Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Simplifying a Green Landscape

'Simply Verdant'                 9x12             pastel            ©Karen Margulis
painting available here $125

Sometimes it is a matter of taking things away. Keep it simple. Less is More. It all sounds like it should be easy. But sometimes keeping it simple is really the hardest thing to do. It tends to sneak up on us. We get involved in a painting adding a little here and a little more there and so on until we end up with too much information. We move way beyond simple!

It happened to me today. I was painting a demo for a new student. She is an experienced pastel artist specializing in the figure and she wants to try landscapes. I chose a very green landscape so that I could illustrate the importance of creating the illusion of depth with atmospheric perspective. I used my demo painting to show the ways we can manipulate our color, value and mark making to create depth. The demo served it's purpose but my painting needed help!

The original demo painting 

When my student left I looked at the painting on the easel and realized that I went beyond simple! My foreground had too much going on. It wasn't a matter of what I needed to was a case of taking things away!

  • I took out my stiff bristle brush and used it to brush out the busy foreground. I was left with a dark simple shape.
  • I used some workable fixative spray to further darken and fix the foreground colors.
  • I went back to my greens and simplified my marks. I allowed the marks to follow the contour of the land. The greens flowed nicely over the fixed darks.
  • I used green to make the stream more narrow where it rounded the bend.
I enjoyed simplifying a landscape that had become too busy for my liking. So often we decide we aren't pleased with our paintings so we keep on painting and adding more pastel. It is easy to end up with an overworked and dull painting this way. Next time try taking things away!

Painting details: 9x12 on Uart 500 grit with Terry Ludwig and Diane Townsend pastels.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Three Steps to a Large Painting

'Wetland Colors'            12x12            pastel            ©Karen Margulis
purchase painting here $195
Sometimes things have a way of working out. I love when that happens. As I was working on my two large Queen Anne's Lace paintings  I had a request for a large marsh painting. The collector had seen one of my recent Lowcountry paintings and loved the colors. He gave me the freedom to create another marsh using the colors he liked. That's the kind of commission I like.  The best part was the colors were the same ones I was using in my wildflower paintings! Half the preparation was done!

The painting needed to be big and square so we decided on 30x30. I was on a roll with the big pastel paintings!  I have had some questions about how I was able to paint the wildflowers so quickly. It may seem quick but the key is in the preparation and being methodical in my approach. The preparation took time so that I was able to paint quickly and intuitively.

I break down my approach into three steps: preparation, block-in and finish. I follow these same steps on any size painting but it is even more critical in a large painting. I don't want to experiment and fiddle on a large expensive surface. I want to know in advance what I will be doing.

Ready to paint with my study done and pastels selected


  • I prepare several ways. First I prepare the surface. In this case I cut another piece of Uart from my roll and flattened it. All I did this time was put it under heavy books for a few days. While waiting for my paper to uncurl I painted a smaller study. For a large painting I use the study for my reference NOT a photo so the study painting is important. It allows me to work out my composition, values, colors. 

  • I also choose my palette. I select the pastels I will use for the painting. For this commission I used the same pastels as I used in my wildflower commission so it was easy! 

  • For the composition I needed to adjust the original painting that inspired my collector from landscape to square format. The study allowed me to work out the flow of the creek in the new format.

  • When I am happy with the study I am ready to move to the big painting. I prepare myself mentally by taking a deep breath and putting on appropriate painting music.

The block in and rub in


The next step is to cover the entire piece of paper somehow. I could choose to do a wet or dry underpainting but the important thing is to cover the whole surface. I want to have a head start on the painting. The underpainting doesn't have to be perfect so it allows me to approach the big blank paper without fear. It also allows me to see the whole painting and make corrections before I get too much pastel or too invested in any one section of the painting.

For this painting I did a dry underpainting with Mount Vision pastels that I rubbed into the paper with a piece of foam pipe insulation.

Starting to add more color


The underpainting supplied the composition, values and a start on interesting color. It is a road map. The rest of the painting goes quickly if all of the preparation was done well.  In a landscape I typically begin with the dark areas. I then move onto to the sky. Next I work my way from background to foreground. I keep things big and simple. Only at the very end of the painting process do a add any suggestion of detail.

I have my colors selected and my values mapped  so there is nothing to distract me from the task on hand....painting!

The finished 30x30 on the easel

This is the finished 30x30. Compare it to the 12x12 study at the top of the post

Monday, December 15, 2014

Steps to a Commission Part Four: The Finished Paintings

'Peaceful Meadow II'           30x40           pastel            ©Karen Margulis

I think it must have been the music.  Once I turned on the soundtrack to The Hundred Foot Journey and started painting, everything started to flow. I can't imagine how it would be possible (or as much fun) to paint this large without music that makes you move! Listen to this soundtrack and see what I mean!

Once I began the paintings I was finished in four hours. I had one ice cream break and kept going. When I was finished I felt like I had run a marathon. I was wiped out but was exhilarated. It was such a high to see the paintings come together and to know that four hours before I was staring at big pieces of blank paper!

Here I am in front of the paintings to give you a better idea of the scale

I had decided to work on both of the paintings at the same time and treat them as if it was one huge painting. The request was for the same level of detail as the smaller paintings discovered on my website. These were older paintings which had a lot more grasses and detail than I tend to paint now.  So you will notice that the big paintings have more detail than the studies.

I also had to decide how to treat the flowers.  How would I scale up the paintings? Would the flowers be larger than life? Would they be life size? How could I keep my strokes look the same as my smaller paintings.....I wanted the same loose feel to the paintings.  I decided that they would be larger than life.
The largest flower head measures 13 inches wide!

 I credit all of the preparation work I did with the studies and pastel palette selection for making the paintings progress so quickly. After all I had painted them already. It was just a matter of scaling up. The studies were my warm up and the paintings were the marathon! And now I am hooked on Huge!

Starting with the dark shapes

Adding the sky and mountains

Putting in the grasses

Working on the flowers and final details

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Steps to a Commission Part Three: The Underpaintings

'Peaceful Meadow I'            30x40             pastel           ©Karen Margulis

The big blank pieces of paper stared back at me from the easels. I put them side by side on my portable easels. The plan was to work on them at the same time. I decided that I would make them into a diptych. They would be contiguous although they could also stand on their own. So the colors and marks needed to be the exact same. In reality I was working on a painting that was 60 x 80!  Whew!

I love my Mount Visions!
I often do a wet underpainting for wildflower meadow paintings. The drips and serendipity of an alcohol wash or watercolor or oil stain add to the feeling of tangled grasses.  But since these big pieces of paper were not permanently mounted I didn't want to risk the paper buckling. I needed to cover the paper somehow to give myself a head start and preserve my expensive pastels.

 My thought was to do an underpainting of warm colors. I chose a variety of reds and pinks. Why? Because I knew that I would be using a lot of greens in the painting. The secret to interesting green is to introduce the compliment with a little violet somewhere in the painting. The underpainting is a perfect place to put these colors. Also I knew that this meadow had a lot of red clover which is pink and purple. Having the clover colors in the underpainting will also help give the illusion of a lot of clover among the grasses.

I chose to do the underpainting with my Mount Vision pastels. These pastels are workhorses! They are huge and just the right consistency. They are soft without being too soft and crumbly. They covered the big paper nicely without filling the tooth. They are an excellent value and did a wonderful job in my paintings!  Check them out here. 

beginning the underpainting

To do this dry underpainitng I applied the Mount Vision pastels using the side of half of a stick. I blocked in the painting by value. Dark areas got the dark purple and the lightest area got the pale pink.
I blended this underpainting using a piece of pipe insulation foam. Now my big pieces of paper had a base coat of pastel! It is a good time to stop and evaluate the composition. Does it have movement? Do the flowers dance? Are the shapes and sizes varied and interesting?  It is easier to fix things now before I get too much pastel on the paper.  Next step....adding the color!

Here they are on their easels with the underpaintings done

 In the next installment I will share the steps to completing these paintings. Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Steps to a Commission Part 2: Working on the Studies

'Wildflower Study #2'            8x10               pastel              ©Karen Margulis
You wouldn't want to paint your whole house without testing the color. In the same way I wouldn't want to experiment with my composition and colors on paper as large as 30x40. I would want a plan!  So as anxious as I was to begin I knew I needed to slow down and take my time to plan the paintings.

The commission was for two paintings of wildflower meadows with Queen Anne's Lace and clover. I was asked to create paintings similar to a couple of Queen Annes Lace meadows found on my website.  Here is what the request said:"Commissioned artwork to be similar in color palette, perspective, content and level of detail to chosen images. Pair should be complimentary to each other and may or may not be continuous. "

I chose to use Mount Vision Pastels for the underpainting
I knew what my paintings needed to look like but I had to first decide what type of underpainting I would use. Since the two paintings were so large I knew that I would use up a lot of pastel. It would make sense to do an underpainting with watercolor or perhaps oil or acrylic. It would save my pastels by giving me a good base.  But since the paper wasn't permanently mounted I didn't want to risk buckling from wet underpaintings. I decided to do a dry wash with Mount Vision pastels. More about this in my next post.

I selected Terry Ludwig, Diane Townsend and a few misc pastels of the paintings
I arrange the pastels in my tray by element...darks, grasses,glowers,sky, mountains. 
Next I chose the pastels that would go on top of the underpainting. For this palette I chose a selection of mostly Terry Ludwig pastels. I used my Diane Townsend lights for the flowers (not shown)  I also threw in a few Sennelier and Schminke for the spices.

I set to work painting the studies. I spent about an hour on them. They were not as detailed as my big paintings would be. My main concern was to get the position of the flowers and test out my selected palette.  Follow below to see the steps I took for the studies. I will use these studies and not the photos as reference for the larger paintings.  In my next post I will share the block in process for the big paintings.

Paper and reference photos for my 8x10 studies

The drawing for the studies done with pencil

The finished studies
I am ready to move on to the big ones! Stay tuned for the next installment.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Steps to a Commission: Part One How to Flatten Rolled Uart Paper

'Wildflower Study #1'             8x10               pastel            ©Karen Margulis
 I am ending the year in a really big way! Big paintings are on my easel this week.  I have been commissioned to paint two 30 x 40 pastels on paper for an area hospital. They will be installed in the visitor elevator lobby. I was excited and honored when I got the word.  But then reality set in. 30x40 is huge! I have not painted anything that big and they wanted the paintings on paper. It was a good excuse to order a roll of Uart paper!

The roll of paper arrived and the first step was to cut it to size and get it to lay flat. They didn't want it mounted but I ordered archival foam core 30x40 to use as a support. I had hear stories of the challenges of getting the paper to flatten and stay flat.  I was a bit worried when I cut the two pieces and they curled right up.

Oops! I can't paint on paper like this!

I did some research and read about rolling the paper in the opposite direction. OK that can't hurt. So I rolled each piece opposite the curl and secured the rolls with several rubber bands. I left them rolled this way for a few days. I was busy with other things so I had time to let them stay rolled.

The paper after it was rolled in the opposite direction. It is almost flat!

After a few days I took off the rubber band and was happy to discover that the paper was almost flat. If I was going to mount the paper it would have worked just fine but I wanted it to be perfectly flat. Another flattening tip suggested that you spritz the paper lightly with water.

I took out a small spray bottle of water and lightly sprayed the front sanded side of the paper. I didn't soak the paper but just gave it a light spray all over. I put the paper on my large studio table covered it with blotting paper (from my mono print experiments). I then weighted down the papers with the heaviest books in my library. I have some big, heavy art books!

My heavy-weight art books hard at work!

 I wasn't in a rush to take the books off since I was going to be out of town for two weeks. That gave the paper plenty of time to get nice and flat. When I returned home it was time for the moment of truth. Would the water spritz and heavy books do the trick?

Perfectly flat Uart paper
Yes!  The papers were perfectly flat after I removed the books. The paper was now ready for painting. I secured the paper to the foamcore using hinged tape.

 [Since I first prepared the paper I have done this same process with less time spent on the rolling and books. I had success flattening the paper. In one case I sprayed the back of the paper and must not have gotten even coverage so I had some bubbles.  From now on I will be more careful and only spray the front sanded side of the paper. I plan to prepare several smaller pieces of the rolled paper and let it stay under books for a week so I have a stash of flat paper ready to go! ]

 I was getting excited to start the paintings but there were still a few more things to do to prepare.  After all that flattening I wanted to be sure I got the paintings right the first time! Tomorrow I will share the next step in the commission process.

All ready to paint!
The painting in today's post is one of the small studies I did in preparation for the large paintings. The study is 8x10 on Uart.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Interpreting a Reference Photo

'Walking in a Winter Wonderland'          9x12           pastel          ©Karen Margulis
painting available $145
I have taken over 30,000 photos in the last few years. That is a lot of reference material. As much as I love painting on location most of my work is done from my photos.  I use them strictly for inspiration. My goal is to make the painting more interesting and have more feeling than the photo.

In today's post I would like to take you through my thought process for this winter forest painting. What   were the things I considered when interpreting the photo? How did I decide what to leave out and what to add?  My reference is a quick photo I took on a walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden during an early November snowfall. It was cold so I just took quick photos.  I hope you enjoy a look inside my interpretation process!

my reference photo

  • I decided my concept for the painting was the idea of walking in a winter wonderland of beautiful trees and a gentle snowfall.
  • I loved the stand of evergreens in the foreground against the snow and purples of the distant tree line. The evergreen trees were my star. I didn't copy them exactly as they were in the photo but I reminded myself to make sure the trunks were not too regular and that the intervals between them were uneven and interesting.
  • I decided to eliminate the foreground brush and simplify it into some dark snow covered shapes. Why? There is a half-bush in the foreground so I would need to put more of it in the picture or eliminate it. I decided to eliminate it and simplify all of the other 'stuff'.
  • There is some red stuff in the foreground which I eliminated. The red wouldn't make sense in that spot. It would be too isolated and would draw the eye away from my trees. I liked the red so  instead I decided to add a touch of Burgundy/red to the tree trunks.
  • The sky in my photo was white and boring. I decided to make it pale blue with a touch of pale yellow. Why? Because I want to! And also because these colors were closer to what I remember. The photo overexposed the lights. I added these colors to my snow to unify my colors and make my ground relate to my sky.
  • In the photo there is a frozen pond. I actually didn't see it with my glasses off so I made the whole area just snow. (I paint without glasses) I like it better as all snow. It makes a more simple statement.
  • The snow covered ground in the photo is all one value/shade of white. I know that aerial perspective would change the way we see the color. In the painting I make the distant snow a dull rosy pink and the brighter snow is saved for the mid to foreground.  I also decided to put the immediate foreground in shadow so I needed to make my snow blue in theses shadowed areas.
  • It had stopped snowing when I took the photo but since I was there I remembered the snow. I decided to add the snowfall to the painting. This was my emotional response to the scene.
This painting is 9x12 on gray Canson Mi-Teintes paper with Terry Ludwig and Diane Townsend pastels.

In my Winter pastel classes we will be focusing on composition and how to take and use reference photos more effectively. I still have a couple of openings. Please email me if interested.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Taking a Collage Break...Inspired by Torn Paper

'Forest Music'              7x9            paper on canvas board             ©Karen Margulis
available $75
I see now why my friends are addicted to their bits and pieces of paper. There is something warm and soothing to tearing paper and pasting it down to create something from nothing. It seems mindless while doing it and my friends claim that is why they do it. But after giving it a try I have my own thoughts about the collage process. It is far from mindless!

Making a torn paper collage makes use of everything you know about painting. But in a less intimidating way. You really can't make a mistake....just add more layers until you are pleased. And it really is all about the process of creating. The play is what is really important. As well as the hunting and gathering just the right papers and collaging goodies. But learning always comes from play. I know my friends will be surprised at how their collaging adventure will help them become better pastel painters!

I mounted my collage on black foamcore and put it in a frame.

The collage process was easy. Especially in my friend Jayne's extremely well stocked and organized studio. She has everything you could imagine from tools to paint to stacks and stacks of papers arranged by color. She handed me a canvas board, a paintbrush and a container of matte medium and set me loose. It was like being a kid in a candy store! I tore paper from magazines and used some wonderful paper with specks of gold leave in it. I tore and pasted until my image began to emerge. I didn't want to stop but it was time to leave. I came home and added some seed beads for the holiday lights. I was finished and ready for my next collage!  Thanks Jayne, Holly and Elaine for the great afternoon!

at play in Jayne's wonderful studio

Jayne's Kingfisher collage in progress

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

How to Paint Christmas Lights with Pastels

'Magical Winter Nights'              8x10            pastel             ©Karen Margulis
purchase this painting $145 click here
 The evening was cold but it was magical at the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was mid November and the snow gently fell as we walked down the path. Ahead,  the workers were hanging the holiday lights.  We had the zoo to ourselves making the light show even more special. It was a sneak preview and we took it all in. I took a quick photo so I could remember the moment.

I wanted to paint my memory. My photo gave me some information but I would need to edit. I needed more snow. I didn't want to include the workers. That's the beauty of painting...the ability to edit!  But how would I paint the lights? How would I use sticks of color to create the glow of electric lights?  How would I suggest the illusion of a forest dressed in holiday lights without painting every single bulb? Here is what I did:

a collection of pastels used for the lights

  • I worked on a dark toned paper. In this painting I used a piece of Multimedia Artboard that I toned with dark purple tinted clear gesso. This allowed the bright colored lights to pop.
  • I massed in the larger areas of branches and lights using DULL colors of a middle to middle dark value. I used a light touch allowing the pastel to skip over the textured board. I used grayed, dull purples and oranges and reds. These bigger masses on the textured surface appear as lacy masses of branches and lights.
  • On the edges of these dull masses of color I began to put in pinpoints of brighter more intense colors. The lights in this scene were red and orange so I used the most intense bright orange and yellow-oranges that I had. I used soft pastels to paint the tiny dots of color.
  • It is the relationship between the dull and dark colors and the bright intense ones that make the lights appear to glow so I tried to balance both for the best effect.
  • For the white light of the streetlights I began with a dull red, layered yellow ochre and finally added a dot of pale yellow (almost white) The darker colors against the pale yellow caused it to appear lit.
It was a lot of fun to paint the lights and Now I want to try more! This same scene was also the inspiration into my first mixed media adventure which I will share tomorrow!

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Great Tip For Better Paintings with White

'Winter Creek'           8x10              pastel            ©Karen Margulis
available for purchase here $145
White reflects color and white pastels attract color. It is inevitable. If you store your white or very light pastels in the same box as other colors they will quickly get dirty. They get dusty and rub against other colors and soon they are no longer recognizable as a nice bright light pastel.

No more dirty whites thanks to a blog reader and facebook friend. After reading yesterday's post on my favorite white pastels, Joanne Willoughby shared her tip with me.  Joanne keeps all of her very light, almost white pastels in a separate box. They stay clean and it is easy to find the right light when you can actually see them. She adds that it is also easier to see the subtle difference in the color of the lights when they are together and next to each other. Brilliant!  Thanks Joanne!  I pulled my light pastels and put them in a spare box. (still need to clean them though!)

My new box of lights...a mix of Ludwigs and Townsends

You can take this tip a step further and make a chart of your lights. I am usually happy to order open stock and take my chances with the colors I get. Sometimes it is nice to know the brand and color number or name so having a chart can come in handy.

Today's painting is a winter landscape on Uart paper. My goal was to show the colors present in the now and cold water!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

My Favorite White Pastels

'A Walk in the Park'               12 x 12               pastel              ©Karen Margulis
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 just got 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. 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 actually 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.

A collection of 'Amost Whites'. The pastel on the far left is pure white for comparison

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.

If you are thinking about painting snow this winter I invite you to look at my Winter/Snow pastel demo download. You can read more about it in my Etsy shop here

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Why You Should Try Your Unused Pastels

'Mystery on the Marsh'               19.5 x 25            pastel             ©Karen Margulis
They sit in the box untouched. Pristine pastels surrounded by their well used neighbor colors. Why don't these pastels ever have the joy of being used in a painting?  Why do they always miss out on the fun? These pastels are just as good as any other in the box....they just happen to be an unliked color.

Yes we do tend to have favorite colors and colors we never use. We claim we don't like them. Even if we are one of the few who love every color in the box we probably still use some colors more than others.

Recently I took a look in my box and realized that I had an abundance of Brown pastels. Brown as in Crayon box brown. All of these brown pastels were pristine. Even my favorite Terry Ludwig pastels sat untouched....if they were brown.  I didn't like brown. I though brown was dull and boring. I avoided brown. If something was supposed to be brown I would use purple or blue or anything that was more colorful than brown.

But I have changed my mind. I have decided to embrace Brown. There are times when brown really works. I realized that brown often is just a dark value yellow and I really like yellow!  I challenged myself to use brown in a painting. I took it a step further and painted my yellow and brown landscape on a piece of brown Canson paper.  Forcing myself to use brown helped me see the beauty in it! Now I look forward to using those wonderful browns!

Try This:  Look in your pastel box and see if you have any pristine, unused or rarely used pastels. Why haven't you used these colors?  Challenge yourself to use them in a painting. Embrace your new color!

Friday, December 05, 2014

How To Make Great Ornaments From Paintings

'Winter Cardinal'            2.5 x 3.5           pastel                ©Karen Margulis
purchase for $15 click here 

I love collecting and painting small paintings. I call them minis. I have blogged about them often. Recently I shared ways to store and display these tiny pastels. I have another idea to add to the list.  Turn your minis into ornaments! What a wonderful way to personalize the tree than with beautiful original art!

Making ornaments from mini paintings are simple!  I slipped my painting into a clear bag with a piece of black foamcore backing. Next I cut a loop of twine and taped it to the back of the painting and voila! ornament for the tree!  

Painting your own minis can be a fun holiday project. I am going to paint my favorite landscapes for my decorations but it would be fun to do any number of themes. How about a bird tree or a flower tree? How about paintings of ornaments? The ideas are limited only by your imagination!

Some twine, clear bags and foam core is all that is needed!
I have just listed my latest min pastels in my Etsy shop. Any of them would make great ornaments! See them all in my shop HERE.