Virtual Art Academy
Notan sketches

A Beginners Guide To Notan

What Is Notan?

Why do certain paintings win art competitions? The answer lies a lot in the harmonious arrangement of black, white, and gray in the painting. A synthetic arrangement of dark and light creates an impression of beauty, regardless of either the colors used or of the subject matter. This is called ‘notan’ from the Japanese word that means dark/light harmony.

Notan sketches

Notan Definition

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. Notan is the underlying value structure of your painting in its simplest form.

Understanding Values

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 Study

notan study
Study of Notan Design

Step 1 – Do a series of Notan paintings using grey and black pens to get an idea for the dark and light shapes in your composition.

Step 2 – Analyze your studies and pick the notan design you think has the best composition.

Step 3 – Here is the final notan study for one of Barry’s paintings that won an award in a plein air competition many years ago. If you look at the final painting and a black and white version of it, you can see that the small notan sketch captured the essence of its dark light harmony.



A Beginners Guide To Notan 1 A Beginners Guide To Notan 2


  • 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, and 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 notan “paintings” rather than drawings or sketches


To Learn More

To learn more about detailed notan design principles, see the notan lessons in the painting classes A, B, C  of the Virtual Art Academy Apprentice Program Year One. and painting class E in Year Two.