Thursday, August 25, 2016

Master Color with These Must Have Books

'Where Poppies Grow'           8x10         pastel         ©Karen Margulis
available $225
 I could not have asked for better news. The day that Nita Leland asked me to be a part of her newly updated book  Exploring Color was a dream come true. I have been such a fan of her books. They have truly been the key to helping this self-taught artist understand color. Whenever I had a color question these books have been my go-to resource. Whenever I felt like I was in a color rut I would open up one of the books and be filled with inspiration and ideas. I always recommended her books to my students. They are easy to understand and beautifully illustrated.

So when Nita asked if I would do a demo for the 30th anniversary edition of Exploring Color I was beyond excited. It was such a pleasure working with Nita on my part of the book. And now months later it is available! I immediately ordered a special package deal from Northlight which includes the new book Exploring Color, Confident Color and Nita's own Color Scheme Selector. I just checked and the kit is out of stock (8/25/16) but the books are available.

Visit Nita Leland's website

I just received the package and I can't wait to dive into it and read this new edition. Of course the color wheel/color scheme selector intrigues me and I can't wait to try it out. I will be sharing my discoveries here on the blog.

If you are looking for a comprehensive and practical book about color be sure to order Nita's books. I will be writing a more detailed review of the new book and color scheme selector soon but I wanted to share the news with you!

My demo spread in Exploring Color

This is step one of the demo. See all steps in the book!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Painting on Wet Paper...An Experiment

'It Was Just a Dream'         9x11         pastel         ©Karen Margulis
available $145
The package said waterproof sandpaper. I was intrigued. And it was black. Even more intriguing. I wonder what would happen if I used it for pastels? It was wet sanding sandpaper so it wouldn't be archival but it would be fun to play with.

I decided to make the most of the waterproof quality of the paper and wet the paper before I started to paint. I once had an Russian artist come to my studio for a lesson and she always painted on wet paper. In fact she seemed surprised that I didn't wet my paper before applying pastel!

I taped the paper to my coated foamcore board and sprayed it until it was quite wet. Next I used a Nupastel to draw the big shapes of my scene. The pastel just melted on the wet surface. It felt wonderful!

I then took out my softer pastels.They too melted and became paint as they glided across the wet surface. I loved the first pass with pastels but I found that I wasn't able to layer the same way as when the paper was dry. The wet pastel layers were actually mixing together and making mud. I kept spraying the paper and letting areas drip and mix even further.

I felt like a kid discovering paint for the first time! I couldn't stop adding pastel even though I was making a muddy mess. The feeling of the thickness of the wet pastel was wonderful. Surprisingly painting on the wet paper didn't really use up much of the pastel stick. After awhile though I had to admit defeat. The experiment was not a success. I had gone too far.

The painting was still wet so before heading upstairs for lunch I took out a piece of pipe foam insulation and smooshed the pastel around. I left a vague impression of my river and trees. I then took out a metal banker's clip and scraped through the pastels. The scrap marks left some interesting linear marks. Still a mess but I had fun.

I came back down to the studio after lunch and the pastel was dry. I decided to finish the experiment and add some pastel on the dried surface. A curious and wonderful thing happened. All of the dried pastel had created raised areas. The texture of the paper itself was also evident. When I scumbled some pastel on top of this newly textured surface the results were unexpected and interesting. I love experiments!

close up detail

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why Bother with Plein Air Painting?

'Back to Abiquiu'        18x24        pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $450
 It has been a long time coming. I have been wanting to paint this scene for a couple of years now. My plan was to take the little field study I painted and paint a larger version in the studio. I envisioned it big ... 18x24 which is big for me. I framed the little study because it came attached with great memories. It sat in my studio and I would look at it and tell myself that someday I would paint it larger. Today was the day. But did I wait too long? I was a bit concerned as I took out a full sheet of Uart paper.

Would I remember the place and be able to capture how I felt about it after a few years had passed?

I need not have feared. As soon as I took a good look at the little 5x7 study it all came flooding back. I recalled every detail of the afternoon painting on the bluff overlooking the Chama River. I remember it was a warm day but with a gentle cooling breeze. I remember taking out a piece of 5x7 paper and deciding to tone it orange because of all of the warm rocks underlying the scrubby bushes. I remember hearing the water and some ravens. I remember feeling at peace....happy to be in New Mexico and enjoying the first day of a mentoring workshop with Richard McKinley. Looking at the little study brought back the memories that all of my senses took in that afternoon.

The 18x24 painting with the 5x7 study
I don't think I could have recalled the place so well by looking at a photograph. The time I took to paint the choose the immerse myself, allowed it to become a part of me. It was worth the time and effort required to take supplies outside to paint.

Why bother? I was once asked. Why hassle with equipment and the elements when you can paint in the comfort of a studio? Why? Because it is the best way to really see what photos miss. It is a wonderful way to fully experience your subject. It is the best way to put more of yourself into a painting. Your response to a place live and in person is better than relying only on a photo.

I did an alcohol wash underpainting for the large painting
Here is an excerpt from the blog post I wrote on the day I painted the study:

 We painted from morning until the sun sank behind the cliffs. It is a dream come true. The opportunity to paint in such an inspiring place with a group of artists who are passionate about what they do is priceless. Today was the first day of the workshop with Richard McKinley and since this is a mentoring or next level workshop the morning meeting was short but filled with great advice. Richard issued us a challenge for the week: To be more conceptual....go more present.....go beyond the mechanics of painting....go farther! 
Our first painting location was a spot high above the Chama River. Yesterday I painted at the river I was like a raven soaring over the river as it rounded the bend. It was fantastic. I did 4 studies and had a wonderful time.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Another Painting Transformation. Step by Step

'Reawakening'           13x18          pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $175
This one should have gone into the trash. It was a demo I did last winter for a group of school children for their Art Day. They were choosing the subject as I painted and suggested a tree, water, guy fishing and I have no idea what the red things are supposed to be!  It was fun and the kids loved it but it was a painting destined for the bin.   On top of that it was on Canson Mi-Teintes unsanded paper which doesn't usually take to much abuse.....or does it!?

Today I decided not to throw the paper away and see what I could do with it. Was there any hope? Below I walk you step by step to the save!

This is the demo painting. It is on terra cotta Canson Mi-Teintes paper. I took a stiff brush tried to remove as much pastel as possible. I was left with some dark shapes. I sprayed the paper with workable fixative and let it dry.

I decided to reinvent the painting and turn it into an autumn marsh scene. I had a reference photo for inspiration. (bottom of post) I set to work with a dark blue and dark burgundy pastel to introduce the dark shapes of the bushes and distant trees.

I repainted the sky and added some clouds. I painted the distant trees and marsh and added the blue water. I dealt with the foreground last.  As you can see in the photo above I had to darken the foreground with fixative. This also allowed me to continue building layers and getting the texture of the autumn weeds. I would say I sprayed and painted the foreground 4 times! Yes Canson can take it!

The final touches were in the foreground. I used the sharp edges of Rembrandt  pastels to paint grass and a very soft Sennelier pastel to paint the light fluffy blooms.  I used Terry Ludwig pastels for all other areas of the painting.

close up of foreground
 So the fishing guy and the red things are now history. There is really nothing more satisfying than the challenge of taking a mess and reinventing it into something interesting.

reference photo

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday Studio Live Demo: Choosing a Pastel Palette for a Marsh Painting

'Moody Marsh'         9x12        pastel         ©Karen Margulis
available $145
It was bound to happen. Technical difficulties with my weekly live videos! At least it happened at a convenient cut-off point. And I probably could figure out how to edit them together but for now they are two separate videos. My camera man husband accidentally pressed the finished button when I wasn't finished! The perils of live video!  Here is a recap in cased you missed the videos.

In the first 7 minute video I talked about how I choose pastels for a painting. I put my working palette into a butcher tray so that I am working with a limited palette. Having ALL of my pastels available when I paint is a recipe for color chaos!

Choosing pastels for a painting

Steps to choosing a working palette

  • Do a small black and white thumbnail. 
  • Decide on main colors (color scheme) I usually choose by intuition but will sometimes consult a color wheel.
  • Test main colors on the thumbnail or scrap paper.
  • Once main colors are selected I add them to a tray and choose the remainder of the pastels.
  • I add the pastels to the tray and keep them grouped by LANDSCAPE ELEMENT.
  • I usually consider VALUE first then color. Local color if used at all comes last. I think about layering color.
  • I start adding colors to the tray by selecting my darkest values for the darkest parts of the painting . I usually choose 4-5 pastels of the same value for the darks.
  • Then I select the LIGHTS. In a landscape this is usually the sky. I keep them in the 'sky pile'
  • Then I select pastels for the remaining elements of the scene....distant trees, grass, flowers, etc. I also choose middle value pastels to layer under any grass. This is the dirt.

That's it! Now I have a limited palette that keeps me out of trouble. If I need to add more pastels I will add them to the tray so I can keep track and try to reuse rather than reach for a new pastel.

The pastels selected for today's painting 
You can watch the video of the painting demonstration on my YouTube channel. Here is the link.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Repurpose Pastel Paper with A Twist

'Good Olde Summertime'          11x14        pastel         ©Karen Margulis
I seem to be on a Recycle Roll. I was left with several pieces of Uart sanded paper covered with blue after my sky workshop. Instead of throwing them out (Never!) or adding them to my pile I decided to tackle them and turn them into useful underpaintings.

Again the blue paper chose the subject. I had a perfect Queen Annes Lace reference photo for the larger paper. But this time instead of just wetting the blue pastel and toning the paper, I decided to add some texture. Texture would be perfect for a wild stand of weeds and grasses!

left over demos on Uart paper
Adding texture was easy to do. I took some clear gesso and a brush and applied it in random brushstrokes. The gesso liquified the pastel and I was able to move it around like thick paint! The Clear gesso dries.....Clear! And unlike regular gesso it has a light grittiness to it which adds tooth to the paper. If you haven't tried using clear gesso for making pastel surfaces add it to your list!

Below is the resulting paper after applying the clear gesso. It took about an hour to dry.

texture with pastel and clear gesso
 The results were satisfying! I was able to get a suggestion of grasses when I dragged the pastel over the nooks and crannies left by the gesso. The little bits of blue peeking through my pastel layers added an airy delicate feeling to the scene....perfect for flowers such as the Queen Anne's Lace!

a close up view
That was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. I'll be sharing the results from the other pieces of paper this week.

Friday, August 19, 2016

When the Underpainting Chooses the Subject

'A Moment of Silence'         9x12       pastel        ©Karen Margulis
Never waste a good piece of paper is my motto. So as I cleaned and organized the studio after my Sky workshop I needed to decide what to do with my scrap demo papers. I had a few pieces of Uart that I used to demonstrate various points about painting blue skies and clouds. Good paper covered in blue pastel!  I don't usually work on a blue toned surface but why not give it a try!

A stiff brush and some turpenoid allowed me to quickly spread the blue pastel and tone the sanded paper. It dried quickly and I was ready to paint.  But I had no idea what I would paint on the blue paper!

Art paper toned blue reminds me of my grandmother's bedroom when I was a child
Most of the time I have a subject and concept for a painting and then I decide on the paper type and underpainting technique. This approach allows me to choose the technique and colors that would help me to express my ideas. For example I love to do an oil stain underpainting for a field or meadow because the unusual drips help promote the illusion of grasses and weeds.

But now I was working backwards....I had the paper but I needed the right subject for the blue paper.  I skimmed through my basket of my reference photos that I recently printed (more on this soon) and one image spoke to me! I love when that happens. It was a photo I took last summer while in Normandy with Stan Sperlak's Painters passport group. We had stopped in a big field overlooking the sea for a photo op and of course I was drawn to the wildflowers. The setting  was special and I was filled with emotion. It was cool and very quiet and very blue. The perfect scene to paint on my blue paper. The blue tone would loan a feeling of softness, quietness and peacefulness to the scene. 

reference photo....Normandy, France

The color Blue: I remember my grandmother's bedroom. I must have been 5 or 6 years old and I wandered into the bedroom. The curtains were open and a gentle breeze blew the curtains. They were blue sheer curtains. Everything in the room was a pale gentle blue and it was very quiet and peaceful. I remember standing there in awe. Was this what heaven was like? I'll never forget that feeling of calm.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

What Happens When You Change Underpainting Colors?

'Passing Storm'         18x24       pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $350
 I love the reference photos. It was one of those 'drive-by' shots taken from the car as the landscaped zipped by. The sky was our entertainment on the last few hours of a long drive across Texas and New Mexico. Storms on the horizon provided a changing spectacle of drama in the sky.  I took many photos of the same distant storm and they continue to provide inspiration.

The first painting I did was for my Sky workshop in Florida. For this demo I painted large and used four values of violet for a dry wash underpainting. I wanted to create interesting grays in the storm clouds and felt that violet would lend a dramatic and moody touch. This was the resulting painting.

The original painting used a violet underpainting

What would happen if I changed underpainting colors?  Could I get a stormy mood with another color palette? It is a question I ask myself whenever choosing underpainting colors? How would the color choice impact the mood and feel of the painting? There is no right or wrong answer. It really is a matter of trial and error. The more options you try the more intuitive future underpainting color choices will be.

Creating a series from a favorite reference is the perfect way to discover interesting new color palettes.

The colors I selected for the underpainting...Nupastels and Rembrandt

I decided to use the same photo for yesterday's sky workshop. But this time I would choose different underpainting colors. The first painting had a violet underpainting with golds, ochres and yellows in the final painting.  I decided to try to use blues and oranges for this version.  I tested potential colors on a paper scrap.

Since it was a quick demo I needed to do another dry underpainting. I selected a few Nupastels and a Rembrandt. I wanted a dark, a light and some middle values that would give me a head start on my blue and orange color scheme. In this version the underpainting colors were the actual local colors that I planned to use. I rubbed this layer of hard pastel into the paper with a piece of pipe foam.
(I didn't get a photo since it was a class demo)

My color sampler....trying out possible colors

What did I discover?  The underpainting colors guided me and set the tone of the painting. The resulting painting still expressed the distant dark and stormy feeling and yet I used a different set of colors.

Now I wonder what would happen if I tried turquoise for an underpainting!?! Back to the easel to find out!

'Storms on the Horizon'        18x24       pastel       $350

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sky Workshop Today! Mini Review and Book Recommendation

'Approaching'        16x16       pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $195
It was a great day. It was wonderful to welcome a talented group of artists into my studio today for a workshop. We all had our head in the clouds as we painted skies all day.  Everyone was so productive and created some amazing sky painting. As always I enjoyed sharing my ideas.

I began with rapid fire demos covering 10 of my favorite sky tips. One of my tips is to take time to learn more about the sky and be sensitive to it. Having a basic understanding of the science of the sky helps us to paint more authentic skies. It is especially important when we try to interpret bad reference photos. Having knowledge and direct observation is critical.  

During the workshop, I recommended one of my favorite go-to landscape books. "Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting" by John F. Carlson. Carlson talks about painting the sky and the graduation of color. (see my chart in the photo below) and he also has an  chapter devoted to clouds. It is a must have book for the landscape painter.

Ready to share!
After lunch the artists voted on the subject for my second demo. They selected a beach with a stormy sky. They were drawn to the contrast and drama. Of course this scene didn't follow any so called 'rules' but it was still a good lesson in designing a sky to work with the land.

I enjoyed a day of sharing with a fun group of artists and look forward to my next workshop!

NOTE: I am finalizing my workshop schedule for 2017. If you know of a good location or would like me to come to your area, send me an

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Sky Painting Tip #5 Painting the Sunset

'A Beautiful Ending'           12x18       pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $160
I love sunsets. But they can be tricky to paint. It is always a danger that they will look cliche. And it would seem almost impossible to capture their fleeting and ever-changing beauty. It doesn't keep me from trying though! I have painted many sunsets and learn with each one. I have shared my sunset painting journey over the years on the blog. I thought it would be helpful to compile a list of my favorite sunset blog articles.  Click on each link to read the post.

Choosing the right pastels for a sunset

A Favorite Tip for painting the sunset

Tips for a Magical sunset

Painting more authentic sunsets

TIP: If you go directly to my blog at you can search for any topic in the search bar on the right. I have 11 years of postings and might have addressed your questions at some point.

'Morning Splendor'        11x14       pastel       $160
Visit my etsy shop to see all of my SKY paintings. Take 25% off the price of any sky painting this week using coupon code BIGSKY click here to see paintings

Monday, August 15, 2016

How to Rescue a Failed Painting: Video Demo

'A Beautiful Tangle'          11x14       pastel      ©Karen Margulis
available $175
Another great question led to my latest Facebook live demo. I was asked for a recommendation for inexpensive sanded pastel paper. The reader was new to pastels and didn't feel like she was good enough for the pricier papers.  I know this is a common concern with artists new to pastels. They often want to wait until they are 'good enough' to use the good stuff.  Let me address this concern.


There is a reason for this. Good quality pastels and paper are a pleasure to work with and results will often be better than a struggle with inexpensive student grade supplies. Even when we are learning and not always having the greatest results the better papers are a better value because they can be REUSED and RECYCLED!

In my latest 'Sunday Studio' video I demonstrate how I recycled a piece of Uart paper. I used rubbing alcohol to turn a bad painting into an underpainting for a new start. If you don't use Facebook or missed the broadcast you can still see the video in it's raw unedited format on my YouTube channel here:

The pastels I used for today's paintings

Before I put away the pastels I used for the demo I decided to recycling another piece of Uart in the same way and paint another version of the wildflower seed heads. I hope you enjoy the video! 

'Another Tangle'       5x7        $75

my reference photo

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sky Painting Tip #5 Adding Sparkle to your Clouds

'The Evolution of the Clouds'         9x12        pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $155
It was one of those so called happy accidents. I didn't do it on purpose and when it happened I thought about changing it. After all it wasn't in my plan. But I decided to embrace it and it opened a door to something exciting! Lesson learned.

I was choosing pastels to use for my clouds. I picked out some darks for the shadows, some middle values and finally some lights for the illuminated part of the clouds. I don't usually pay too much attention to the exact color. I am more interested in getting the value I need. So I was hunting for a very light value green....almost white. I was excited to find just the right piece of pastel....until I made a mark.

It sparkled!  It shimmered! It was glittery and shiny! It was a Great American Pearlescent green pastel and a piece somehow made it into my big pastel box. 

I made another mark. And another. I started to like the resulting shimmer in my clouds. It was an accident but I was happy! I now have a new use for all of those pearlescent pastels I've sparkle!

close up of clouds. click to enlarge. Sparkle doesn't translate well in the photo.

I hope you have enjoyed the sky tips I have shared this week. If you would like more tips consider my Sky and Cloud demo booklet on Etsy. It has the step by step demo for today's painting along with much more. It is like a mini workshop pdf. Thank you to all of you who have already purchased it!

Sample pages

"The detail in this PDF is incredible and then the video to watch as well is really excellent teaching.Thanks so much."

 "Karen always gives you your money's worth! instructions are easy to understand, photos very helpful, very detailed"