Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Making a Marsh Painting Better

'Home'              11x14             pastel           ©Karen Margulis
 We could smell the salty air mixed with the unmistakeable smell of low tide.  Ahhhh, we felt our spirits lift as we rolled down the car windows and breathed in deeply. We knew we were close.  It was time to go on the lookout for the whitebirds.  That's what we call egrets of any kind.  We are always a little premature with our sightings though. Calling out "White Bird!" only to discover it is a white plastic bag hung up on a bush.   "It's only a bag bird."  Such is the conversation on a road trip to the marsh.

What is a marsh without birds? A beautiful landscape to be sure. But part of what makes a marsh so special is the life it contains. Birds, crabs, fish....they all add to the sights and sounds of the wetlands.  I love to paint the marsh but it occurred to me that I rarely include any signs of life. My marshes are deserted. They need a hint of this hidden world.

So today after finishing this march painting I decided to add some life. I needed a white bird or some kind of egret or heron. But how should I go about it?

My painting with a few of my bird photos for review

What kind of bird should I paint?  Where should he go?  I decided I wanted my bird to be hidden in the grasses perhaps somewhere in the foreground. I took out a few of my own bird photos. Since I print them out as small contact sheet size photos it was easy to line them up and visualize how they might look.  I knew I didn't want my bird to be too detailed....just a hint.

I chose to put in a snowy personal favorite. I mage a small mark of pale blue for the shadow side of my snowy and then a mark of a pale yellow (almost white) for the sunlit side. I use a small piece of Girault pastel to paint the orange and black beak. I painted in some more grasses to hide him better.

close up of my white bird!

This is the marsh I know and love! I think I like a little bit of life in my landscapes!

What about you? Do you paint only pure landscapes or do you like to add signs of life...either animal or manmade? 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Three Easy Steps to Choosing Pastels for Plein Air

'Along the Rio Grande'              5x7              pastel         ©Karen Margulis
Make it Work. That is my motto when it comes to downsizing my pastels for plein air. It's Tim Gunn's catchphrase for his fashion designers but it applies nicely to painting.  Once I realized I didn't need every pastel in my box for a plein air trip it literally lifted a huge load off my shoulders. I can take just enough pastels to fit in whatever travel box I am using. If I don't have the "right" pastel I will just have to make it work!

I do have a method I follow when packing for a plein air trip. It helps ensure that I have a good selection of pastels. It's as easy as 1-2-3. Follow along as I pack for my next great adventure...a painting trip next week with artist friends in Phoenix AZ.

making a list and checking it twice...step 2
Step 1:  Choose your Box.  I have a backpack size Heilman box which I love. I only bring it to longer workshops and classes. Usually when  I travel with pastels I prefer a smaller set up. My favorite box is Stan Sperlak's Gogh Box (see my review here)  This is a small box that holds everything you need to paint and mounts on a tripod.  There is room for a small box of pastels, paper, backing board.  For this trip I am bringing my Great American Plein Air half stick set. The box is very sturdy and fits in the Gogh Box perfectly.

 I usually cram my pastels into a cardboard box but I tripped over my tripod with  Gogh Box while it was closed and the box along with the cardboard box of pastels crashed to the floor shattering the box of pastels. I am going to test out this Great American box on this trip.

I rigged the Gogh Box to hold a small box of extras plus a working palette tray

STEP 2:  Choose Your Pastels. The formula is to have a dark, middle and light value of each color. You don't need a full stick of each. Smaller pieces are fine. I won't paint larger than 8x10 so small pieces of pastels will work.  I make a chart as I go through my pastels and mark off when I find the right color and value. I make sure I have a nice rich dark...My Terry Ludwig eggplant and a beautiful light value cloud pastel. I also consider the painting location and gear my color choices to the subjects I will paint.  This step takes time!

STEP 3: Test out Your Selections. Once I have my choices in the box I find a reference for the location I will visit and try a sample painting. I pulled a few of my Arizona and New Mexico photos to try out my color choices. The more quick studies you can do the more you will be able to tweak your choices. So far I am happy with my choices. I did the two paintings in this post with my selection. I will try a few more and then.....if I don't have it I will remind myself to Make it Work!

'Come to the Desert'            5x7             pastel     $45 
More plein air and packing tips coming this week!  Top painting is on Pastelmat paper and the bottom painting is on Uart that I toned warm gray.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday Pastel Demo....Spring Landscape on Textured Board

'Forsythia Woods'             8x10           pastel              ©Karen Margulis
Forsythia is pure joy. There is not an ounce, not a glimmer of sadness or even knowledge in forsythia. Pure, undiluted, untouched joy.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Painting has something in common with forsythia. It is pure joy. I enjoyed painting today's demo. I hope you enjoy seeing  my process. I am working today on a textured board. It is an 8x10 piece of gatorboard that I applied a pumice and gesso mix in random brushstrokes. The mixture was tone with yellow liquid acrylic paint. I love working on this surface and I need to make some more soon!

I begin by choosing the pastels I will use for the painting and lining them up in my working tray. I then do a loose drawing with compresses charcoal.

For the next step I block in the dark shapes using dark purples and greens. I then block in the distant foliage and trees with some muted pinks and greens.

Next I block in the shadow shapes on the path and grass. I reinforce the shapes of the tree trunks with the charcoal. I want to make sure they are interesting shapes and have a varied spacing between them.

Time to block in the sky. I choose a pale warm blue and use this sky color to break up the tree shapes.

 In these two photos I am working on the grasses and path. I have also put in some of the thinner branches.

Now I am working on the last layers.  I add some bright green to the sunlit areas in the grass. I also start to develop the big forsythia bush in the foreground.  I want it to appear unruly and textured.  The texture of the prepared surface helps. I want more though. I spray it a couple of times with fixative and add more layers of yellow pastel.

Finally I add some highlights to the trees and some more branches. I then took a very soft Schminke pastel and added the brightest yellows to the forsythia bush. Click on the photo to enlarge it so you can see the texture of the board up close.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

How to Paint a Mini Pastel pastel demo

'Across the River II'          2.5 x 3.5       pastel        ©Karen Margulis    
click here to purchase $15
 It is the most satisfying way to paint. Instant gratification.  Using scraps of paper, a few pastels and sitting down at a table I can finish a painting in a very limited time.  Painting minis allow me to play with color and composition without the worry of wasting a bigger piece of paper.They are not always successful but it is so easy to put the bad ones aside and keep on painting.

'Across the River'            2.5 x 3.5        pastel         ©Karen Margulis
I have a method that I follow when painting these minis. I don't use pastel pencils or even hard pastels. I don't use tiny pieces to get the small details. I use regular soft pastels. Practice helps!  I have been asked to share my technique and tips for minis so I thought it would make a good addition to my PDF Demo collection.  This demo download is now available in my Etsy shop for $5 or as a free bonus with the purchase of one of my mini originals also in my Etsy shop. Click here to see all available minis

My step by step demo on painting very small

Displaying a mini pastel

'Through the Sunflower Meadow'      2.5x3.5      pastel    $15

A sample page of the demo

Did you recognize the painting at the top of the page? This was the mini that inspired my larger 18x24 version that I posted last week!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Importance of Mystery in a Painting

'Emergence'          12x16          pastel over watercolor       ©Karen Margulis
available for purchase $165

"A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people." Edgar Degas

I love a good mystery story. Something that pulls me in and makes me think. I like it when a writer can give me just enough information to keep me hooked. I want to keep reading.  I'd like to be a mystery painter!  I'd like to tell a good mystery story with my painting.  It is my goal to put in just enough detail to tell the story but not to give away the ending right away!  I want the viewer to linger and to discover the bits and pieces that tell the story of the painting.

This quote from Edgar Degas speaks to me. It is something I have been working on in my paintings. How do I  introduce mystery into my work?  Wet underpaintings help.

Today's painting was done with a watercolor underpainting and tried to leave some areas to the imagination. Here are some close-ups:

Not every petal is painted and I only used a thin veil of pastel over the watercolor

Very soft edges hint at a flower. Soft edges add mystery

I tried to be  loose and free with my strokes. Bolder more opaque pastel contrasts with the thin pastel over watercolor

Friday, April 11, 2014

Keeping Plein Air Painting Simple

'A Breath Of Fresh Air'             5x7         plein air pastel        ©Karen Margulis
Available for purchase $45
You don't need the kitchen sink!  I have figured out that the more stuff I pack for a plein air outing the less enjoyable it is. The best and most productive experiences happen when I keep my supply list and packing simple.

Did you  know there is a Pastel Supply Bell Curve?

It applies to regular pastel supplies and plein air supplies and often occurs at the same rate.  We start out with only a few pastels and some paper....this collection quickly grows as we discover new brands and colors we must have. Then comes a box or two or three until we figure out what we like.  Then an easel and if we take classes or do plein air we need some kind of cart to haul it in or just the right bag to put it all in. I can't even count the number of carts and bags I have gone through. (I think I am on my last and best!)

This accumulation of supplies continues until it reaches a peak.  We eventually get to a point where we are tired of hauling around all of the stuff. We want to downsize and simplify. We figure out that we don't need every single pastel or supply that we own to carry to class or out in the field. We can paint with less and we are just as happy!

I am currently at the end of the curve. I have pared down my plein air supplies to the bare minimum. And I feel so free!  It is all about adjusting the mindset and goals for painting outside. Once I decided that plein air was about doing quick studies I was able to let go of a lot of unnecessary stuff. 

A quick & easy set up for plein air
Here is a peek at my current plein air set up.  I have my Gogh Box on a tripod and I am only using the Great American Artworks Plein air half stick set and a few Nupastels. I have one backpack to put it all in.

 I am going to do a detailed post next week on my actual supply list but I wanted to get you thinking about where you are on the supply curve. Are you still collecting or are you ready to downsize?  Stay tuned for a lot more!

'Spring Fever'    5x7     pastel       sold

'Spring Tango'          5x7          $45

All of today's paintings were done on location at the Taylor Brawner House in Smryna Georgia. I have my work on exhibit along with 13 other talented artists through this weekend.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Choosing Underpainting Colors for a Large Painting

'Listen to the Marsh Music'             18x24           pastel         ©Karen Margulis
purchase with Paypal $350 click here
 It all began with blue violet. I was planning another large demo and choosing my palette.  I would be using a full sheet of Uart 600 paper 18x24.  That is big for this 5x7 painter.  I love Uart but I knew I had a limited time for the demo so I decided to do a dry wash of color for my first layer. This way I could paint quickly with a minimal number of layers.  I wouldn't have to worry about the light paper tone peeking through and being a distraction.

As I started to fill my tray with potential colors for the painting I decided to consult my Analogous Color Wheel to help me choose the underpainting colors.  The color wheel suggested Blue Violet as the compliment of my dominant hues. Ahhhh perfect. I love blue violet and I might not have thought to use it for the underpainting!

detail of distant marsh with discord color
The analogous color wheel also helped me choose some of my spice colors. I especially love the suggested discord of red I used some hot pink!  Choosing my colors in advance with the help of the color wheel allowed me to paint quickly and more intuitively.  It was so much fun to share the creation of this painting with my class.

my palette

My reference photo and small color study

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Why You Should Use Your Own Reference Photos

'Maybe Tomorrow'                  18x24             pastel           ©Karen Margulis
available for purchase $350
They came to this spot every evening at precisely the same time. They had been coming for 30 years. They used to walk hand in hand now they arrive every night on a golf cart. They park and they wait. They wouldn't miss it for anything. Even if the sky was dark and gray, heavy with clouds they still came.  "Sometimes the most dreary of days ends in a beautiful sky when the sun sinks behind the trees" he told us.

So they came and they waited.  We decided to come one evening. We had been told this was the best spot on the island for the sunset. Even though it was gray and dreary we thought it might be worth a try. That's when we met them. And they told us that in their travels around the world nothing could match the sunset from this magical spot....home for them.

We didn't get a sunset that evening but we did make a memory. We met people who appreciated the quiet beauty of day's end even without a spectacular sunset. This painting is my tribute to that evening.

close up detail....a variety of marks
I have a photo of this evening....the non sunset. The photo reminds me of the hour we spent standing at the edge of the river, batting away the mosquitos as we waited along with the regulars and a friendly tabby cat.  When I use this photo as a painting reference  it allows my painting to have a story. It means something to me. It evokes strong feelings and memories.....feelings I can express in the painting. Only I can tell this story.

When you use photos that you didn't take....borrowed from image libraries or magazines or don't know the story behind the photo. You can copy it maybe even interpret it in your own way but you can never feel it the way you would if it was a photo of your very own memory.

Your paintings deserve their own story. Make a commitment to use your own photos.

Today's painting was the end of session 18x24 demo I did for my Wednesday morning pastel class. Thank you to a great group of artists!  (Uart 600)

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

A Magic Trick for Painting Reflections with Pastels

'Evening Song'              18x24              pastel              ©Karen Margulis
available $350 click here to purchase
A little magic makes painting fun!  Painting really is magic if you think about it. I am always amazed at how we can create a three dimensional reality on a flat pieces of paper with a handful of chalks.  Everything we do to create this reality is an illusion....creating depth, making water look wet, making something look hot or goes on and on.  Any little tool I can use to help me create this illusion is always welcome.  Here is one you might like to try:

It's an eraser.  But not just any's a Magic Rub eraser by Sanford.   Just what we need ......a little magic!

The Magic Rub erase in action

To create believable reflections in the water I want to make them softer than the object that is being reflected.  I also want to make them look like they are in the water and not just shapes on the ground.  To do this I take the colors I am using to block in the shapes ABOVE the water and paint them IN the water using vertical strokes. (the water will be painted with horizontal strokes)

I often use my fingers to drag the color down into the water, pulling them vertically.  For larger areas of reflections such as in today's BIG 18x24 demo, I used the Magic Rub eraser to drag the reflections into the water and softening them. I press down hard on the eraser allowing it to pick up pastel and pulling it into the water.  It works great!  Next I put in the water using very light horizontal strokes.

I love magic!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Monday Mini Pastel Demo:Mountain Meadow with Alcohol Wash

'Pink Haze'             8x10          pastel         ©Karen Margulis
click here to purchase $125
You have to have some dirt!  Nothing can grow without the dirt.  I love starting a pastel landscape with a value alcohol wash because it lays down some dirt.  I can build upon the value masses and add the greens and the flowers. It gives them a base to grown on! 

 I began this painting with a dark blue Nupastel. I massed in the big simple shapes of darks, lights and middle values and washed them in with some rubbing alcohol and a brush. The painting went through a color transformation near the end because I decided to add some pink instead of orange.  Follow along and see the progression of the painting!  It is 8x10 on Uart 600 grit.

 My reference photo (very very green) and the value alcohol wash. I'm ready for pastel!

I begin my reinforcing all of the dark shapes using several dark value pastels. A bit lighter and cooler in the distant trees.

I complete the sky using a few blues and pale yellow pastels lightly layered. I break up the tree with some sky holes.

Now I add some greens to the big tree. A lightly applied mix of warm/neutral greens. I love my Terry Ludwig greens!

Next I add the mountain using a mix of blue and blue-gray pastels. I make 'mountain holes' in the tree.

I need some more colorful dirt for my greens so I choose several values of orange. (secret of green)

I begin to layer some green in the grasses using lighter, cooler greens in the distance.

I add some chunkier greens in the foreground and a lighter green on the mowed path.

Here is where I decided to make a color change. I like the peach....but I just used this same color palette in yesterday's painting. To mix it up I decided to go with pink. I layer some pinks in the grasses and add some pink to the sky.

Finishing touches: I spray the tree and foreground with workable fixative so I can get some texture. I add more greens and pinks in the tree and meadow. I put in some hints of pink flowers and grasses in the foreground. Finished!

If you would like to try the value underpainting I have a pdf demo available showing this technique using turpenoid.  You can see details in my Etsy shop here.