Notan Study Notes
Notan means Dark/Light in Japanese or our English translation of it. The more elaborate definition is the harmonious arrangement of dark and light masses in a painting. It has a lot to do with deliberate design rather than just seeing values. To me that is the major difference between studying Notan and Values. Notan is manipulation of values rather than recording them.
Why is Notan important?
For the same reason that we create good composition by moving elements around in a pleasing arrangement, doing the same with values enhances a good painting. A strong Notan design is essential to a good painting, as is good composition. Unfortunately, education with emphasis on good design structure has gone by the way side in many art schools. This is a terrible mistake. A good understanding of design principles is essential for good painting. Notan is about design of values.
This is why I always say that color comes in a distant third to values and composition in order of importance. I believe that painters who rely solely on shock color are missing the boat. Don’t start throwing rotten eggs at me, colorists out there. I used to be one of you until I came to the realization that I was missing the most important part of design, good value structure.
I studied Notan briefly in design classes in art school, but really got interested about 10 years ago. Many of the most powerful paintings have simple value structures, only using two to four values. Simplifying values is the key for me to Notan painting. Values have been so much easier for me since I began to study Notan.
There are limitations in Notan painting which simplify values. There are three basic types:
Mass Notan- A rough sketch or painting to distribute light and dark shapes throughout the panting. The actual shapes are not as important as their placement. Think of silhouettes rather than detail in a mass Notan. It should have 7 or less shapes. This is a quick way to see if the painting works with the value relationships you have put down. It is about 2 to five minutes. I usually use three values for mine but many are two,three or four value masses. I do them before I start the large painting.
This painting was done from a mass Notan study.
Contour Notan- This Notan pays much more attention to the detail in edges, trying to actually get a feel for the outline and edges of shapes. It will be useful when you do objects that have defined shapes like architecture or animals ,people,florals. I don’t use this one as much as the mass Notan for my own work, because I usually don’t need to define edges in landscape work, but if I were to be doing fence posts and things like that it would be needed. In this kind of Notan work, exact defining of edges is important. Use 7 or less shapes unless you are doing a large Notan as a pattern for a finished work. I still use 3 values for these because I am doing small paintings.
This painting was done from a Contour Notan study.
Limited Value Study-The Mass Notan and the 5 Value study are the Notan study that I do the most. A limited value study is a quick painting using 3,4 or 5 values only. It helps you to get a quick picture of what the final painting might look like. There is no limit on shapes but I don’t use a lot of major shapes in my paintings, preferring simple compositions. In this study both contour and mass are important. In Notan study for this you are supposed to study the actual values of the scene or subject, but I never do. I actually manipulate the values in all of my paintings now, as well as composition and palette.
This painting was done from a 5 value study.
All of these studies convert to color as well as black and white. The process for me starts in BW and then moves to color. If I am working in oils, I will redo in a color study ,using the BW as my guide. If I am working in acrylic, I will start with BW and go right over it with color.
Linda’s Etsy Shop
There is so much more to Notan than my simplistic explanation. I could go on for pages and pages about it. It is difficult and complex. You must be a serious student about it and work for some time to understand it. I don’t know a fraction of the subtlety of dark and light after 10 years, but I am a slow learner and easily distracted for weeks at a time, going back to it between other studies. I am attempting to say that dark and light can be a career study rather than a few months of effort. I can only say that it has improved my composition, values structure and surprisingly, my color palette greatly, so it is not just about manipulating values. It has added a sophistication to my work, making my old work look pretty crude. I have a great deal to learn about painting and will continue to study Notan as long as I am a painter.
The most important thing I’ve learned from this research is what I call my five value family. I use this value structure almost all the time now:
half tint light
half tone dark
Using this smaller value structure is a way of thinking about the value scale more efficiently than trying to understand the long value scale. Every value fits in between these five values. It works so well for me.
The other tidbit I use from my studies is to try to have a dominant value in paintings, along with uneven distribution of the other two in a three value range. The third value is an accent value only. So a painting would be Dark dominant, Mid dominant or Light dominant with the other two distributed unevenly.
Practice the above two parts to improve your work. it will pay off with more drama and interest in your paintings.
More musings for artists and collectors to come…