In Jan Norsetter’s favorite place to paint, she may see or hear things that delight her, but she probably won’t paint them.

Lead Image: “February 23rd on the Sugar River at Sunset Farms,” by Jan Norsetter, 2013, oil on panel, 8 x 16 in.

In this regard, she is talking about the animals she encounters. “I love seeing critters around; they are important to my plein air experience, although I don’t generally include them in a scene,” says Norsetter. “But that is one of the things that hooked me into plein air painting. Birds will come near you and watch for a while. Goldfinches — early on, they came by and watched, and I loved it.”

Norsetter’s view at Mount Vernon, Wisconsin
Norsetter’s view at Mount Vernon, Wisconsin

Birds are drawn to water, and water draws Norsetter, too. Her favored locale is the Sugar River in Wisconsin. She grew up in Madison, and has lived in Verona, Wisconsin, since 1979, within a few miles of the river’s watershed. Her paintings have helped raise awareness about the importance of river watersheds, like the one feeding Sugar River. “Each year the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association and the Lower Sugar River Watershed Association have held a joint venture with an art show with images from the area,” says Norsetter. “These groups promote the health and well-being of the river. They have demo booths showing issues facing the river, such as erosion, runoff, and development.”

“Another Sunset at the Farm,” by Jan Norsetter, 2015, oil on panel, 9 x 12 in.
“Another Sunset at the Farm,” by Jan Norsetter, 2015, oil on panel, 9 x 12 in.
Norsetter painting at the mill race (waterfall) on the Paoli River. Photo by Diane Washa
Norsetter painting at the mill race (waterfall) on the Paoli River. Photo by Diane Washa

Norsetter is more artist than activist. “It makes sense, and I am happy to help,” she says. “I am interested in conservation, but the driving force is that the Sugar River is just so pretty. There are so many places where I can pull off the road and paint. I’m lucky — it’s easy to access and so beautiful. It’s fun to follow the river around and look for it in different places and be surprised when it shows up — oh, there it is again! It’s a meandering river with quite a few tributaries.”

“July Evening on the Sugar River at Sunset Farm,” by Jan Norsetter, 2014, oil on panel, 12 x 24 in.
“July Evening on the Sugar River at Sunset Farm,” by Jan Norsetter, 2014, oil on panel, 12 x 24 in.

She paints the river year round, but says she has a slight bias toward winter and fall. “It’s hard for me to say that winter is my favorite time of year, because it is so brutal,” says Norsetter. “But in winter, there are no bugs — no mosquitoes, no ticks. And it’s so quiet. But maybe fall is my favorite. In summer many spots are so overgrown that you can’t see the river.”

“Dusk, Mount Vernon,” by Jan Norsetter, 2015, oil on panel, 6 x 16 in.
“Dusk, Mount Vernon,” by Jan Norsetter, 2015, oil on panel, 6 x 16 in.
“Before the Spring Melt,” by Jan Norsetter, 2014, oil on panel, 10 x 10 in.
“Before the Spring Melt,” by Jan Norsetter, 2014, oil on panel, 10 x 10 in.

As previously stated, Norsetter naturally finds herself gravitating to water in a scene. “Not so much big water, but little streams — and shorelines. I like shorelines,” she says. “It just fascinates me to try to render it. I was pretty awful at it at first, but I was determined to figure it out. I think I’m getting it. I don’t know that you ever get there as a painter, but I feel like I’m getting there.” She says she finds herself attracted to the grand view, but often paints smaller, more intimate scenes — vignettes — to get over any frustration tackling the big views. She tends to work relatively small outdoors, often painting surfaces that are 6”-x-8” or 8”-x-10”.

“Mount Vernon Creek,” by Jan Norsetter, 2013, oil on panel, 8 x 16 in.
“Mount Vernon Creek,” by Jan Norsetter, 2013, oil on panel, 8 x 16 in.
“The Mill Race on Sugar River,” by Jan Norsetter, 2014, oil on panel, 10 x 10 in.
“The Mill Race on Sugar River,” by Jan Norsetter, 2014, oil on panel, 10 x 10 in.

The artist belongs to the Dane County Plein Air Painters, a group that is active from spring to fall. Norsetter has painted en plein air for years, but she started seriously studying the art of it in 2007. “I was doing it before then but didn’t have much to show for it,” she says. “But I got hooked on it and started exploring the area around my home. My paintings would have so much less meaning without my plein air work. You get so much more of the sense of a place when you paint on location. I don’t always paint outdoors. I will go out every day for a week, then be in the studio for a while doing something else and waiting for a good day. Wisconsin isn’t known for consistent weather.”

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Editor PleinAir Today, Andrew Webster
Andrew Webster is the Editor of Plein Air Today and works as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.

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