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Revisiting Notan: Two Ways of Achieving Harmonious Darks and Lights

With all the talk about Notan recently in various blogs around the internet, I’ve received a fair number of emails from artists expressing confusion over conflicting explanations from different sources.

Notan, as you’ll remember, is a compositional technique for separating an image into areas of pure white and pure black. . . and most of the confusion arises because there are actually two approaches to Notan: the first approach is mainly pictorial while the second is more akin to graphic design.

In a pictorial composition, Notan is derived from the existing lights and shadows in an image. Design Notan, on the other hand, is simply a way of creating pure shapes that resemble silhouettes, disregarding light and shadow.

The differences between the two is illustrated below.

pine cone compare

In the left panel, we have a photo of a pinecone in direct light. The design in the middle is Notan derived from the pinecone’s shape only(design Notan) whereas on the right, Notan originates from the natural areas of light and shadow (pictorial Notan).

Many cultures throughout history have created artwork using both styles, although the actual term Notan appeared a lot later. Look at this ancient design found on Greek pottery done around 525 BC.

ancient greek olympic

As you can see, the pottery design is based on the silhouettes of Greek Olympic athletes. The black shapes of the athletes are harmoniously interrelated with the negative space around them.

Alternatively, the Notan seen in this Japanese painting is derived from the way that light hits the ocean waves, not the shape of the wave itself.

japanese painting tsunami

Realist artists have taken pictorial Notan one step further by using it as an underlying structure onto which their finished painting is built.

For example, look at this painting by Edgar Payne.

edgar payne 1

The value structure is derived from nature’s lights and darks, so because our attention is on the image of the sea we’re more aware of the subject than its Notan structure.

When we convert the Payne painting into flat black and white shapes—black for shadow areas, light elsewhere—we can clearly see the pictorial Notan structure.

edgar payne notan

So to sum it all up: the overall concept of Notan can be broadly defined as harmonious interaction between lights and darks. . . but actually achieving a Notan structure can be accomplished in two different ways.

If you’d like to learn more about creating a painting based on pictorial Notan, visit my Notan painting tutorial, Using Notan as a Painting Strategy.

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

Artists tend to be natural rebels. . . many of us take delight in getting around traditional artistic "rules" especially if we can do it in a clever way.

For instance, we’ve all been taught to avoid placing a subject directly in the center of our compositions—and rightfully so—because placing the focal point of a painting in the middle of your canvas will often make it downright. . . read more

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