Virtual Art Academy

Mass Notan Painting: 4 Easy Steps To Create Great Compositions

three-value-mass-notan-painting
final painting

There is a very fast and easy way to get a quick idea if the notan structure of your painting is going to succeed or fail. You do not need more than one minute to do it. You can save hours of wasted work using this technique. Read more to learn what this is and how to do it.

What is a mass notan painting?

What is a mass notan painting?

A mass notan painting is a small sketch that captures the notan structure of your final painting very quickly, without needing too much detail in the contour of the shapes. This two-minute sketch help to will ensure you have a good design for your painting, saving you hours of work.

When you create a mass notan painting you plan the distribution of light and dark shapes in your composition. It is basically a small monochrome painting that consists of simple shapes in a limited number of flat values, usually two or three values, and for more complicated compositions, four values. 

The exact contour of the shape is not important, only the approximate size and placement in the picture. I prefer to refer to them as mass notan “paintings” rather than the traditional ‘contour’ notan, for two reasons:

  • I think of them as quickly executed miniature art compositions, painted using very limited color (in fact, only black and white, and sometimes gray). 
  • I use brush pens to create them, and these tools are more like brushes than drawing tools.

What is the easiest type of mass notan painting to create?

two-value mass notan

For beginners, a two-value mass notan painting is the quickest and easiest way to create a good composition. It has just two values: a light and a dark value. You just need white paper, and a black ink pen to create these.

Not only is this is the simplest technique for creating a notan, it is because of this simplicity that it is possibly the most powerful. Often the two-value mass notan is created by the effect of a dark object silhouetted against a back light. Monet used it a lot in his compositions and you can also see it used a lot by the Japanese master art print makers.

The examples below are two-value mass notans I painted, showing just the dark and light shapes.

The above right two-value mass notan, is the painting that I did in preparation for “Cleone Lake, Mendocino Coast”. It helped me simplify a complex composition into just two shapes!

two-value mass notan painting

What are the 4 steps for creating a mass notan painting?

Step 1: Squint at the subject

Mass Notan Step 1: Squint

Squint at your subject and try to assign all the shapes you see to either a light or a dark value. When you squint, the subject goes out of focus, and all you can see is light and dark. The number of values you actually see will, of course, be huge, but it is important to assign each shape to the nearest one of these values.

Step 2: Choose the number of values

Mass Notan Step 2: Choose the number of values

Decide how you are going to represent each value, depending on how many values you are going to use. Generally the fewer number of values, the stronger the painting. So, start with a two-value mass notan painting using only black and white.

Step 3: Create variations and select the best

Mass Notan Step 3: Create variations and select the best

Do several mass notan paintings for the same scene, using different croppings, as well as landscape and portrait orientations, until you find one that works the best. They should be very small, 1x2inches (3x4cm), and should only take 2 minutes to complete.

Step 4: Transfer masses to the canvas

Mass Notan Step 4: Transfer masses to the canvas

Transfer the mass notan painting composition to your painting support, using a dark thin wash. You can also use a grid to make sure the transfer is accurate.

This lets you explore more compositions, saving hours of wasted time. You also use less paint because you will not be constantly adjusting and scraping your canvas.

When should I create a three-value mass notan painting?

As you improve your art skills, and begin to see more complicated compositions that you want to capture, you can advance onto creating three-value and four-value mass notan paintings.

In the example below, which won an award at the Carmel Art Festival, I used a black and mid-value grey pen on white paper to create a three-value mass notan composition of dark, light and mid-range values. I did several of these in different orientations and croppings of the scene, before I chose this strong composition for the final painting.

What if my composition is really complicated?

When you get to the more complicated four-value mass notan paintings, It is good to do a four-value study as well. The four-value study is more detailed than a four-value notan, and takes more time (15 minutes instead of two minutes). It is larger, and instead of just approximate masses, you make the shapes accurate. For this composition technique, use black, white, light grey and dark grey values. You can either use the brushpens as before, or you can use your paints. You will still save a lot of time and paint, and you may even like the results enough to frame the mini-composition.

Use the four-value notan when:

  • you have a complex composition to work out.
  • you are working on a large painting. It is always a good idea to do a lot of two, three and four value notans when you are planning a large painting.
  • you are working on improving your design skills.

What does a four-value mass notan painting look like?

In the four-value mass notan paintings below, you can see I used a simple method for transferring the composition to the canvas, so that I did not lose the mass notan painting and overall composition. I call this the union jack technique. It is notan sketch transfer technique I came up with that uses diagonals and does not need any measuring device. Divide your canvas with diagonal, perpendicular, and horizontal lines, and do the same on your mass notan. Then copy what is in each section of the mass notan, onto the canvas.

Know more about three and four value notan paintings

For the two-value notan you use white paper and a black brush pen. With a three or four value notan you also use middle value gray pens.

How to do it

  1. Decide which space you want to leave white and paint a middle or light gray all around it. Keep the coverage even so you have a nice clean, flat shape.
  2. Paint the black shape over the middle or light gray shape.
Three and Four Value Notan Paintings
Carmel Mist 16x20in (40x50cm)
 Three and Four Value Notan Paintings

Tips to create three and four value notan paintings

  • Keep the paintings small (about 1in x 1 ½in or 2cm x 3cm). These are much quicker to do and still contain all the necessary information on the major shapes in your painting that you need in order to evaluate the final painting.
  • Use the side of the brush pen, not the tip. This lets you cover an area more quickly and prevents you focusing too much on the contour of the shape.
  • Ensure you have a dominant value.
  • Look for a composition in your scene that consist of just two or three major values.
  • Whenever possible, change the shapes of trees, foliage, mountains and so on to make the shapes more interesting. Design nature to be more beautiful than you see it.
  • Link shadows as much as you can to make larger, simpler shapes.


To learn more

Notan is such a powerful contributing factor to the success of any painting that I have put together a complete set of six courses just on this topic.

To learn much more about how to use mass notan, contour notan, edge notans, and dominant values to help make your paintings stand out, see the lessons on Notan in our Virtual Art Academy® Apprentice Program.

Get a structured art education and see your paintings improve

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