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Friday, January 19, 2018

Our First Camping Trip and a Painting

'Magical Morning'           9x13            ©Karen Margulis        pastel            available $155 
 I couldn't wait to get down to the studio this morning. I had this image in my head that wanted to come out!  I did bring my pastels on my trip to Florida but I never had a chance to get them out. That's OK. Sometimes you just need to experience things fully without worrying about photos or even painting. This was one of those trips!

It was a quick trip to Florida to pick up Bertie the Art Spirit. If you missed the post about Bertie she is our newly acquired pop up camper. We found a great deal in Florida but had to wait until last week to go down and get her. We decided to take her on a maiden camping trip to Disney World!  I grew up camping at Fort Wilderness so what better place to start our new camping adventure than Disney!

Ahhhh ....coffee and sunrise!
We picked up Bertie at my moms in Central Florida. We had a day before our camping reservation to open up the camper, clean it and make sure it was stocked with the necessary supplies. I brought some things but it turns out the Bertie was fully stocked including the much needed heater (yes we experienced below freezing temperatures!)

All set up and ready to relax!
Our first camping trip was a great success. My mom joined us and we had fun resort hopping and eating! No parks on this trip. We have a list of things we want to do to get Bertie ready for the next trip. Next time I will have more time to paint! But I did come away with some inspiration. Today's painting was one of those images I needed to paint. Read on for more about the painting.

A peak inside.....this is before we start some updating
Today's Painting: It was early morning, just after sunrise. I was on my way to the comfort station walking quickly through the woods in the cool morning air. As I emerged from the path I saw the trees glowing with warm light. There was a low mist rising behind the trees. The tall cypress trees looked a bit eerie without foliage and dripping in moss. But the light was incredible. It would be a good day.
9x13 pastel on Yi Cai paper

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Simple Way to Start a Painting

'California Dream'           9x12        pastel         ©Karen Margulis

Options are great. We have many options for starting a pastel painting. We have many different types of papers and supports and colors. We can use pastel or most other media to start a painting. We can do a wet or dry underpainting. We have unlimited color choices at our disposal. Great isn't it?  Sometimes it isn't so great. Sometimes it can be downright confusing and daunting. How can we begin a painting without being overwhelmed by the choices? It is a challenge.

When I am in doubt I go back to my roots. I return to a very simple way to start a pastel painting. When I really want to make things simple I even choose the same middle value gray Canson Mi-Teintes paper. You can't go wrong with it.

It only takes four simple steps to start a painting that has good bones....a block-in that gives you all the information you need to build a successful painting. I demonstrate these four steps below:


STEP ONE:  I loosely draw the main shapes on my paper with a hard pastel. I then block in all of the DARK SHAPES with a dark value pastel. Sometimes I will use a couple of different colors that are the same value. In this scene I created a dark shape under the flowers to hold them in place. This is my dirt.


STEP TWO: Next I block in all of the LIGHT SHAPES. I will use either hard or softer pastels for the block-in. When I use softer pastel I make sure to use a lighter touch so I don't fill in the tooth of the paper. In this scene the sky and the flowers are the lighest shapes.


STEP THREE: Next I block in the shapes that will be the most INTENSE COLOR.  In this scene some of the flowers are a bright lime green so I block them in at this stage.


STEP FOUR:  The final step of the block-in is to cover the remaining areas with color of a middle value. The goal is to have a layer of pastel over the entire piece of paper. In this scene I used a middle value blue violet and gray violet to cover the remaining areas of the painting.

That's it! I am now ready to continue building the painting, adding layers of color and detail. What I just did was establish the boundaries of my scene. I know what the darkest dark will be as well as the lightest light and most intense color. It gives me a good framework to build upon. Simple and effective!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

How I Photograph my Paintings for my Blog

'June Meadow'              8x10             pastel             ©Karen Margulis

I have had some questions about how I photograph my paintings for my blog. I'd like to share this post from the archives:
 It has to be low tech and low maintenance. I want quality photos of my paintings for my blog but I don't want to spend a lot of time taking them. I need to point, shoot, upload and not have to do much editing. I have worked out a system that works for me. It is simple and takes little effort.

All I use is a point and shoot digital camera and take a photo of the painting while it is still up on the easel. Nothing fancy. I just point and shoot and keep the flash on.

My easel and current painting. When I am finished painting I take the photo
 Keep in mind this is the set up I use to take low resolution photos for blogging and for email. I also use them to print small photos and for my business cards.  If I need higher resolution photos I will increase the quality setting on my camera to high (about 10 megapixels)

  • I use a Panasonic Lumix digital camera set on a medium quality setting.
  • I always keep the flash on.
  • I don't use a tripod but I do have steady hands.
  • I stand about 4-5 feet from the painting and zoom into the painting. I don't crop it in the camera but leave a bit of the foamcore showing.(I will crop it when I upload the photo to my computer)
  • I have two fluorescent light fixtures over my easel area. I keep a warm and cool bulb in each.
  • This balance of light along with the camera flash results in color that is very true to my paintings.
  • I upload the photos to my computer. I have an iMac and use iPhoto. I crop the photo in iPhoto. Occasionally I need to adjust brightness, contrast or saturation which is easily done in iPhoto. 95% of the time I don't have to make adjustments.

My fancy lighting!
This system works well for me. Since we all have different lighting situations it will take some experimentation to find the correct balance of light to get the truest colors.  If your photos come out too warm or yellow....try turning on the flash and stand back about 5 feet.

Monday, January 15, 2018

What is the Best Grade of Uart Sanded Pastel Paper


'Listen to the Marsh Music'         18x24         pastel  on Uart 600     ©Karen Margulis
sold
 Enjoy this post from the archives!

Choices are great. But sometimes too many choices can be overwhelming. I love Uart paper and one of the reasons is the variety of grits that are available. Whether you like a rough toothy surface or a smooth velvety one,  Uart has a paper for you.

What if you don't really know what you like? If you haven't tried all of the grades of Uart paper how will you know which one is best?  I decided to put the paper to the test to find out the best grade.

The answer?  I like them all!  I recommend you give this little test a try so that you can experience them all for yourself. The best grade is the grade that gives you the results you want!  My test can give you an idea of what you might expect.  (click on photos to enlarge them)

Uart Paper Grade Test
 For the test I cut small pieces of each of the 7 available grades of Uart paper. You can get a sample pack of papers at Dakota Pastels.  For the control I decided to paint the same scene with the same pastels on each sample. I chose one of my personal favorite marsh paintings because I wouldn't mind painting it 7 more times!



  • The lower the number the rougher or toothier the surface. So 240, 280 and 320 are the roughest grits. For those of you who like Wallis paper these lower numbers have the closest feel to the grit of Wallis.
  • The lower the number, the grainer the pastel application. Click to enlarge so you can see the textured look to my marks.



  • The middle numbers 400, 500 and 600 are still toothy but not as rough as the lower numbers. 
  • 400 is a good compromise between rough and smooth.
  • These 3  are my preferred grades. I personally don't notice too much difference between these three so I am equally content using any of them. I would say that 400 and 500 are my favorite if I had to choose. 



  • 800 grade paper is quite smooth and velvety although it is still sanded paper. I noticed a much smoother application of pastel with little feeling of texture. If you need fine detail, this grade is your best choice.


I also decided to do a layer test. I wanted to know which paper grade held the most layers of pastel. I did the test on 240 and 800 grade. I was quite surprised to find that each grade easily took 21 layers. I expected that the rougher paper would take more layers than the smooth but this was not the case. They actually could have handled more layers without filling the tooth but I stopped at 21....that's a lot of layers!

I enjoyed discovering the subtle difference the grit could make. Overall I would be happy with any of the grades. Uart is my go-to paper. I find it to be very versatile and always gives me good results. (and takes a beating when I have to fight for those results!)

Read more about Uart paper on their website here.http://www.uartpastelpaper.com/default.asp I just bought my first roll and will soon blog about how I am flattening the rolled paper.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Remove the Rollercoasters from your Paintings!

'Blowing in the Wind'          12x18         pastel      ©Karen Margulis
 I couldn't quite figure out what was bothering me. The painting just wasn't working and it wasn't immediately clear why. It was a demo painting done at a recent workshop. The main focus of the demo was watercolor underpainting so I wasn't really paying as much attention to the pastel application or the composition. When I got the painting home I set it in my pile of unfinished objects.

It caught my eye the other day and I saw it as clear as day. How on earth did I miss it! I was getting dizzy just looking at it. I could picture myself in a rickety rollercoaster cart as it steadily climbed the steep slope to the top. My fear of heights took over. I wanted to get off!  That steep slope was in my painting. Look at the photo below.



My unfinished demo with a steep rollercoaster
Can you see the steep diagonal line of green? All my eye wants to do is ride that green line right up and off the paper....or down and out. Either way this diagonal is too abrupt and harsh.It is unnaturally straight. It really doesn't allow the viewer's eye to move from the background into and around the flowers.

It didn't take much to break up this line and mellow out the slope. I used some cooler greens to push back the hill and put in some sand using horizontal strokes to modify the diagonal so that it isn't as noticeable.

Tip: Watch out for rollercoasters in your paintings. Often steep diagonals all the way across the painting act as barriers. Rollercoasters can also be hills, trees or mountains that have a hard edge at the top creating the feeling of a rollercoaster pulling the eye right out of the painting.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Tip for Creating Colorful Lights in Pastel

'Silent Forest'          18x24        pastel         ©Karen Margulis
available $400
I took the pure white pastel out of my box. I rarely use it. When I need it I usually have to hunt for one in the studio. But I do love to paint white things!.......Clouds, snow, queen annes lace, sandy beaches all require white or do they.

I prefer to use what I call Colorful Lights. That is very light value pastels that are almost white but not quite. I keep a pale value pastel of every color on the color wheel. I am ready to paint anything white without using white.

Sometimes though you may not have a colorful light. Your lightest value may not be quite light enough. Then what? Well of course you could start a pastel order but while you are waiting you can use pure white to create your own colorful lights.

  • Choose the lightest value of the color you need such as yellow. Lay down a light layer of this pastel.
  • Now take your pure white pastel and lightly layer on top of the yellow. You will notice that the white will start to modify the yellow and it will appear lighter. 
  • You may need to go back and forth with the yellow and the white until you achieve the value you need.
I made a quick video demo of this tip and you can watch it for no charge over on my Patreon page. Here is the direct link to the video.https://www.patreon.com/posts/how-to-create-15937176

Friday, January 12, 2018

When Three Marks Make a Difference


'The Welcoming Committee'          6x11        pastel     ©Karen Margulis
available $145
Three little marks. That's all it needed. The results were clear. The painting was stronger and it was all due to the subtle addition of three little marks. Before I explain what I am talking about have look at the finished painting at the top of the page and the painting below. 
Can you spot the change I made?

Before the change
I actually thought I was done with the painting. I took a photo and posted it to my blog all ready to write a post about using Uart 280 paper. But when I looked at the painting on the computer monitor it jumped out at me. I wasn't finished after all! So back to the easel I went.

I only allowed myself three marks. I needed to fix the problem but I didn't want to get too fussy and ruin the freshness of the rest of the painting. By limiting myself to three marks I stayed in control of my repairs! It is a good practice when you are at the end of a painting to only allow three marks at a time and then stepping back. Three marks, step back. Three more marks, step back.

Did you see what I fixed? If you said I changed the large poppy on the left side you are correct. When I looked at the painting the first thing my eye went to was this large red flower that was going off the page on the bottom left. It wasn't so bad that it went off the page. The problem was that it was too bright and vibrant all the way to the edge of the paper. This intense area tends to pull the eye right to it and then off the page. It is a case of too much information too close to the edge of the painting.

 I needed to keep the viewer in the painting. This is where the three marks came in. I used a couple of green pastel and made three marks to subtly soften and hide the flower. Now I see the flower but I can also move past it and enjoy the rest of the painting.






Thursday, January 11, 2018

How to Sign a Pastel Painting


'Winter Light'       11x14         pastel          ©Karen Margulis
available $165
It was an accidental discovery. Another use for a common tool is always exciting. Like when Stan Sperlak passed out his 'magic sterling silver pins' at a workshop a few years ago. They were really only stainless steel push pins from the office supply store but they were magical. Stan showed us how the pins could be used to scrape away pastel with precision. They are like tiny erasers. Ever since then I've kept a jar of pins by my easel.

Today I was using a pin to create some of the thin branches in my bare winter trees. The do a great job making painterly lines. It is like doing scratch art. When it was time to sign my name I still had the pin in my hand. Ahhhhhh why not sign my name with the pin! It worked! I'll add it to my toolbox.


Signature with precision
TIP: The pin signature works best when there is a dark layer of pastel under a lighter area. This way the scratched mark reveals the dark making the signature visible.

Stainless steel push pin perfect for signing or scraping away pastel for fine detail

creating fine branches with a push pins
I usually sign my name with the sharp edge of a hard pastel such as Nupastel in a contrasting color that harmonizes with the painting which also works well.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

What to Paint When you Don't Have a Clue

'Marsh Music III'          8x10        pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $145
Have you ever spent your whole painting time trying to find something to paint? Sometimes I am just so filled with inspiration that I can't get to it all fast enough. But sometimes even in my stacks of photos nothing calls out to be painted. It can be frustrating and often leads to a standstill in our work. I have something that never fails to break me out of this 'Don't Have a Clue' painting rut.

Start an Exploration Series. See how many variations you can make of a favorite scene. 

An Exploration Series never fails to get me excited because I get to return to an old friend....my comfort zone with a twist. Read on for the details.


The start of an Exploration Series

  •  Choose a painting that you have enjoyed painting and that you are pleased with. For the best results choose something simple that you can reproduce in a relatively short amount of time. That intricate still life won't be a good choice but the simple landscape will work great.
  • Set the time limit that you will spend on each new painting. 30-60 minutes is ideal so that you don't get too fussy and lose interest in the project.
  • Plan to work on the series for a set number of paintings that you think is doable....say 10 to start with.
  • Paint the same scene but change something in every painting. Some ideas: change the underpainting technique, change the time of day, change the mood, change the color palette, change your mark making. Put on your 'what if' hat. The sky is the limit.
At the end of the set time put all of the paintings together and take note on what discoveries you made. I always find comfort in using the familiar to branch off and explore.

My latest Exploration Series started by accident but I am hooked. I am looking forward to getting in the studio each day to see how I can interpret my marsh!  Give it a try!


Trying a warm 4 value underpainting

Before adding the green stuff

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

What Makes an Effective Value Thumbnail

'Down in the Meadow'           9x12         pastel        ©Karen Margulis
available $145
Do you do your thumbnails? I never did a very good job at doing thumbnail sketches. They seemed like a waste of my time. I would rather just get to the fun part and paint. But I like to play when I paint. I don't want to think to hard. I don't want to agonize of every stroke, color and value choice.

A thumbnail a day makes it easier to play!

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

The reference photo
 In the photo below I am showing two thumbnails. These are Value Thumbnails using just 4 values....a dark, light and middle light and middle dark. The thumbnail on the left is not as useful as the one on the right. Why?

The difference between an ineffective value thumbnail and a useful thumbnail


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


If you would like to see a step by step demo of this tree painting head on over to my Patreon page. We are studying value all month and you can join us for just $4. www.patreon.com/karenmargulis

Monday, January 08, 2018

Trying Different Pastel Paper


'Marsh Music II'        7x7       pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $125
 How could I resist? I was poking through the shelves of the art supply store when I saw an unusual pastel paper. I had never tried it before and anything that is marked pastel paper is fair game for me! I took a pack home (OK I took several size packs home) and had a chance to try it today. The lowdown: I think I will be incorporating this paper into my paper rotation. I liked it enough to want to explore the possibilities.

The paper came in a pad and it is made by Shizen Design. It is made in India from cotton scraps recycled from the garment trade. It comes in many colors. I tried the pad of 7x7 white paper with a deckled bottom edge. I also purchased some 12x12 paper in natural colors. This paper has all four edges deckled. Here is a link to the paper at Blicks.com.


  • The is not a sanded paper but there is a texture which does grab the pastel. if you look closely at my painting you can see the texture.
  • If you like painting on a soft paper you will like the feel of this paper. I wasn't able to get many layers but I enjoyed the give of the soft paper.

I am going to experiment some more but I think this paper would work great with Diane Townsend pastels as well as super soft pastels such as Senneliers. I'll report back when I have done more experimenting. I think it definitely has potential and I will just need to figure out what will work best.

a 4 value underpainting
There are still a few spots left in my February Florida workshop! Email me to register karenmargulis@gmail.com


Sunday, January 07, 2018

New YouTube Video: Underpainting with Inktense Blocks

'December Fog'           8x10         pastel       ©Karen Margulis
available $145

I am continuing to play with wet underpaintings this weekend. I love how a wet underpainting helps me move away from my reference photo and allows me to interpret the scene with my own voice. Today I decided to do an alcohol wash using Derwent Inktense Blocks. These look like sticks of hard pastel but they are actually blocks of water soluble ink. You can use them wet or dry but they really shine when wet. They explode with rich color. In the fall I made a short video for my patreon page showing an alcohol wash with the intense blocks. You can now watch the demo on my YouTube channel.


Derwent Inktense Blocks
Below you can see the start of the underpainting for today's foggy marsh painting . I liquified the intense with rubbing alcohol and a stiff brush. My goal was to allow some of the underpainting to show through and I was somewhat successful. I am not finished exploring this reference though and I plan to use it for a series of explorations.

Before wetting with rubbing alcohol

The underpainting once it has dried
If you would like to see the finished painting that was started in the video click here: http://kemstudios.blogspot.com/2017/10/do-you-want-explosion-of-color.html








Saturday, January 06, 2018

Keeping Loose with a Watercolor Underpainting

'Summer by the Sea'          18x24        pastel         ©Karen Margulis
It was a big piece of paper. I was feeling a bit rusty after not painting for a couple of weeks. The paper stared at me daring me to start. I hesitated. Was I ready for a big piece of paper? Maybe I needed to warm up with some smaller studies. Nah. I had the answer to my fear of blank big paper.....watercolors!

I needed to go big and loose to get the creative juices going. It would be the best warm up possible. The easiest way to approach a big piece of paper is with a wet underpainting. You can't be wrong. You can 'ruin' anything. It is just liberating to let paint drip and watch the happy and not so happy accidents happen.

Pelikan Opaque watercolor set
I decided to take out my trusty Pelican watercolor set. I use the opaque set which means they are not as transparent so are quite vibrant. They are also surprisingly good for an inexpensive set. I let the grand kids paint with this set and it was fun to have a turn!

I had a lot of fun with the undepainting and before I was finished the fear of the blank paper had evaporated. I know had something fun to respond to without getting bogged down in the details of my reference photo. It was a great way to keep it loose!

a close up of the watercolor underpainting


My palette of pastels. I did add a few more to this starting palette

close up detail

On My Patreon Page Today
Check out my article on Patreon on Value Thumbnails and Carlson's Theory of Angles...free! www.patreon.com/karenmargulis

"Wow! That makes so much sense! I totally never understood all this before. It's like a light bulb went off! Thanks so much!" patreon patron

I'm so excited when I get this kind of feedback! I love creating light bulb moments. I love having them too! Check out my page!