(Get free painting tips and techniques sent straight to your inbox.)
This guide is an update of the information in the 6 eBooks I originally published in 2003 on Notan. See Wikipedia: Notan: A Virtual Art Academy building block by Barry John Raybould, MA (2004/2010) Course on Notan.
Since I first published information on this topic, I have discovered many new ideas and insights about its use in paintings.
Much of that knowledge has come from my travels in the East. It is in China and Japan where the understanding of the design of dark and light shapes in art was originally developed. It reached a hight degree of development in their traditional pen and ink art. Hence the term: Japanese Notan, a term popularized by Arthur Wesley Dow.
Comparing Barry John Raybould and Arthur Wesley Dow Definitions of Notan
The word ‘notan’ literally refers to the amount of water added to ink during pen and ink painting, and therefore the darkness or lightness of the shape. In Japan it signifies the abstract design of a two-dimensional artwork in terms of flat areas of dark and light values only.
Arthur Wesley Dow studied Notan from the Japanese point of view.
“The term Notan, a Japanese word meaning “dark, light,” refers to the quantity of light reflected, or the massing of tones of different values. Notan-beauty means the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light spaces—whether colored or not—whether in buildings, in pictures, or in nature. Careful distinction should be made between Notan, an element of universal beauty, and Light and Shadow, a single fact of external nature.”Arthur Wesley Dow
However this definition excludes the idea that a notan structure can have values between dark and light, and clearly those intermediary values are related to the abstract beauty of a work. Dow’s concept therefore does not allow for the idea of a three-value Notan, or a four-value Notan. Recent research into neurobiology is demonstrating that more than just one and two values are a factor in beauty. This is why I redefine Notan as follows:
“Notan is the underlying abstract framework, or pattern, upon which the value structure of a painting is created. A harmonious arrangement of darks, lights, and grays creates an impression of beauty, regardless of either the colors used, or of the subject matter. It derives from the words Nong( 浓 ) meaning thick, strong, concentrated, and Dan (淡) means weak, watery. So ‘Notan’ literally means concentrated/weak. ”Barry John Raybould
The advantage of this definition is that it allows for the concept of a three- and four-value Notan structure, which Dow’s definition precludes. Dow’s concept of Notan allows for a structure involving black and white shapes only.
This new definition is also more consistent with the etymology of the word, which predates its usage for the concept of dark/light harmony in Japan.
In fact, Notan derives from the two characters used in Chinese to describe pen and ink wash paintings: Nong (浓 ) and Dan (淡).
In Chinese, nong 浓 means thick, strong, concentrated. Dan 淡 means weak, watery. The word Notan is an anglicized version of these two characters: Nong, and Dan 浓淡nóngdàn, and so is actually referring to the amount of water added to ink during pen and ink painting.
Pen and ink wash paintings in traditional Chinese landscape painting certainly have more than just black and white shapes—they have gradations of gray values too. If you don’t add much water, and leave your ink nong 浓, you end up with a dark shape. If you add a lot of water and make your ink dan 淡, you end up with a light shape.
So my second definition has two advantages:
- it more accurately reflects the origin of the word
- it allows for a modern understanding of how beauty is created
What Is Notan?
Notan is the underlying abstract framework, or pattern, upon which the value structure of a painting is created. A harmonious arrangement of darks, lights, and grays creates an impression of beauty, regardless of either the colors used, or of the subject matter…..Barry John Raybould
What Is The Difference Between A Notan Study And A Value Study?
A notan study and a value study are two very different things. A notan is not the value structure of the painting—it is the framework for that value structure, a subtle point that many beginners get wrong.
A notan study helps you plan a painting from an abstract design point of view, that is completely independent of the subject matter. Thus the values in a notan study do not represent the actual values you see in a scene.
A value study, on the other hand, helps you plan a painting from a realism point of view, that is entirely dependent on the subject matter. The values in a value study need to be accurate to the actual values you see in the scene.
So one helps you plan the abstract design of the painting. The other helps you make the painting look realistic.
What Is Notan Design?
Notan design is the way in which you arrange the darks, lights and grays in a painting. If you create a good notan design in your painting, it does not matter so much which colors you actually use – you painting will still have a strong effect. It is the underlying value structure of your painting in its simplest form.
Why Is Notan Important?
It is important in a painting because it is the fundamental building block of your design. It is the abstract design of the painting in its simplest form – without any color. You need a strong notan design as a framework for building the rest of the design of the painting.
What Is The Difference Between Notan And Light And Shade
Notan is an abstract design concept, whereas light and shade are effects observed in nature. Although light and shade can impact the Notan structure, it is affected by many more factors, including the local color of an object. The two are entirely different concepts.
The Top 10 Tips For Creating Great Notans
- Squint at your subject and try to assign all the shapes you see to two, three or four values. 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.
- Use brush pens to create them. These tools are more like brushes than drawing tools.
- 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 “paintings” rather than drawings or sketches.
- Make sure one value predominates. In other words it should cover more than half of the painting.
- Make sure you do not divide the other values evenly. One should occupy more area of your painting.
- The fewer the number of values, the stronger the Notan structure.
- If you use smooth gradations in your painting, keep the values within a narrow range so as not to break the structure.
- The fewer gradations you have, the stronger will be your design structure. Look at the work of JMW Turner for examples.
- You can key your painting into high key, a full range of values, or low key. It makes no difference to the strength of the design.
- Be careful not to lose your structure as you add detail. This is the single most common reason for a weak structure.
Examples of Notan
Here is a page from my sketch book where you can see a couple of Notan studies for a painting. I usually mark the date, time of day, and weather. This is just in case I want to go back and do another painting on the spot. The time of day is quite important for the position of the shadows.
Rembrandt was known for his chiaroscuro and his dark light designs. This is a good example of Notan design. You can see that if you take the color out of the photograph of the painting, it reads very well in just black and white as a design.
Let’s take a look at this painting “Whistler’s Mother”, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Notan Structure of Whistler’s Mother
This painting has what is called a three-value notan structure. That means that the design is basically created from dark, light (or white), and gray shapes. In this painting Whistler cleverly linked all the darks into one large shape. That technique creates a more powerful design.
Note that although the white shapes are small, they are very important to the design. They create interest in what would be a very uninteresting design if the design only had two values, black and gray.
Here you can see that traditional Chinese painting was essentially a notan design. In this example, there are strong lights and darks, and the remaining values are light and dark grays.
Two-Value Notans from Old Masters
The design need not be complicated. In fact the simpler the design, often the more powerful the painting. Monet often used just two values in his paintings. Here are some notans from old masters that use just two values.
Here are some Notans from old masters that use three values, and one using two values for comparison.
In order to understand notan, you first have to understand values. Take a look at this video if you want to know what values are.
How To Do A Notan
Here is the most efficient way to do notan studies. There are other approaches but they take more time.
Total Time: 10 minutes
Step 1: Use brush pens to plan out the lights and darks
Do a series of Notan paintings using grey and black brush ink pens to get an idea for the dark and light shapes in your composition. I use Tombow brush pens as they are are more like brushes than pens.
Step 2: Pick the best design
Analyze your studies and pick the design you think has the best composition. A good design will have a dominant value.
Step 3: Follow your notan design in your painting block in
As you block in the lights and darks in your painting, make sure you follow your notan plan.
If you look at the final painting and a black and white version of it, you can see that the small sketch captured the essence of its three-value notan structure. The design was based on mostly a middle value gray, with dark shapes right and left, the largest dark on the right, and various smaller white shapes as accents. The painting won a top award in a plein air competition many years ago – due in large part to this carefully worked out design
The actual layout of the shapes differs in the final painting from the sketch, but the essence of the proportions and three values is there. Often you take the compositional sketch as a guide, then rethink it a little in the final painting.
Here are some of my notan designs for paintings:
App for Notan Design
There is really useful app called Notanizer that you can use to analyze the notan structure of a scene or of your painting. You do have to be careful about photography though, because a photography actually often gets the values wrong. So if you are not careful, you are just copying a mistake!
For more information on this problem, see the lesson on Dynamic Range in the Virtual Art Academy painting lessons.
To Learn More
Notan design is surprisingly involved. Gradation, dominant values, rhythm of shapes, and line are all quite important. In the art of China and Japan, pen and ink was one of the most commonly used mediums for artwork. So creating a dark light design was the most important factor in their art for a long time.
If you would like to learn more about the new design principles I have discovered since I published my first book on thus subject, come and join us in the painting classes A, B, C of the Virtual Art Academy Apprentice Program Year One. and also the more advanced painting lessons in the Year Two painting classes.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Please feel free to share it with friends. If you are interested in a structured approach for learning how to paint, take a look at my online painting classes.
Barry John Raybould
Virtual Art Academy