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A Guide To Notan: The What, Why, and How



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.

The purpose of this guide is to provide a beginner’s guide to the subject of notan, and share with you some of the newer ideas I have discovered over these years that were not in the original books.

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? – A Definition

Notan literally means concentrated/weak. It is an anglicized version of the two words: Nong and Dan 浓淡nóngdàn. In Chinese, nong means thick, strong, concentrated. Dan means weak, watery. So the word ‘notan’ is actually referring to the amount of water added to ink during pen and ink painting. If you don’t add much water, and leave your ink nong , you end up with a dark shape. If you add a lot of water and make your ink dan , you end up with a light shape.

So ‘notan’ literally means concentrated/weak.

Note: In 2003, I wrote that Notan is a Japanese concept that literally mean “dark/light harmony”. Actually that is not strictly true. The precise original meaning of the term is what I give above.

What is Notan Design?

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.

Notan design is the way in which you arrange the darks, lights and grays in a painting. If you do this design well 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.

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.

Example of a Notan Structure

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
A Guide To Notan: The What, Why, and How 1

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 boring design if the design only had two values, black and gray.

Chinese Ming Dynasty landscape painting showing atmospheric perspective
A Guide To Notan: The What, Why, and How 17

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

Here are some notans 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 notans from old masters that use three values.

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)

Why is Notan Important?

Notan is important in a painting because it is the fundamental building block of its 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 around.

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.

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

A Guide To Notan: The What, Why, and How 2

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

A Guide To Notan: The What, Why, and How 3

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sunset-over-sand-city.jpg
A Guide To Notan: The What, Why, and How 4

Flexibility In Interpreting a Notan Structure

Here is a street scene. You have flexibility in how you design your notan structure – it is not a fixed thing. This video explains how.

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 detailed notan design principles, and find out more about the new design principles I have discovered since I published my first book on Notan, 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


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