What is Notan?

Notan is a Japanese word that means dark-light. The principle of Notan, however, means much more than that. It is the interaction between positive and negative space. The ancient symbol of Yin and Yang is probably the most widely known Notan. The positive and negative areas make a whole through a unity of opposites. The Notan’s practical applications are for the design in painting. Understanding Notan will enable us to create value masses, tension, movement, and symmetry in our work.

A tone of grey between two value extremes (i.e. ,black and white) changes their relations and opens up a new field for creative activity. Here we think of Notan as the values of one tone against the another.

The set of three values is the basis of drawings, mezzo tint, aquatint etc. From there it is an easy step to many values. It is an exercise of great value (pun intended) to draw or paint a landscape with three values: white, black and grey.

Understanding Notan can help identify the most interesting and dominant shapes. It will also help identify the correct values and therefore create a stronger painting. Art sources to check out are Japanese Notan designs, the artists Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian, among others.

I recommend reading Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design (Dover Art Instruction) by Dorr Bothwell, Marlys Mayfield (1991).

I also recommend doing value studies before painting as it is the same exercise in determining value masses and their interaction = Notan! Other examples of strong Notan in representational art: Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Self-portrait at an early age” and James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1” (Whistler’s mother).

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4 thoughts on “What is Notan?

  1. Bob Witte

    Great post, Frank. Are you using a particular app to render these digital value studies? I know we both had value viewer at one time but mine no longer works and I can’t find a replacement. Thanks. How was your Eurpean sojourn?

    1. frankeber Post author

      Hi Bob, no particular app. I use Gimp on my comp and it’s free. Outside I sometimes use the value viewer but I usually don’t need it.
      Europe was great, thanks. I enjoy going there so much…
      Have you ever taken fall/ winter pics of that barn out at the couloir?

      1. Bob Witte

        Thanks, Frank. Right now we are out in Portland, OR. I haven’t been able to get out there to the Coulee, yet, but will make a pledge to get some photos out there when we get home. There hasn’t been any snow to speak of as of 2 weeks ago, but the leaves have fallen so that barn should be more visible. Be well.

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