Tag Archives: landscape painting

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).


What is a good painting?

In my last blog post I have talked about how painting can be compared to music. Personal taste is ultimately the reason why an individual likes a painting or a song. Good art, bad art? Who’s to judge? What’s great to one person may be horrible to another. In music, there are people who love endless jazz solos and others would want to run screaming out of the room if they were exposed to it. There may be paintings that I like a lot and someone else hates them. Overall, I think that’s natural.

But there is some music and some art almost everyone can love, maybe Mozart? Paintings by Sorolla, or more contemporary, Dali? Ancient Notan art of the Japanese and Chinese. In other words, there is a consensus where most of us feel the same way about something. To take it further, most people would agree that Audrey Hepburn was a beautiful woman. So there is almost like a standard for what’s beautiful.

How would that apply to painting? I think, ultimately, it comes down to the personal style of any given artist. The artist’s personality that has its presence in their work. We can see it. Sometimes you look at some painting and you just know, that’s a Sargent or a Zorn! The masters have their own distinctive style. It is *their* own personal vision of beauty that we pick up on and it resonates within us.

Nature by itself is not art per se, it is what the artist expresses when they paint her that becomes art. A painting that has the mood of a landscape is more powerful than one where the artists tries to paint every leaf on a tree.

Art and music are also influenced by the aesthetics of a people and societies in general. Sense of beauty and taste also changes with time, although some art and music is ‘timeless’. Landscape painting is timeless, I think, because we as human beings come from nature. It is in our DNA. In music, the classics like Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin etc etc. are still liked and listened to today even though their music was written hundreds of years ago.

Painting and music – a great analogy

Both art forms (music and painting) have effects on our subconscious!

Words like sensuous and passionate, or emotional, stimulating, mood altering, uplifting, depressing… can be applied to both music and painting! An example would be to make a painting too busy. It is equal to listening to music where someone plays solo without stopping. It is tiresome and ultimately not a pleasant experience. It is like looking at a painting that is filled with too much information or no color harmony.

Emotional attributes are equally felt in the use of color in art. A painting has the highest impact when it captures some poetic mood of nature, an impression of strength and power, or an emotion in a portrait. Color sets mood. Just think of the beautiful works of the masters Corot, Whistler or Thayer. Warm colors, by nature, are exciting and stimulating but can also be irritating. Imagine being in room where all the walls have been painted scarlet red! Cool colors have quiet the opposite effect. They are restful in the emotional sense. There is a reason why most people use soft greyish tones when painting walls in their houses.

Going back to music, any music piece is only consecutively played notes between pauses which, when played without emotion, are just that: notes, scales. The actual music is in the interpretation. It is nowhere to be found in the notation. Exactly like in painting: without an emotional connection a painting is just pigment on paper or canvas. It is certainly not found in the color mix. That’s why there is the term ‘artist’ and another one for ‘painter’. When does a painter become an artist?

When a painting is ‘technical’ we may be impressed (or not), but when a painting grabs you by your emotions it becomes art. That’s the painting you keep coming back to, whereas the technical one has your attention for 30 seconds and then you loose interest!

Instead of my paintings, this time I have uploaded some of the Masters.

A good quote by artist Jean-François Millet: ‘Technique should always hide itself modestly behind the thing expressed.’

A ten day extravaganza in Tuscany, Italy

It was a pleasure to be back at Abbondanza, once again working with the wonderful Paula and Karolina.
We had a great group, total of 19 people with several non-painters, or ‘civilians’ as they liked to call themselves!
Paula’s is one of the best workshop venues when it comes to European painting trips. It is hard to top this experience. There is a chef on location and a driver for the daily excursions, done in a luxurious bus that can hold up to 20 people.
Some of my students who took the workshop two years ago are still raving about the culinary experience they had at Abbondanza!

One of the highlights this year was painting in the Villa Reale gardens near Lucca where John
Singer Sargent painted a long time ago. We found the exact locations he picked. Out of respect and reverence, we decided to paint a different view, from the opposite site Sargent had picked.
Unfortunately, it was a rainy day and we ended up working with umbrellas in one hand, paint brush in the other. That didn’t stop us, however. It may be a once in a lifetime opportunity so nobody was deterred from trying. Nice light would’ve been a treat but the weather is what it is!

Villa Fiori, our accommodations, were located about a 20 minute drive from the city center of Lucca, high up in the hills. The location couldn’t have been better! There was an olive garden and medieval church right outside, which we painted multiple times in different light.
My workshop was well received and I got many positive reviews. Students really like my teaching style and emphasis on sound painting principles.

As a fun side-note: the week we were there, the Rolling Stones were also scheduled to play a concert in the moat next to the city walls of Lucca. So the town of only 10000 grew to more than 60000 on the day of the concert. We made sure we stayed far away from Lucca that day!

Sunrise plein air!

Lately, I have been going out to paint super early. Getting up at five in the morning is painful but once I am out there painting in the hills and it starts getting light…there’s just nothing like it! Forgotten is the battle to get out of bed.

The main reason I am doing it is because I am trying to get better painting a scene that is changing literally in minutes. It is kind of a self test. So, I get small canvas papers taped up on my board, no larger than 5by6 and give myself 10 to 15 minutes to paint the scene. Usually, I have time to do one before sunrise and then one more of the same scene once the sun is up.


These last two came out alright. I am not too concerned with exactly what I am painting, it’s more about the process itself. I also enjoy being out in nature, so witnessing a sunrise is a privilege that most of us miss every morning. Anything to improve my painting skills!

This is just the latest wacky idea I had so I thought I share it here.

On another note: Check out my newly updated website: http://www.frankeber.com
I am slowly starting to put up oil paintings and drawings, so check back frequently! Website is updated on a regular basis.



Drawing and painting horses is a challenge. Horse anatomy is quite difficult. One of the mistakes I always did was to make the neck too short and the body, or the flank, too long. Most important is to get the curves of the rear, the back and the belly right. Often, in landscape painting, the horses we paint are quite small so as long as it looks right, we’re good. It does not actually have to be right. There is a difference! I should trademark that..

As Richard Schmid rightly says, you don’t actually have to know anything about the thing you’re painting. But it is imperative to spend time observing and drawing it! In the end, the only way to fully understand an object, whether it be a horse or a car, is to draw it many, many times.
Only then will we ‘get it’ and I am not talking about intellectually getting what a horse is all about, just referring to drawing skills here. Horses are more challenging to draw than cows, don’t you think?

I recommend charcoal drawing for the simple reason that you can take it anywhere you go. It doesn’t weigh much and it’s a great way to improve drawing skills. I use Faber-Castell Charcoal Pencils and General Pencil Co. Vine Charcoal. These come in different hardnesses, from the super hard to super soft.

Here are a few good links:
~ Think Like A Horse is a great website covering horse anatomy
~ A Horse for Elinor has good pictures of dressage training
~ Equitherapy has horses galore

Small on-site sketches…or….little paintings!

I know that Jeremy Lipking and Scott Christensen teach the importance of making small on-site sketches whenever possible. I even heard that in Scott’s plein air workshops, students only get 45 minutes to finish a painting on each location visited! When some of the best painters have great advice, it certainly is a good idea to consider it!

The advantages are obvious and multi-fold:

  • It may be less intimidating to start a small sketch than a bigger painting.
  • Despite the relatively small size (only 5″x6″ or so), the painting process is the same. You still  need to work out values, color, drawing and edge just like in a bigger piece!
  • You’re going home with 3–6 paintings instead of just one (that you may or may not like).
  • Last but not least, you have multiple on-site sketches from which you can do a bigger studio piece from!

Oh, and here’s another one: often there isn’t enough time to finish before the light changes too much, but it’s almost always possible to finish a 5″x6″ piece. These sketches should really take no longer than 30–45 minutes each, no matter what medium you’re painting in.

I don’t even bother with an underpainting when doing these in oils. Since I am a watercolor guy, I just jot down a few lines with pencil and paint ‘alla prima’ (direct painting). The basic principle for Alla Prima painting is to observe, mix and put down the right amount of paint in the right place with the right value. If possible with little or no adjusting, changing etc.

Easier said than done! Practice, practice, practice!