“Promontory,” oil on linen, 12”x16”
Image: Mark Norseth

Is painting en plein air outdated? Or just undervalued?

Art / With a series of new oil paintings and pastels on display at the Gallery at Ward Center, Mark Norseth asserts himself as one of the finest landscape painters to have worked in Hawaii. Finding inspiration close to his home in Kailua, Norseth depicts Oahu’s rugged southeastern coast with a realistic shorthand reminiscent of the plein air paintings by John Singer Sargent and Joaquin Sarolla. Winslow Homer’s paintings of Maine also come to mind, however Norseth’s teal and turquoise chops accurately portray the powdery sand, onshore winds and intense sunlight at play in the sea around Waimanalo and Makapuʻu.

A vertigo inducing view of the sea from a rocky bluff makes “Promontory” the most dynamic composition in the show. In this painting, a weathered lava rock outcropping is conveyed primarily as a dark rusty shadow, complimented by accents of silvery green vegetation and a buff highlight expressing the sunlit slope just over the ridge. The burnt sienna underpainting revealed in the cliff’s shadow rewards the viewer with a glimpse into Norseth’s fresh and gutsy process.

Norseth’s downward perspective places the horizon outside the picture plane and, robbed of that support, a sense of danger prevails. The threat of being swept off by a gust into a vast and endless sea alludes to Homer’s painting, “West Wind,” despite the pleasant contrast of bright turquoise and reddish brown.

“‘Promontory’ grew out of other paintings I’ve done in the past which were centered around the silhouette of Koko Crater, and what happens with the light upon it,” explains Norseth. “While sketching, I came upon the idea of trying to present this vast expanse of ocean with this diagonal of jagged land cutting into the composition as an interesting design. So “Promontory” was, ironically, originally about the ocean, but as often happens, clear light fell upon the land mass one afternoon and I had this color event take place that was beautiful, and that was that. The decision to hide the horizon was something I wanted to do as well, [as] it affects the painting a lot.”

Gazing at the rugged, windswept cliffs in “Promontory,” thoughts wander to what a logistical nightmare it must have been creating this painting on site. According to Norseth, “Painting outdoors is inconvenient to begin with, so it wasn’t an issue really. Since my paintings like this require multiple visits to the site, I would sometimes be disappointed to travel there only to find overcast conditions, which affect all of the color, not just the sunlit areas.”

The visual flattery consistent in Norseth’s heightened colors brings to mind Monet’s series paintings of the 1890s. In fact, a diptych, “Day In, Day Out,” provides the same view of a beach shown both in the morning and afternoon and the changing shadows and highlights are easily compared with the various lighting conditions in which Monet portrayed haystacks, poplars and waterlilies. The effects of light are also brilliantly displayed in the sun kissed slopes of “Lightfall, Windward Oahu” and in the dappled tree trunks and pathway of “Sherwood, the Forest Floor.” On the foreground beach, just right of center, an unfortunately shaped tree partially blocks our view of the mountain, and heightens the illusion of space, while also reminding us of how awkward nature can appear–even in our island paradise.

Possibly the strongest work, “Ironwoods at Dusk” has a dreamlike atmosphere to it. In its foreground, a tangle of tree trunks painted in various shades of purple lean to the right. Each tree takes on its own personality, craning to get a better view of the orange afternoon light on an impossibly steep cliff across the bay. The cliff nearly dissipates into the orange and lavender clouds behind it, if not for the purple shadow at its base. An electric teal horizontal line representing water contrasts beautifully with the hazy mauve atmosphere of the canvas. Norseth partially based this painting upon his oil sketch, “Sherwood, the Forest Floor,” which features no sea nor distant mountain. The fact that he could successfully invent most of this painting is a testament to Norseth’s keen understanding of nature forged through countless hours braving the elements to paint from life.

Norseth says that his process painting “Ironwoods at Dusk” represents the future for him. “When “Sherwood” was wrapped up, I wanted to do more with it, to see the ocean through trees, and somehow give it that end-of-day feeling where color and light briefly have the last word before nightfall. I’ve spent about 20 years painting directly from nature, and had spent so much time over the last year in that area that I thought it was time to just allow all of that wonderful and, for myself, spiritual experience to represent itself. A quick watercolor sketch and some pencil notes of how I would like things to be were all I went by, and I painted it pretty much out of my head.”

Norseth’s paintings make a strong argument for the benefits gained from experience painting en plein air. “Every time I’m working from nature, I’m honing a skill set ever so slightly,” he shares with a professorial tone that explains his loyal following as an instructor at the Honolulu Museum of Art School. “I like to be fully in the experience. The whole plein air idea is based on first hand encounter with light and color and transition. While people can do credible work from photography, I would much rather continue to work from nature and imagination primarily, and I tell my students that it is important to do so.”

While cynics may deem Norseth’s paintings outdated, it is worth considering that most contemporary art is simply a regurgitation of theories and techniques that were considered avant-garde back in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. A look at these paintings may find you believing that good technique never gets old.

Where Shadow Meets Light: New Work by Mark Norseth, The Gallery at Ward Center, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., on view through 11/29, 597-5034