhile I have discovered some techniques that work to make paintings on the boards more successful. It can be a challenge to paint on the rough surface. Not only does the texture eat up pastels faster than smoother surfaces, the texture can be frustrating. It is difficult to get fine detail. This is one of the reasons I love the texture but if you are used to painting with fine detail the boards just don't allow it!

One of the ways I overcome this texture issue is to use hard pastels for the first few layers of the painting. I like to apply a layer of Nupastels and rub in this layer into the surface. This starts to fill in the grooves of the surface making it easier to apply subsequent layers of pastel. The texture will still come through in the final painting but it will be subtle and will add interest. The subsequent soft pastel layers go on the surface easily without getting used up as quickly!

Here is a photo of the surface before any pastel is applied. I used a variety of Nupastels to paint the first layer. I then use a piece of pipe insulation foam rub in this first layer. I love this surface and this technique and can't wait for my next painting!

 Head over to my Patreon group for a step by step demo of this painting. It is only a $4 monthly pledge that you can cancel at anytime!

Thursday, December 10, 2020

It is Time to Add to Your Pastel Collection!

                          'Old Town Memories'              12x9             pastel        Karen Margulis.     $275

I have a big studio box of pastels. It is a comprehensive set made of a variety of pastels covering a range of values and colors. However I like to keep some special sets separate and I take them out when a subject calls for the palette of the set. I keep my curated Floral Landscape Terry Ludwig set, the Richard McKinley set, the Marsha Savage set and the Red Rocks Landscape set. This is the set I used for the demo painting in this post. 
Here is a description of this set from the Terry Ludwig website

From The Garden of the Gods to the Ridgebacks, this set was inspired by the majestic Colorado red rocks to capture the vibrancy of the landscape.  This 60 piece set includes all new colors and was designed as a stand-alone for the artist to work straight from the box to capture water, land and sky.  This set was released, July, 2018.

Of course it is perfect for red rock country but it is also great for a lot more landscape settings. I have put it to the test with many paintings! I decided it would be great for this recent Patreon demo. I knew the colors would be good for the adobe buildings. I did have to add a few bright pink flower colors but otherwise the set was all I needed! The full demo is available on Patreon. 

 Terry Ludwig is having a sale! All sets are 20% off until December 30th. Now is a great time to add to your pastel collection with my favorite pastels!

Monday, December 07, 2020

My Favorite Pastel Paper for Winter Birds

             'Winter Peace'                      6x8                  pastel                  ©Karen Margulis       $135

I love to paint birds. Every once in awhile I like to take a break from landscapes and paint some birds. When I want to paint birdsI turn to my favorite surface for animals...Sennelier La Carte Pastel Card. It has just the right feel and tooth that allows me to get a soft painterly look in my animals. I can get fine detail if I want or soft dreamy edges. La Carte paper does have pros and cons but it is definitely worth trying.

La Carte is a sanded surface made by hand application of vegetable flake and cork to a 200lb card stock. It comes in 14 colors. The surface is very uniform and is able to accept many layers of pastel. I got 50 layers on my test. I would never even come close to applying that many layers.

The paper does have some drawbacks but for me the benefits outweigh these issues. It is important to know that the binder will dissolve in water so this paper cannot get wet. That means no wet underpaintings and you even need to be careful not to blow or even sneeze on the paper. Make sure your hands are dry! The vegetable sanded surface can be rubbed off if you brush it or rub too hard so I prefer not to hand blend and let my pastels do the blending. It can also be easily dented so if you press too hard with your drawing tool then you may have indented lines. I use a Nupastel for my drawing and I use a light touch. I find that I prefer to use my softest pastels for this paper and I never do an underpainting.

I don't want to scare anyone away from this paper because I actually really love it. Give it a try and see what you think! 

Information about Sennelier LaCarte Pastel Card from the Blick website:

Sennelier applies finely ground, pH neutral vegetable flakes by hand to a 200 lb, pH neutral board stock, creating a paper that is slightly abrasive, yet has a perfectly smooth and uniform tooth. This greatly enhances pigment adhesion, so that less fixative is required. It offers an excellent surface for any dry media.
Individual sheets measure 19" × 25" (48 cm × 63 cm). Use of wet media not recommended.

       'Winter Peace II'                       6x8               pastel                ©Karen Margulis          $135

Please consider joining my Patreon group for a $4 monthly pledge. Today I am sharing a demo of the chickadee painting!

Friday, December 04, 2020

New YouTube Video Release! How to Paint a Moody Winter Landscape

          'Winter in the Park'                 9x12                pastel              ©Karen Margulis          sold

This is one of my favorite winter paintings. I painted it last year for my Patreon group. I am now releasing it to my YouTube channel!  It is a 9x12 pastel painting on Uart Dark sanded pastel paper. I used a variety of pastels including the Blue Earth Nomad set which has wonderful moody neutral colors.  Click on the link to see the video. Be sure to give it a thumbs up or make a comment and I would love for you to subscribe to my channel!


 Below is a photo of my demo board. I had done a small study before painting the demo. 

Here is a photo of the painting at the end of the video. I did spend a few minuted after the video stopped to add some finishing details. Look at the finished version to see what details I added. 

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Which Comes First? Buildings or Snow? Painting a Winter Cityscape

    'Winter in the City'               9x12              pastel            ©Karen Margulis                    sold

 I love painting snow and winter and one of my favorite winter motifs is the city in winter. My son and family used to live in Chicago and I would alway make sure to make winter visits. Sometimes I was lucky and we had some snow. I cherish these reference photos as they now live here in Atlanta. (I will give up the snow pictures for that!) Today I painted from one of these photos and I had to make a decision.

What should I paint first? The buildings of the city and the trees or the snow?

The answer for me is to completely paint the buildings and trees and then cover them with snow. It looks and feels odd as the painting progresses but it is necessary so that the light values of the snow can be crisp and clean. I gradually build up the layers of pastel with wide marks to suggest the buildings and back and forth marks to paint the evergreen trees.  

Then the fun begins and I can build up the snow on the grounding on the tree branches. The final touch is to add the falling snow which I do by shaving some white pastel and creating a dusting of snow over the painting. I press this dust in with my hand with the painting under glassine paper. 

                        Here is the painting at an early stage. I have blocked in all the main shapes. 

Here is a close up of the dusting process. I use the edge of a bankers clip or palette knife to shave some soft pastel letting it gently fall over the painting. 

I have the complete demo of this painting over on my Patreon site.