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).