Pastel: Mark Norseth: Capturing the Ocean in Pastel

0702nors1_450x300_1Nine years ago, Mark Norseth moved his family to Hawaii and discovered the perfect place to record the power, movement, and coloration of the sea in pastel paintings.      

by Tamara Moan

It’s easy to spot Mark Norseth around the town of Kailua, perhaps down by the boat landing on the beach or under a tree at the edge of the marsh. He’s the lone, tall guy in a hat standing in front of an easel—a man against a green Oahu landscape. On Saturday mornings, when his students gather around him, the view includes one tall man, four other artists, and five easels positioned to catch the view quickly and effectively. Move closer and you’ll find a big, friendly instructor verbalizing his creative process while he squints at the light on the water.

Rising Sea
2005, pastel on prepared board,
18 x 24. Courtesy The Gallery
at Ward Centre, Honolulu, Hawaii.

All photos of paintings this
article by Hugo deVries.

Although Norseth’s art includes paintings of figures, landscapes, and still lifes, he has found the subject of the sea to be of unending interest since moving from New York City to Hawaii in 1998. The challenge of bringing light, land, and sea to life on paper or canvas thrills him. Pastels are a nearly perfect medium for these seascapes, and Norseth has honed a particular set of skills that he enjoys sharing with beginner and experienced students alike. Working in Hawaii poses unique challenges. Because the islands are just 22 degrees north of the equator, darkness drops like a curtain. Norseth describes the subtropical sunlight as “bright, but not colorful.” Artists have to search for warm tones among abundant and overwhelming blue-greens.

Norseth works in oil and watercolor, but he gravitates toward pastels because they are direct and are available in a range of colors. He prepares his painting surface by coating sheets of paper (often Arches watercolor paper) with two to five layers of acrylic gesso mixed with pumice. He tones the surface with a wash of a warm earth color in either acrylic, watercolor, or oil paint; and he sometimes covers that with a thin coat of shellac. When working on location, Norseth usually starts by using vine charcoal, sticks from a 96-piece set of Nupastel, and Girault pastels. “I keep my assortments of pastels organized by value rather than color, so they run from light to dark,” he explains. “As I continue working, I use softer pastels made by Schmincke, Sennelier, and Winsor & Newton. Each time I select and use a pastel I place it in a small cardboard box so it remains apart from the main set of colors until I am finished with the painting. I stand at a Jullian French easel with my paper taped to a heavy drawing board so it won’t blow away when the wind picks up. I keep a chamois and a small bottle of Sennelier fixative in my backpack so I can wipe off excess pastel or lightly fix it before adding more layers, and I have a mahlstick available if I need to steady my hand while painting lines or adding small details to a picture.”

Last Light
2006, pastel on prepared board,
22 x 28. Collection Mr. and
Mrs. John Anderson.

Nearly 80 percent of Norseth’s current work features the ocean. As he says, “Living this close to the ocean has been an amazing education. It’s something that gets even more interesting for me over time.” The clash of water against land along coastal edges constantly provides thematic material for his paintings. “The ocean is one of the easiest subjects to do badly,” Norseth comments. “Instead of concentrating on the minutiae of the subject, I like to talk about broad themes. I tell students that although they should attempt to master the subject—that is, the specific objects or elements in the painting—they should pay more attention to a theme. The concept that most often interests me is the conflict of elemental forces. The emotion of that subject—perhaps a sense of awe, serenity, turmoil, aggression, or tranquility—governs color choice and compositional rhythms.”

In observing and depicting water, Norseth keeps his attention on the large elements. He’s come to realize that the better one understands and conveys the principles at work in a scene—the movement of water and waves, the stationary nature of rocks—the less one actually needs to show the small details. The artist tries to capture the most representative features of the ocean by focusing on the areas and details of specific impact. If he can successfully record the impact of the water meeting the land, a sense of implied motion is achieved, and he can minimally suggest the rest of the scene without affecting the completeness of the whole piece.

Sea Sketch
2006, pastel on prepared paper,
12 x 16. Private collection.

Norseth discourages his students from using photographs, instead urging them to concentrate on observing nature over an extended period of time. He suggests making a number of studies to work out specific problems, keeping those preliminary sketches and studies very generalized. Although Norseth recommends long periods of direct observation, he also paints in the studio because he finds it easier to simplify a composition, define the contours, and lose or sharpen edges when he’s away from the subject matter. Sometimes he will only do preliminary work on-site, then he develops the full-size piece in the studio he maintains just a short bike ride from the ocean. It’s a comfortable space set up in a large study off his living room. Painting racks line one wall. Flat files on the opposite wall form a long table. He paints at an easel standing in one corner, gentle light from north-facing windows at the back of the house filtering in, as well as birdsongs and the chirping of geckos. Norseth often listens to music as he works, especially pieces by Ennio Morricone, Debussy, Grieg, or Ferde Grofé. Particularly evocative of the sea, according to Norseth, is the adagio section from Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. “I hear bits of it in my head when I’m working outside,” the artist says.

Norseth’s plein air work usually begins along Oahu’s Naiwi coast, where he finds spectacular lava cliffs and outcroppings. He may spend two minutes—or an hour—looking for the right subject. “Sometimes,” he says, “I step out of the car and happen upon an instant composition.” He then explores, hunting for angles and movements that attract him, noting his response to what he sees, using a viewfinder to make quick graphite thumbnail sketches, and jotting notes. Then he leaves the location to contemplate and synthesize what he saw.

Waimanalo Cliffs
2005, pastel on prepared paper,
16 x 20. Courtesy The Gallery
at Ward Centre, Honolulu,

The artist’s next step is to execute more thumbnail sketches from memory, laying down the salient features of the landscape. These sketches may not match reality, but they reflect his impressions. He then creates a more complete 8"-x-10" sketch to further define the idea implied by the image. At this point he experiments with and refines the big shapes of the composition, converting large foreground shapes to their simplest structures and leaving them loosely defined or out of focus so the viewer’s attention is directed farther into the scene. He plots an eye path through the piece, using compositional devices to lead the eye from an entrance point to an exit, following a path from light to dark. Norseth also searches for a key phrase or word that personifies what he hopes the painting will convey, perhaps “dignified,” “cathedrallike,” or “overwhelming.” He writes these words down and keeps them in sight throughout the process to stay focused on the larger, encompassing theme.

Norseth may execute a small color study on location using pastel or oil, most often in the early morning or just before sunset when there is the greatest color range in the landscape. End-of-day light is his favorite because it offers the full spectrum of colors from emerald greens, to pinks, to lavender-grays. Overcast early mornings are usually filled with flat, subtle grays and mauves and with rich, unusual darks. “For good or ill,” he notes, “the ocean is at its most beautiful when there is the briefest opportunity to observe it.” Norseth works in short, intense spurts of one to two hours—the amount of time is determined by the lighting conditions.

Sometimes a piece is completed on-site. Often, Norseth finishes nearly all of it on-site, then adds finishing touches in the studio. A finished piece normally takes him one or two weeks to complete. The artist generally composes his seascapes on a horizontal sheet, often starting with an abstract layer in a complementary color: for example, orange for a finished piece that will be primarily blue-green. Next he does a loose, sketchy underpainting that establishes the basic shapes. At this point he tests the composition by turning the piece on its side and upside down to make sure the main shapes are balanced and optimally placed. He works from hard to soft pastel, using fixative in the early stages. Even when working on a scene with plenty of white water, Norseth rarely uses straight white. He tries to keep the color key down, using white sparingly to address the highest notes.

The artist’s pieces are luminous, containing both a light that seems to breathe and a restrained power. It’s no surprise that his work sells well—the artist captures nature’s dynamism on paper, an energy that expresses the workings of larger forces. He sees rocks, sky, water, and the power driving them as wonders of nature and God. Norseth is attracted to the ocean because its limited elements provide endless variety; the sea can be frightening and threatening, or completely beautiful. “It’s never a painting about a wave with a seagull in the sky above,” says the artist. “It’s something much bigger. I look at this stuff—water rushing in and sucking out, meeting solid rock, all the apparent chaos—and I get a sense that there’s a designer underneath it all.”

About the Artist
Originally from Portland, Oregon, Mark Norseth began painting at age 11. After attending art school and working as an illustrator in the Pacific Northwest, he moved to New York City in the mid-1980s to continue his art training. He studied at the National Academy School of Fine Arts, the New York Academy of Art, and the Art Students League of New York, all in Manhattan; his teachers included James Childs, Hilary Holmes, and Curt Hanson. The artist works in watercolor, pastel, and oil and has won regional and national awards in all three media. His paintings have been included in exhibitions organized by the Adirondack National Exhibition of American Watercolors, the Pastel Society of America, The Hudson Valley Art Association, the Hawaii Watercolor Society, and many other organizations. He teaches privately and at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Tamara Moan is an artist and freelance writer who lives in Kailua, Hawaii.

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2 thoughts on “Pastel: Mark Norseth: Capturing the Ocean in Pastel

  1. I am not very knowledgeable in artwork done in pastel, but your work is captivating to say the least.

    In some areas, it appears that your work captures the essence of “pointalism” which I enjoy greatly.

    I wish I had your ensight.