Many artists try to compose well-proportioned or well–balanced paintings, which will create an image that will have an impact and catch the viewer’s attention and cause them to linger for a while. There is one strategy artists can use, which involves seeing shapes of dark and light instead of pursuing the conventional composition rules. This technique for composition is known as the Japanese theory of Notan.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Is a Notan?
- 2 How to Produce a Notan Study
- 3 Can a Notan Study Improve Painting Skills?
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Notan?
The word Notan is pronounced “no-tan” and is a Japanese term that signifies a harmony or balance between light and dark values, which you use to build the structure of your painting. This arrangement of dark, light, and even grays, creates an effect or sense of beauty. It is derived from words in Japanese, the word “Nong”, which means “strong”, “thick”, or “concentrated”, and the word “Dan”, which means “weak”.
This brings us to the term “Notan”, which accurately means “concentrated” or “weak”.
The reference between dark and light means the measure of light that is reflected or the grouping of different tonal values. So, the term “Notan-beauty” signifies a harmony that results from a combination of dark and light spaces, irrespective of color, in pictures, nature, or buildings.
Old Plum (1646) by Kano Sansetsu; Kanō Sansetsu, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Notan is the representation of identifying patterns of dark and light, and a sound Notan drawing can bring the full range of your subjects’ values into a white and black design, where the black represents areas in the shadows and the white depicts areas that are directly in the light.
Color is not at all considered in a Notan drawing, since a value of any dark-colored shape situated in strong light will always translate into a light value.
In any form of Notan artwork, dark and light need one another to exist, in the same way, that you cannot have a positive space without also having a negative space and vice versa, this is clearly illustrated in the symbol form of yin and yang.
What Is Meant by a Notan Design?
The term “Notan Design” means the process you use to plan dark, light, and gray in your painting. When you create a Notan design for your painting, it is not important how many colors you are going to use; with the Notan design, your painting will still produce a strong effect. The Notan design is a fundamental value structure for your painting.
Let us now consider, in more detail, what a Notan design is and how you can use it in your own Notan artwork.
A Notan design is a practice that encompasses painting with white and black for light and dark. This also signifies what is known as a two-value Notan. Sometimes you can make use of grey that has an intermediate value and is referred to as a three or four-value Notan. However, the four-value Notan is purely a value study.
Notan design is the fundamental value structure for your painting and is referred to by Arthur Wesley Dow in his book titled Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and color (1889), as the three main elements of composition design.
Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) by Sir Arthur Streeton; Arthur Streeton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
You can build your painting using a strong Notan design, but it is not essential as you can still create an amazing painting without the use of a Notan design. However, it means that you would have to rely on some other visual elements such as composition, color saturation, and brushwork instead. What features make a strong Notan design? There are a few key features that contribute to making a strong Notan design for your painting.
- The first feature is strong value groups, which means light and dark are grouped and are not scattered all over the place. Sir Arthur Streeton’s painting Golden Summer Eaglemont (1889) is an excellent example of this feature.
- An organic design means more natural patterns that can be irregular in form and is not defined by straight lines and edges.
- There is a pattern creating dark and light, you will see an image emerge in a two-value Notan design.
- Dark balanced against light, one value is not overbearing another. This means there is not too much black or white.
What Is Meant By a Value Study and a Notan Study?
A value study and a Notan study are completely different ideas. Remember, that a Notan study is not the same as the value structure of a painting, which is a vital point. Let us take a closer look at these two different study types.
Illustration from Our Philadelphia (1914) by Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
A Value Study
A Value study is just the opposite, as it assists you in planning your painting from a more realistic point of view, and it is entirely dependent on all of the subject matter. Therefore, all color values in this type of study need to be completely accurate to all the actual values that can be seen in your painting.
So, a Notan study assists you in planning your painting from an abstract or theoretical design perspective, while the Value study assists you in planning your painting from a more realistic point of view.
A Notan Study
A Notan study is there to assist you in planning your painting using an abstract design viewpoint, which is independent of any subject matter. This means that the values in the Notan study are not representative of any actual color values that you can see in your painting.
How to Produce a Notan Study
The object or idea of a Notan study for your art piece is not about your skill with a paintbrush, but it is mainly a tool to assist you in designing your painting. Therefore, it does not matter how you go about creating your Notan study, or by what means you do it. Here are a few different ideas you can use to produce a Notan study.
- You can use the editing programs on your computer to simplify the values and characterize the image.
- You can make use of black and white paint, which could be acrylics, watercolors, or oil paints.
- A study could also be produced by using some light and dark-grade pencils.
- Another simple method is to use some black markers.
Notan drawings were originally created by making use of a brush or brush-pen and ink. The measure of water you then add changes the intensity of the pigment. The brush pen can give you a variety of marks, so by using a fine tip, you can draw more detail, while a thicker brush pen helps to prevent you from adding too much detail to the drawing.
Illustration from The Oölogist for Students of Birds, their Nests, and Eggs (1900) by Frank H. Lattin; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
If you are a beginner, it may be difficult at first to decide what part you need to leave white and what part needs to be kept black. In a Notan study, it helps to first use a photograph, where it is easier to see the difference between dark and light. As you improve, you will notice it gets easier to see the contrast in the image.
To start, look out for the darkest section that you can see, and which are in the shadows, and draw those first. Then, when you get to the tricky mid-values, it is easier to see if you should join the black and leave the white.
Many artists, when they start, just want to go straight into the painting and then work out the details as they go.
However, it is best to plan your painting first before you even begin painting. This is where the drawing of a Notan study comes in very useful, as you are not concerned about details but rather establishing the more important elements.
The three Japanese Notan studies or value studies can become very helpful in guiding you into creating a powerful and convincing composition for your painting. Just looking at any scene with the simple values of Notan, makes it obvious what will work and make your painting more successful.
Creating a Two-Value Notan
When you create a two-value Notan study, you can make use of white where you can see areas that are affected by direct light, and you use black where you can see areas that are not affected by direct light. It could be difficult in cases where you have a black suit or a white dress, but even in such situations, white dresses that are in shadow may look darker than black suits that are in direct light.
Bear in mind that the use of black and white is merely symbolic, as it does not indicate or signify that the dark and the light are not actually black and white, but merely symbolic where black is dark and white is light.
The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset (1883) by Claude Monet; Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A two-value Notan study is ideal when you have objects that have large shapes and simple value structures, similar to that found in Claude Monet’s painting Etretat, Cliff of D’Aval, Sunset (1885). Other Notan art examples include a painting that has a very strong value composition that can easily be identified by a two-value Notan study, the portrait by Giovanni Boldini’s Girl with Black Cat (1885).
In this portrait of a two-value Notan study, there is enough information about the subject by only making use of black and white. He very skillfully grouped the dark and light tones to build a strong foundation on value; however, this may not be apparent at first sight.
Girl with Flowers, Daughter of the Artist (1878) by Ilya Repin; Ilya Repin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Another example of a two-value Notan is found in James Whistler’s painting Whistler’s Mother (1871). Here you will notice a very simple Notan study, as there is very little detail and all you have is dark and light elements. A common mistake many artists make is putting too much detail into their Notan studies and, thereby missing the whole point of what a Notan study is.
The painting by Ilya Repin, Girl with Flowers, Daughter of the Artist (1878), is also a simple two-value Notan study, as it eliminates almost everything and only reveals a very strong composition of dark and light.
In many paintings, the Notan design has a dominant feature where you have a strong arrangement of dark and light elements, while in other paintings, this feature is less influential and produces a weak Notan design.
More Notan art examples of a weak Notan design can be found in the painting by Claude Monet, The Entrance to Giverny under the Snow (1885), as there is no balance of dark and light elements.
Creating a Three-Value Notan
Usually, a two-value Notan should suffice, but at certain times a painting may possess a distinct mid-tone element that is easy to overlook when you make use of white and black alone. This is where a three-value Notan comes in handy and gives your painting a more refined and stylish value structure. This means you have more information regarding the subject, which then makes the fundamental Notan design less obvious.
Morning Walk (1888) by John Singer Sargent; John Singer Sargent, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The painting by John Singer Sargent, Morning Walk (1888), is an excellent example of the three-value Notan design as it possesses a clear definite light mid-tone with a dark element, where a third value structure is very useful in capturing the mid-tones.
Creating a Four-Value Notan
When you encounter subjects with four or more distinct value groups, then a four-value Notan study can be used, which will make use of black, white, dark gray, and light gray. Remember, that if you make use of more than four values, you will be creating a value study and not a Notan study, as a Notan study focuses more on the design and abstract shapes that are created with a balance between dark and light, and a value study captures the extensive and complete range of values and as such is more realistic.
Portrait of Composer and Journalist Pavel Ivanovich Blaraberg (1884) by Ilya Repin; Ilya Repin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Some Notan art examples are found in the painting by Ilya Repin, Portrait of Composer, and Journalist Pavel Ivanovich Blaraberg (1884), which is best when using the two, three, and four value Notans to demonstrate what the difference is between all of the Notan values. In this case, the four-value Notan study is more useful, as it captures more details of the painting.
The two-value Notan captures less information and ignores all of the mid-tones of the painting, and the three-value Notan value study secures the mid-tones. However, the four-value Notan study is more suitable, as it captures the dark and light as well as the mid-tone elements.
Can a Notan Study Improve Painting Skills?
With a Notan study, you can quickly see what design will work for your painting, as it helps in deciding the arrangement of various shapes. If you have small and large shapes in your image that is not properly grouped, the black and white values make it easy for you to regroup them into proper order.
This means that you can remove the smaller images and it gives you a stronger balance to the scene, and you can begin to see interesting patterns emerge. The Notan study is a major contributor to balancing dark and light, as well as looking at patterns and shapes in your image, and helps you to see the overall structure.
Illustration from Trees in Nature, Myth, and Art (1907) by John Ernest Phythian; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
However, it is not always evident to see the balance of dark and light at first glance, as many other elements such as brushwork and color are also competing to attract your attention. So, the Notan study helps to filter out all other elements so you can easily see the balance of dark and light. In other words, a Notan study symbolizes the very basic abstract design of your painting. Ultimately, yes a Notan study is simply another tool or method you can use to improve your painting skills.
To begin, you may experience some difficulty with your Notan drawings, but as you persevere, you will soon start feeling more natural with them, and your ability to see dark and light will improve. All artists use different mediums, tools, and brushstrokes, but they all have the same goal, which is to produce a great painting, and with the use of a Notan study, this is more likely to be achieved.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Notan Artwork?
Notan artwork is the framework or pattern of dark and light, where the value structure for your painting is created, and Notan designs explore various arrangements of dark and light elements in your painting, without including other elements like texture, color, and fine details. A Notan design is the fundamental value structure of the painting in its simplest style.
How Significant Are Notan Designs?
A Notan is of great importance as it is the fundamental building block for your painting design. It is very important to have a strong Notan design that forms a framework around which the rest of the painting is built.
Why Perform a Notan Study?
Many artists use Notan drawings to study and investigate the composition elements of a particular scene and what relationship they have to major shapes. When you have a good Notan drawing, you can simplify your scene into the three values of light, dark, and halftones.