A Small Watercolor Figure

A small watercolor nude
Victoria, 12 x 9″, watercolor

I love doing these small watercolor nudes from life. I find that when they work, they’re evocative, accessible, and an appropriate flowering  of life drawing practice.

One big lesson from these paintings, and one that I’m taking to heart,  is that too much information kills mood.  The amount of information (details)  brought into the painting needs to serve the painting and not become the point of the painting. So in this instance the viewer’s imagination gets to fill in the shorthand manner of the painting,  which is always a good thing

Color and Shapes

These small paintings are shape and color arrangements, and those need to observably exist in nature, on and around the model, for me to get what I’m after.  I’ve done some paintings from drawings after-the-fact, and they are sometimes successful.  But from life always is preferable because of the immediate interaction. I suppose the mild tension of in-the-moment work with the model before me contributes something special.

Either way, I’ll be doing more.


A Watercolor Portrait from Life

watercolor portrait

Particular subjects bring out a certain response from me, so while considering the few hours that we would be working with our model Lance, I decided that a watercolor portrait from life would be a refreshing way to capture this intriguing fellow…and introduce something a bit different to my students.

I don’t often advocate watercolor as a portrait medium because it’s drawbacks are pretty formidable, often outweighing whatever benefits one hopes painting a portrait in watercolor will bring.  No corrections in the drawing are possible after a certain point.  And transparent paint has color values that are limited…you can reach color notes in the high and mid range somewhat, but richness in the mid-darks and lower are a lot of work to achieve, and often not very successfully.



But if one wants a suggestive,  informal piece in somewhat short order, this is a good way to go.  There are certainly lovely  qualities that watercolor brings to the table, and I like to take a crack at it from time to time.  The great John Sargent’s portrait heads in watercolor have always been an inspiration…even serious oil painters like them!   So despite my reservations,  beautiful things have been done in the right hands, and we can try to emulate them.

Anyway, this painting was completed over two separate evenings in  perhaps 4 hours;  the first two being devoted to working out the pencil  drawing as best as I could. So much hangs on the drawing being in place, especially with a watercolor portrait!  Everything else came together very gradually, which is what I prefer.  I’m not a great believer in quick production though it’s fine if it looks that way.

It’s painted on Arches #300 lb cold press, and measures 15 x 12 “. Watercolor, graphite, and opaque white.

Thanks for having a look, let me know if you agree or not with my assessment.

Back on the Beach~Halona Cove

Because of the stunningly clear weather we’ve enjoyed recently, I’ve made my way back down to a subject that is always in the back of my mind, Halona Cove. I’ve worked here before,  and often, but  am always happy to return…and hopefully get a bit closer to capturing that sense of absolute awe that I feel here.  That the neighbor island of Molokai was clearly visible was an added attraction.

FYI, this is also known locally as Eternity Beach  (due to the famous 50’s film “From Here to Eternity”, with Burt Lancaster and Debra Kerr memorably rolling passionately in the surf at this very spot).

Of course that has nothing to do with my own interest in the subject…I’m motivated by the beauty, power, and brilliance that is packed into this tiny cove.  I might also add “joy”, because it’s a delightful place for those who make the trek down into this canyon-like inlet.  The visitors here, whether locals or visitors, are in a unique place and know it. So I want the work to contain some of that.  The brilliant water, the jagged and dark lava combined with dazzling sunlight, create some remarkable visuals.

Making It Happen in the Moment

I began with a watercolor, which occupied two sessions on an especially clear set of days. The drawing of the figures and general composition came quickly. The actual painting took two sessions because of the fleeting light effect. Once the shadow of massive Koko Crater begins to fall on the beach, it’s dark shadow almost rushes  across the scene in a dramatic fashion, highlighting  the various  areas of the painting but momentarily.


Sunday Afternoon, Halona Cove  Watercolor on Arches Cold Press  10.5 x 14″

This turned out just as I’d hoped, and from here I decided that I had a handle on a new oil painting, which is what comes next.

Sunday Afternoon, Halona Cove available for purchase here



A Studio Solution to a Plein-air Problem

Responding to a surprising  improvement

While working outdoors on a watercolor, I ran into a situation…a scene before me greatly improved as I was working by the unexpected addition of a pair of figures that were not part of the original concept.

Since I’d already begun applying paint to the piece, these characters couldn’t simply be added into the composition.  But I knew their addition would  make such a vast improvement that I couldn’t just let the opportunity pass me by.  I decided to make a completely new painting, but I knew that there would be no time to do so directly and at the location.

So, my first step was to sketch these two figures hastily in my sketchbook. These guys, who happened by and were now sitting only yards away, weren’t likely to cheerfully respond to a request that they pose for me, so I dashed them off rather secretly…their silhouette and relative position to the horizon…so I could place them into a new composition and have them be the correct size. I then made some mental notes, watching how they interacted, their posture, gestures, and so forth.

kaimanu sketchbook                     The sketchbook drawings

This accomplished, I was free to leave the location with a plan to start a new painting  in my studio the next day, relying on my incomplete painting, the new figures in the sketchbook, and hopefully some luck.

A Studio solution to a Plein Air problem

I have a background that includes having worked as an illustrator.  Illustrators are pragmatic artist/craftsmen and  accustomed to solving problems efficiently. They’ve developed a large playbook of applied techniques and one of the great tools of the trade is the use of tracing paper for refining and transferring drawings.

To shape the quick sketchbook notations into viable figures that would hold up in my painting, I would need to refine them from memory and a certain amount of invention. That’s where tracing paper came in….I created overlays of the rough drawings, gradually adding details from memory, refining and retracing until I had two figures of the correct size that expressed what I was after in the painting.  Because I did so on tracing paper, that stage of  work was all done without touching the delicate watercolor surface, which does not enjoy erasure and revision.

After a couple hours work, the elements of the entire composition were  combined on tracing paper and were ready to be transferred to the quarter sheet of watercolor paper for painting.

WC graphite

For this I used a simple graphite transfer sheet(above) that one can easily make themselves with graphite, a piece of tracing paper, and perhaps a bit of rubbing alcohol to liquify the graphite on the transfer sheet.  I placed  my graphite transfer sheet (graphite side down) between the securely positioned tracing paper drawing and the watercolor paper, and traced with a ballpoint pen over the original drawing.

kaimanu dwng 1a

The tracing paper cartoon positioned over the watercolor sheet. The transfer has already been accomplished, and is visible beneath the tracing paper, which has been moved aside slightly to reveal the transfer.

The next step was to fold back the tracing paper and strengthen the graphite transfer with the usual pencil work.  One can flip the cartoon back into position if anything hasn’t transferred.

Kaimanu dwng 2

The transfer on watercolor paper, strengthened with my customary pencil work

At this point I have a pristine sheet of watercolor paper with the drawing positioned exactly as needed, with all of the figures worked out adequately, and without any erasure damage to the watercolor paper.

I then resumed my normal painting sequence, beginning with the figures because of their difficulty, and moving outward and around from there.  I’m referring to the prior painting from the location for color and some details.

Kaimanu dwng 3


Kaimanu 4

And on it went!



A Different Light -New Work by Mark Norseth July 27-August 29

Part of my absence from the blog over the last  month or so has been due to creating a new body of small works for this show.  All watercolor.

Here are some of my favorites-


 Remnant, Nu’uanu  was painted directly in one go, and in that respect I think it’s the most successful painting.   This grand old house is empty of occupants and so far I have been unsuccessful in learning much about it. I love painting white objects struck by sunlight, and that was probably the original motivation to stop and look the place over. I think the strength of the painting is the full value range, bright light to strong darks, and that horizontal of red surrounded by greens of all sorts, making a compelling motif.

I was standing in the driveway and peering through an iron gate while painting this, with a couple lanes of busy highway traffic (The Pali Highway) only a matter of yards behind me.  I often work this way it seems!  If you live on Oahu and travel the Pali, you’ve undoubtedly passed this old classic and probably not realized what was behind the hedge. If anyone has any information on the house, I’d appreciate knowing about it.


Kamaina is actually the name of this very busy beach in Waikiki.  I’ve spent a lot of time around here and have painted several variations of this theme.  The light and shadow are very stimulating, there is  a lot going on and painting  that requires a very quick approach that seems almost reckless at times.  The figures were never really there for more than a few minutes and so were devised  from some very rapid sketches done while I was visiting the area. I have a post -in-waiting on how I was able to do that.

Natatorium-Late Day

Natatorium-Late Afternoon  was painted from location originally but didn’t turn out, and this is probably the third version I attempted, mostly  a studio piece from the original sketches and  imagination.  The architecture was drawn at the location, something I enjoy attempting simply because of the sheer difficulty (and my obstinance) and color added from a small color sketch.  It’s only a stone’s throw from the location of Kaimana.  There’s serious talk of demolition of this old monument, but a lot of the attraction for me is the elegant architectural style and quality of light here at day’s end.


Plumeria and Palms-study

Plumeria and Palms  has the full-on vibrancy of color and impact of light which is it’s sole reason for being.  Painted up at Chaminade University, I also attempted a larger version that is unresolved at this point.




Waikiki-Promenade is another of the small study-paintings, about 7 x 10″, that  like Plumeria and Palms  I find fully satisfying as-is. This was painted entirely on sight, but over two evenings due to the fickleness of the light effect. It’s a delightful place to be at the close of the day, a lot of happy people simply enjoying their lives in this beautiful place.  I personally think a small painting of joyful elements is a very fine thing to have in a corner of a home…we need reminding of how good life sometimes can be, do we not?


Evening, Windward Side

Evening- Windward Oahu is a labor of love for me….this place is very close to home, and I have continual access to it for painting purposes.  I have rarely, if ever, have done it perfect justice. It’s simplicity  is deceiving…this sort of painting seems to work best when pulled together in an unstudied and direct manner, and that doesn’t always work.  Watercolor paint doesn’t dry quickly in the evening, and so timing is everything.

It’s the same ingredients, tree shapes, colors, figures, but never the same combination twice.  So, I keep painting here, trying to change the emphasis or get closer with the  color of the light, knowing that like everything in life, one day will be the last time. That reality gives me a bit of urgency, not to take the opportunity for granted.

A Figure Drawing with Watercolor Wash

In my Life Drawing Studio class, I sometimes enjoy adding the element of color when the pose is an hour or longer in duration.  Watercolor is a convenient and sometimes ideal way to go…thoughI have to admit that  if the drawing aspect isn’t working,  no amount of color work will make up for such a weakness,  and  so I don’t recommend it to students until they are well on their way.


Watercolor nude 4.13

For anyone who wishes to give it a go, I ‘d recommend starting with monochrome wash until you’ve got a mastery over wash, know your brushes and paper (which need to be of good quality), and especially the drying characteristics of your paper.  I use Arches 140 lb and Saunders 200lb, which are both great papers.

My normal watercolor palette, which is primarily used out-of-doors,  includes the following colors that are perfectly suited for figurative work:

Raw Sienna,  Naples Yellow, Cadmiums Orange, Yellow, Lemon, and Scarlet, Indian Red, Light Red, Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Rose, Raw and Burnt Umbers, and Ivory Black.  These, in  addition to the blues, greens and other colors I regularly employ, are a well rounded group for general painting indoors or out.


The New Watercolors for January




Along with everything else I’m working on, I’ve been on a watercolor jag for the last month.  It’s been great fun and hard work, and I’m planning on more.

Do these work for you?

So much of painting is just about purposefully being in the work-mindset.  Rather than waiting to be inspired,  often times I just have an idea about  design, or an effect of light, and begin with something in my sketchbook;  inspiration or enthusiasm arrives after I begin to work, not generally before.  I know it’s the same for writers and musicians…you begin by taking the first step of working.

Each of these paintings are quarter-sheet, which is watercolorist talk for 11 x 15″, and painted on Saunders #200.  Titles are coming.



About that Figure in Watercolor Workshop!

No photos, no images….frankly, we were working so happily and busily that I never took the time to shoot anything.

But the workshop was successful beyond my expecations, the response afterwards has been positive, and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to help so many people.  And the best part was that what was beyond my expectations was the attitude of the participants!  To a person, they worked as only the inspired do. I’m very proud of each of the 13 who attended.  Hard to quantify such an experience, but we will be repeating this workshop again, so if interested, send me an email and I ‘ll get you on the advance list for next time!

Here’s some of the advice that surfaced:

Be a painter first, a watercolorist second.

Suggest, don’t explain.  The word “Suggest” is printed indelibly on the face of my own watercolor palette.

Draw from models, memory, imagination, and draw in the streets.

Dry in the lights, wet in the shadows (“When you paint light, you paint form, when you paint shadow, you paint stmosphere.”).

Art never will come to you, you must always make the first move. 

So chew on these thoughts, work in your sketchbooks constantly, and  remember to be always looking, always designing, seeking fluency, and willing to work. 


11 x 14″ Practice sheet from the workshop…heads constructed from a skull, and varied for direction, gender, and expression.  Drawn and painted from imagination.  Great way to study, and fun.