Saturday, October 25, 2014

Fun with Watercolor Underpaintings

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

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

Once is not enough!

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

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

Creating a Mood with Underpainting Colors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Workshop Advice: Put on Your 'What If' Hat

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

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

Put on Your WHAT IF Hat and keep it on!

watercolor underpainting

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Confessions of a Seasonal Painter

'Reflection'             9x12            pastel            ©Karen Margulis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Block-in done without glasses

Sky holes done with my glasses on!

Monday, October 20, 2014

How to be Always Ready to Paint

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

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

Keep supplies Simple and Always Ready!

Picnic lunch and a quick field study

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Secret to an Affordable Painting Trip

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

My Plein Air Process and all of my New Mexico Paintings

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

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

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

'Late Day Majesty'       5x7     pastel     $100

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Three Goals for Plein Air Painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What to do After a Workshop or Painting Trip

'A Magnificent Day'                12x18              pastel             ©Karen Margulis
 Get in the studio and Paint!

It isn't always easy to do. When returning from a workshop it is all too easy to get caught up in the business of everyday life. There are errands to run. Unpacking. Laundry. Emails to read. All of the sudden the high from the workshop has been zapped. The inspiration and excitement from the workshop experience or trip quickly fades.

Don't let it happen. Make time to paint. Make time to have some quiet reflection on the experience. Do it while the memories are fresh. Take advantage of the high to keep going.  When I return from a workshop or painting trip I follow the same routine:

'Ghost Ranch 2'              8x10         pastel         plein air   $150

  • The week after arriving home, I schedule myself lightly if I can. The first day home is spent on unpacking, laundry, email and any catch up duties. I download my photos. I unpack and photograph my paintings. Catch up with family and love on my pets. I am the queen of multi-tasking so I can get it all done.
  • In the evenings I review and often rewrite my workshop notes. If I do it right before bed I find I percolate on the notes in my sleep. I want to revisit the notes while the information is still fresh.
  • By the second day home I make time to paint. I paint both from my photos and from the plein air studies done at the workshop. I do not touch my plein air paintings. I leave them as they are....fresh from the location. If one is unfinished, I start a new painting based upon the study. I want to have the visual reminder of my experience. I don't want to overwork it in the studio losing the emotion of the moment.
  • I will try to devote at least a couple of weeks to the subject matter from the trip. I like to work with it while it is fresh and while I am excited about it. It only reinforces what I experienced on location.
Painting Notes:  The top painting was done in the studio from a contact sheet reference photo from Abiquiu. The bottom photo is the plein air field study from the same location. In the studio I had more time to develop the painting. I could study the cloud shapes at my leisure without them changing. The plein air study captured the light and colors of that moment. Both are on Uart paper with a value block-in with warm colors.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Great Book For Painting Clouds...Become a Cloud Connaisseur

'At Day's End'                 12x18             pastel           ©Karen Margulis
available here $165
 Clouds are not always white and fluffy. But ask someone to draw a cloud and often they will be hard- edged white cotton ball shapes. It is the universal symbol for a cloud!   If we want to move beyond painting symbols we need to become cloud connoisseurs. We need to spend time looking at clouds of all kinds.....and really seeing them. Study them. What colors make up the light and shadow parts of clouds? Where is the light coming from and how does it effect the appearance of the cloud? Do they have soft or hard edges? How do they interact with the sky?  How do the weather conditions effect the type of clouds that appear?

I am learning to be a cloud connoisseur. I love visiting places where I have a clear view of the sky. I can't get enough of the clouds. There is so much to learn!  That's why  I was excited to find a great book on clouds at the Albuquerque airport. It is called 'The Cloud Watcher's Handbook' by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. This wonderful book is a handbook for cloudgazers.  It is full of great photos  and information about cloud types and other sky related phenomena. The book assigns points for spotting the various cloud types and gives you space to record your observations and keep track of your points.It makes learning about clouds into a game.

'The Cloud Collector's Handbook' by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
 What I love about this book is that it makes you more knowledgable and AWARE of the clouds. No longer are they just clouds....those white puffy things.  They have names and they form in certain conditions. The information in the book will help me paint more authentic and believable clouds. It hals already made me a better observer of clouds. I finished the book on the plane. As I closed it and looked out the window I spotted a cloud formation that I had never seen (or noticed) before. I know that cloud type now! It's called Radiatus and they form along the direction of the wind. They are also called 'Cloud Streets' and they are loved by glider pilots.

Paint with knowledge....paint with understanding. Knowing more about clouds will help you paint them better!

Radiatus clouds or Cloud Streets

Up in the sky with Crepuscular Rays
Painting notes: 12x18 on Uart paper with a 4 value block in with soft pastel rubbed in with pipe insulation foam.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Being Resourceful.....Art Supplies from Trash

'Deep in the Chamisa'        8x10           pastel          ©Karen Margulis
available $150 purchase here
 It's hard to look at trash without seeing it as potential treasure.  It always comes back to wondering how I could use it for art. I made a trash to treasure discovery on my trip to New Mexico last week. It seems many hotels are going to the individual serving size coffee makers in the guest rooms. It works for me. I am not really a coffee snob. I just need some cream and sugar (I brought my own) So the coffee maker at the Abiquiu Inn was just fine. It was the kind of coffee maker that came with an individual coffee pod and disposable plastic tray.

One morning I made my coffee and was about to throw out the used coffee pod and plastic tray when I had a brain storm. The little plastic tray would make a great holder for my pastels in progress. At home I use a butcher tray but when I travel I downsize and don't bother bringing a tray.

   I miss having a tray!

I use the tray to keep the pastels I am working with separate from the the other pastels. This helps me keep my palette limited and more harmonious. It prevents me from using every stick in my box in the painting!

A great little pastel holder
 I threw the little plastic tray in my backpack and was thrilled to use it. It took up very little space in my bag and I just threw it out at the end of the day. Each morning I made my coffee and kept the plastic tray for my paintings. I was a great way to repurpose my trash!

close up detail
Painting notes: This painting is 8x10 on white wallis paper with a watercolor underpainting. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Discovering Our Voice

'Desert Color'. 5x7. Pastel. Plein air

A funny thing happened to me in New Mexico. I can't really explain it but when I was out painting on location I went on auto-pilot. I was working quickly because the conditions were changing fast. Once I decided on my composition and did a quick thumbnail my thinking brain took a backseat. I can't explain how I chose the colors or how I put down my marks.

I was in that very wonderful place of responding to the scene. All of my daily painting practice and study came together. I didn't agonize or overthink things. I just painted with wild abandon and it was the best feeling in the world.

'Where the Chamisa Grows'. 8x10. Pastel

It was exhilarating while I was painting but at the end of the day nagging thoughts would crop up. 'Shouldn't I slow down and be more deliberate? Shouldn't I tone down my colors? Would it be better if I had more refinement or if I was more tonal? I shared my thoughts with Richard and I came away with the best advice. Keep doing what I am doing. It is me. My way of expressing myself. The mechanics are there and the color works. He said if it didn't work we would need a pill to fix it and I'd have to take the medicine.

That was such liberating advice! Imagine the freedom to know it's ok to be who you are! It seems we are always trying to get better but often we try to change too drastically because we think it would be better if we painted in a different way. Once we discover our voice....the style that fits much happier we will be if we work on being the best we can be without trying to change that voice!

Bloggers or future bloggers take note: this post was written on my iPad at 31,000 feet as I flew home from New Mexico. I used the Blogsy app. Blogging canbe done anywhere and I will cover this and much more on my art blogging seminar at IAPS in June!


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Last Day in New Mexico....Painting Clouds

'Sky Watching'. 5x7. Plein air. Pastel

This week was just what I needed. When I arrived I wasn't sure what I needed. I only knew that I wanted to paint in New Mexico and learn what I could from Richard McKinley. As my friend Kris put it, we were open to whatever it was we needed. It will take awhile to process it all and let it filter. I learned a lot! I filled my notebook with the many pearls of wisdom that Richard so generously shares. I also learned from the other wonderful artists in the workshop. As I process and go through my paintings there will be more posts about this very special week.

Today I watched the sky. I can't get enough of the sky and it's many moods here in New Mexico. As we drove back to Albuquerque my camera was focused out the window and it was drive by shooting at it's finest.

By the time I arrived at the airport hotel (I fly home in the morning) I was itching to paint the clouds. I checked in and grabbed my back pack with my Gogh box. Since I didn't have a car I had to make due with the view from the parking lot. If I sat down on the grass and looked through the hotel and the car wash I could see the distant peaks of the ancient volcanoes of the West Mesa. I could also see the sky!

'Sky Watching ll'. 5x7

Sitting on the ground with the Gogh Box ang Girault pastels on my lap, I painted two studies of my sky view. It wasn't as peaceful as Abiquiu but if I want to paint believable clouds I need to paint them live and in the moment. I need to see the colors and shapes and how the clouds interact with the sky. I couldn't pass up the chance to paint these wonderful skies before I left.

I will be back in June for the IAPS convention and I look forward to seeing the new friends I met at the workshop. It was wonderful to paint with you all!