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Many of you will know Karen Margulis and her work. (And if you don’t, where have you been?!) I’ve always admired Karen’s work as well as her consistency in painting and commitment to teaching. I’ve often thought about inviting her to guest blog but it was when I started seeing Karen’s postings of amazing and beautiful abstracted flowers on social media that I knew I needed to ask her to tell us about her journey into this new world.

Karen is known for her representational paintings of wildflowers yet it’s clear to see where she’s been headed. Her new work evolves naturally from her more familiar style.

Have a look at these two pieces. They’re both impressions of flowers but the second feels like a transition between the old and the new.

Karen Margulis, "Beautiful Ending," pastel
Karen Margulis, “Beautiful Ending,” pastel
Karen Margulis," Living Free," pastel
Karen Margulis,” Living Free,” pastel

Before handing you over to Karen Margulis, first, a bit about her.

Karen Margulis Bio

Karen Margulis is a contemporary landscape painter. She works in most painting media but has achieved recognition for her pastel paintings. She has exhibited her award-winning work around the world and has been reviewed by Pastel Journal for her wildflower paintings. She is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America and an Eminent Pastelist recipient of the International Association of Pastel Societies. 

Take it away Karen!

~~~~~

At the beginning of each workshop I teach, I talk to the artists about style. Most come to my workshops because they want to loosen up and move away from being too caught up in copying their reference photos. I talk to them about the art journey we are all on. 

Our personal style and preferences fall on a scale from pure abstract all the way to photorealism. We might move up and down the scale as we grow as artists but these shifts are usually small and incremental in one direction or another. I have always been just to the left of the middle of the scale. My landscape paintings were representational but by no means photorealistic. I would characterize my style as suggested realism. It hasn’t changed from the day I picked up my first pastel back in 2005. My paintings have become more refined but didn’t move too far on the scale. 

Until now. 

There has been a nagging little voice that has been tempting me to the abstract side of the scale. It started several years ago but any attempts I made to try abstract painting were disappointing failures. I just didn’t understand how to paint a successful abstract. I put that nagging voice on the back burner and continued painting my representational landscapes. But something shifted this year. 

Karen Margulis, "Paradise Discovered," 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 8x8 in
Karen Margulis, “Paradise Discovered,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 8×8 in

The year began as usual with a list of art goals. As I usually do, I asked my Patreon group what they wanted to explore. Abstracts were near the top of the list. I added it to my list and figured I needed to learn more about abstracts so we could explore them together. As luck would have it I saw that Larry Moore was offering a six-week online course on abstract painting. I had his book Fishing for Elephants and he was highly recommended as an instructor so I signed up. It was perfect timing and just the push I needed. At the time I had no idea how this decision would change the course of my art journey!

Karen Margulis, "Paradise Found," 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 8x8 in
Karen Margulis, “Paradise Found,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 8×8 in

I loved the online course with Larry Moore. I loved the homework assignments and the weekly critique sessions. I realized just how little I knew about abstracts and I was like a sponge each week soaking up knowledge and totally devoting myself the homework assignments. I was seeing abstract designs everywhere. I was dreaming about the abstracts I would paint the next day. It was totally invigorating and exciting. I was hooked. 

Karen Margulis, homework sheet from abstract workshop
Karen Margulis, homework sheet from abstract workshop

We painted with gouache for the course assignments. That was fun but I wanted to translate what I was learning into pastel. So when the course ended, I began my exploration of what I had learned about abstraction only now with my pastels. It was as if an entire new world was open and I couldn’t get enough.

Karen Margulis, "Study in Purple," 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 8x8 in
Karen Margulis, “Study in Purple,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 8×8 in

Throughout the winter my experiments with abstract pastel painting continued but in private. It was a secret I wasn’t quite ready to share. I continued painting in my usual style for my demos and Patreon lessons but whenever I had the chance, I played with abstracts. By the spring I felt like I was onto something with the abstracts. I was hitting my stride and finding ways to abstract the subjects I was most known for…..landscape with wildflowers. It was the beginning of my Floral Fantasy series. It was time to share them. That was the tricky part. 

Karen Margulis, "Fantasy in Red," 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 8x8 in
Karen Margulis, “Fantasy in Red,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 8×8 in

I had worked hard to build a reputation as a master of pastels. My representational ‘suggested realism’ landscapes brought me recognition. I achieved signature status with the Pastel Society of America and Eminent Pastelist status with the International Association of Pastel Societies. I developed a following on social media and started a Youtube and Patreon channel. 

Karen Margulis, "Among the Fireflies," pastel
Karen Margulis, “Among the Fireflies,” pastel. One of my more representational pieces

Artists were interested in learning from me…..how to paint with more expression was a favourite workshop topic. But I wasn’t known for painting abstracts. How would this go over with my followers? Was it okay to make such a drastic leap on that abstract to photorealism scale? I had always shared everything about my art journey….the good, bad and the ugly! I started a blog back in 2005 to share my journey so I wasn’t shy about sharing. I just needed to find the right balance. I had an idea!

Spring arrived and it was exhibition season. There are a few exhibitions that I like to enter every year and I typically enter a landscape with wildflowers. This year I decided I would enter some of my new abstracts. I selected a few that I felt good about and hit the enter button. And then I waited. 

Karen Margulis, "Wonderland," 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 12x12 in
Karen Margulis, “Wonderland,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 12×12 in

To my surprise and delight, I had entered four exhibitions and I had an abstract selected for all four. Two ended up winning awards. It was a validating experience but the moment of truth would come when they were seen for the first time by my peers and my collectors! I was excited and a little bit nervous when I entered the gallery at the IAPS exhibition which was held during the June convention. I saw my abstract ‘Wonderland’ hanging among so many other amazing paintings. Would anyone be surprised that it was mine? 

Karen with her painting "Wonderland" at the IAPS convention in 2022
Karen with her painting “Wonderland” at the IAPS convention in 2022

I learned an important lesson during that convention. It is okay to move around on the style scale and it is a good thing to stay unpredictable. 

What do I mean? I was pleasantly surprised to get a great reaction to my abstract painting in the show from my peers and mentors at the convention. One of the comments I got that really stuck with me is that I was not predictable….that it was a good thing to push and explore and not be afraid to share work that is not what everyone knows and expects. I never thought of myself as unpredictable but it does sound exciting! 

Karen Margulis, "Fall Fantasy," 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 12x12 in
Karen Margulis, “Fall Fantasy,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 12×12 in

So now I am embracing the idea of being unpredictable but what about that scale I’ve been talking about? I always thought that we might move in between abstract and photorealism but not that I would be in more than one place at the same time. Now I know that it is not only possible but that working in two styles is helping me improve both styles of painting. One informs the other. I take what I know about creating strong realistic paintings and apply them to abstracts. Both require knowing how to effectively use composition, value, color, and more. Playing with abstraction allows me greater expression with my more realistic work. Moving between the two styles helps me and inspires me. 

Karen Margulis, "Beach Dreams," 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 12x12 in
Karen Margulis, “Beach Dreams,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 12×12 in

I recently read a post by the late Robert Genn on style and moving between styles. He shared the story of an artist who felt the need to choose a style and stick with it versus the artist who moved around and experimented with more than one style. Here is a quote from Mr Genn that speaks to me: 

“My advice? When you are going in a certain direction, go hard. Give it everything you’ve got. Also, look at your focus work as exploration, not product. When your flame burns down, smile, start again on another.”

~ Robert Genn
Karen Margulis, "Fire and Ice," 2022, pastel on UART, 12x12 in
Karen Margulis, “Fire and Ice,” 2022, pastel on UART, 12×12 in

I am going to take that advice and run with it. My abstract flame is still burning and I can’t wait to see where it leads me. I will be taking an in-person workshop this fall with Larry Moore on painting large abstracts. I’ll be bringing my pastels!

Karen Margulis, "Bliss," 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 8x8 in
Karen Margulis, “Bliss,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 8×8 in

Information on my abstract process 

I think what I am loving the most about abstracts is that I can play to my heart’s content. I don’t think I have used the same process more than once. I begin each painting with a different approach and then let the painting tell me what it needs. Many of them have been done on top of failed paintings that I have washed with rubbing alcohol. The ghost image guides my marks. 

Sometimes I begin with a line drawing with black charcoal or black pastel and then begin building layers. The painting then goes through many layers of wet and dry layers. I put in a lot but end up covering it up to simplify and make a stronger composition. I am always thinking about how the viewer’s eye will move around the painting. I am also conscious of variation in my shapes, values, color, and mark making.  

Karen Margulis, "Meadowland no 2," 2022, pastel on LuxArchival,12x12 in
Karen Margulis, “Meadowland no 2,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival,12×12 in

I am still exploring of course but for inspiration, I am drawing on my past representational paintings and the reference photos that inspired them. I find myself looking at my photos in a different light. I am looking at closeup sections to see the design and the interesting shapes and patterns. I incorporate these shapes into the early layers of the painting and then I set the photo aside. My photos and past paintings also inspire the colour palettes I use. Often I will paint a regular landscape and then do another abstract version using the same pastels. I have also done it the other way around! 

Here is a typical progression. These are the steps I took for my painting ‘Into the Wild’

  1. I start with a piece of 12×12 in piece of LuxArchival. (I need a paper or board that will take abuse.) I used black charcoal to draw some flower shapes. I am thinking about variation and movement. 
Karen Margulis, "Into the Wild" progress shot 1
Karen Margulis, “Into the Wild” progress shot 1
  1. I start layering pastel by adding colour to the shapes and the background. I do not repeat a colour anywhere. If I want to use a colour in another place I will change it somehow…a different value, temperature, or intensity. 
Karen Margulis, "Into the Wild" progress shot 2
Karen Margulis, “Into the Wild” progress shot 2
  1. I use rubbing alcohol to wet down the pastel. I encourage drips!  While the alcohol is drying I start adding more pastel. I love the effect of the pastel in the wet areas. Again, I am always aware of variation especially in my mark-making.  Without fail I go too far and add too much stuff. I use alcohol and brush or spray alcohol to rewet areas to simplify. I also scumble pastel over dry areas to knock back busy areas. 
Karen Margulis, "Into the Wild" progress shot 3
Karen Margulis, “Into the Wild” progress shot 3
  1. At this point, I let the painting rest and come back the next day with fresh eyes. I go through the same process of looking at the shapes and eye movement. 
Karen Margulis, "Into the Wild" progress shot 4
Karen Margulis, “Into the Wild” progress shot 4
  1. For Into the Wild I saw that some of the flower shapes were too similar and arranged in a row…..boring! I made some adjustments to these flower shapes and I was finished!
Karen Margulis, "Into the Wild" close-up
Karen Margulis, “Into the Wild” close-up
Karen Margulis, “Into the Wild,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 12×12 in

*****

Wow and more wow! I tell you, I just LOVE this new direction Karen has taken. I can’t wait to see what will happen after the workshop on large abstracts she’s taking this Fall. I’m sooooo excited!! Thank you Karen for sharing your journey with us!

Have questions for Karen? Ask away! Have comments? We’d love to see them.

Until next time,

Gail

PS. That book Karen was talking about? Here it is:

PPS. One more….

Karen Margulis, "Dreamland," 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 12x12 in
Karen Margulis, “Dreamland,” 2022, pastel on LuxArchival, 12×12 in

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Comments

34 thoughts on “Karen Margulis – Journey Into Abstraction”

  1. I just love Karen’s work and spirit to explore. and what a gift that she passes on her experience to us!
    I’m looking forward to Fish for some elephants….just ordered the book. Permission to explore creativity keeps my engines going.

    1. I just came across your website when searching for good examples of pastel technique. MY! What fantastic work from Karen ( I love the whole site actually !!!) , and I would like to thank her for sharing, so now I can share her creative process with my pupils in Hungary.

  2. Suzanne Michele Gundlach

    When I saw her painting at IAPS, I was mesmerized – and did not expect it to be signed KEM! Loving the fresh departure into new expressionism and abstraction. “Fishing for Elephants” has been sitting on my TBR pile since last January. This is the inspiration I needed to dust it off and dig in.

    1. Suzanne, if I hadn’t seen Karen post some work prior to the IAPS show, I would have been just as surprised as you were! And I’m glad you too love Karen’s new direction.
      Cool you have the book already. Time to crack it open lol!

  3. Wow! This hit me! Thank you so very much for this blog post! These abstracts are amazing. Watching them I right now want nothing more than daring to go from doing realistic landscapes to landscapes that convey ” feeling” more than realism. But I also feel scared-how do you know you are doing it ” right ” and not ending up in mess and mud? Is this a journey more for the artist with loads of experience and feeling how colours work together?

    1. You are so welcome Charlotta. And I love that you’re excited to dare!! I think jumping in and experimenting is the “right” thing. If you don’t give it a whirl, you won’t move and grow. Be daring!!
      I think also taking a workshop may be a good place to start, for some structure and guidance….just as Karen did.

  4. I am INSPIRED!! I cannot stop thinking about finding all my past photos that I have used and applying Karen’s twist to them…a true aha! moment…

  5. Karen was the 1st teacher I found, on youtube, years ago when I 1st picked up a pastel stick with no clue what to do. She is the most generous and skilled teacher. I learned so much from her expertly planned curriculum. Her work is rich and exciting.

      1. Wow this is so timely for me! I too love Karen’s work as I do yours Gail. I am exploring abstract acrylics and have been thing how would abstract pastels work? I have started using oil pastels as Mark making in my watercolours and acrylics too. This is such an exciting and all consuming world to enter but I want to go there. So happy for Karen’s journey and wish her all the best. She really deserves it!

        1. Thanks so much Jen! And I love feeling your enthusiasm for your art-making come through loud and clear 😁 Art-making IS an all-consuming and a marvellous world for sure!!

  6. Karen starting talking about her exploration into abstracts at about the same time that I heard my own little voice pulling me in that direction too. Her exploration has inspired me to get started. 🙂

      1. I love Karen’s new abstracted flower paintings. I have learned so much from her through the years such as how to paint grasses and lead the eye around the painting . I have observed her love of sometimes adding bees around her flowers. To now see these bees abstracted brings a HUGE smile to my face!

  7. A great example on how even an accomplished artist like Karen can evolve their style and still learn by taking workshops with other accomplished artists. Very inspiring!

    1. Doug, yes!! I love that Karen had a need/desire to move her painting towards abstraction, found someone she admired and who she thought could share some guidelines and ideas, took his classes, and then got busy painting! Inspirational indeed!

  8. Amazing article! Karen’s move into abstraction has made my heart sing. And this at a time when my heart especially needs a push. I had dropped away from learning pastels as caregiver duties began taking up more and more time. Thank you so much, Gail and Karen. You are lovely, lovely people. I will make time.

    1. And reading your comment Genie made my heart sing!
      You won’t regret making time (but you already know that!). I know how hard it can be to find time in a day just for you, for creating. Even if it’s only one morning/afternoon a week, make that happen and it will give you so much over the whole rest of your week.

  9. I’m stunned by Karen’s abstracts, and will explore this direction myself.
    Thank you so much, Karen for sharing the article and your paintings . This is so inspiring.

  10. I read the reference to Larry Moore in Karens post, ordered his book and am now enjoying the exercises…..they are an eye opener . Anyone who is “stuck” and can’t decide on what to paint or needs new ideas should read “Fishing for Elephants”. Has given me enough ideas and exercises to fill my winter painting time.
    Chris Carter

    Met you at Gibson’s a few years ago..

    1. Hi Chris, I remember you from Gibson’s! We had such fun didn’t we?
      Thanks for the great review of Larry’s book! Look forward to hearing about your work inspired by it.

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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