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Notan: The Top 10 Tips For Creating Powerful Notans

Two Value Notan Paintings

Mastering notan is key to good painting. If you don’t get this right from the beginning, you painting will most likely fail. Here’s how to ensure that doesn’t happen.


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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.

Here is my definition of Notan.

Definitions of Notan

Notan is the underlying abstract framework of dark and light values, upon which you build the value structure of a painting. The arrangement of darks, lights, and grays, regardless of the colors used, creates an impression of beauty. It derives from two words that refer to the amount of ink you use for a pen and ink wash drawing. Nong( 浓 ) meaning thick, strong, concentrated, and Dan (淡) means weak, watery. Hence, the term ‘Notan’ literally means concentrated/weak.”

Barry John Raybould

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. This is why I clarified Dow’s definition to be closer to the roots of the original word.

The Top 10 Tips For Creating Great Notans

  1. 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.
  2. Use brush pens to create them. These tools are more like brushes than drawing tools.
  3. 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.
  4. Make sure one value predominates. In other words it should cover more than half of the painting.
  5. Make sure you do not divide the other values evenly. One should occupy more area of your painting.
  6. The fewer the number of values, the stronger the Notan structure.
  7. If you use smooth gradations in your painting, keep the values within a narrow range so as not to break the structure.
  8. The fewer gradations you have, the stronger will be your design structure. Look at the work of JMW Turner for examples.
  9. 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.
  10. Be careful not to lose your structure as you add detail. This is the single most common reason for a weak structure.


What Is Notan?

Notan is the underlying abstract framework, or pattern of lights and darks, 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?

Two Value Notan

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?

Tombow brush pens and sketchpad for notan

Notan design is the process of how you plan 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?

Shape In Art - Shape Abstraction Level 1

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.

Examples of Notan

Notan sketches

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.

notan design in Rembrandt painting
Landscape With A Stone Bridge, by Rembrandt, circa 1638

Let’s take a look at this painting “Whistler’s Mother”, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

notan structure of Whistler's Mother, by James McNeil 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.

Chinese Ming Dynasty landscape painting showing atmospheric perspective

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 paintings from old masters that use just two values.

two value notan - The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli 1782
Example of a two value notan – “The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli 1782
two value notan - Argent Afternoon by Monet
Example of a two value notan – “Argent Afternoon” by Monet

Three-Value Notans

Here are some paintings from old masters that use three values, a mid- value gray, plus black and white.

three value notan - "Pipes and Drinking Vessels”, by Jean-Siméon Chardin (1737)
example of three-value notan – “Pipes and Drinking Vessels”, by Jean-Siméon Chardin (1737)

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

Tombow brush pens and sketchpad for notan

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

Notan sketches

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.

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Notan Designs

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.

Also see: notan design, Wikipedia – notan

Thank You

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you are interested in a structured approach for learning how to paint, and want to learn more about my Visual Music & Poetry® model, take a look at my online painting classes.

Happy painting!

Barry John Raybould
Virtual Art Academy

What The Students Are Saying



  • I live near and like to paint the deep forest of the Pacific NW. How would Notan be applied to forest scenes?

    • Hello Andrea,
      It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is because Notan is a general principle of painting design, and principles apply to all subjects in exactly the same way. So convert the scene to black and white, and crop it in order to create a dominant value in the Notan design.
      Best Regards

  • Thank you for the technique of drawing and painting. I have been looking for these tips. Will surely try them and send the feedbacks.

    Good job
    With regards.

    • That’s interesting you should mention that Stephen. I have always considered Ansel Adams as an artist, and not as a photographer. He just used the photographic process to manipulate values and create interesting patterns of light and dark, or a ‘notan stucture’, in the same way that a painter creates value patterns with paint. Some of his notan structures were quite remarkable considering the difficulty of actually changing the value of what the camera lens sees, something he had to do in the developing room.

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