Notans are for exploring visual design and composition. They are fun, easy, and quick to do. That makes it fun, easy and quick to try out a number of different compositions. Forget about details for now. You are trying to find an eye catching design, to use as a guide, to creating your eye catching painting.
Use your notan sketches to see the big important shapes in your subject. Work from large to small, leaving out all details. The details are not important at this point of picture development. Try to identify the major shape. Can any of the small shapes be moved or joined to other shapes? If a shape prevents you from creating an interesting larger shape, consider eliminating it. You don’t have to paint everything you see in front of you! Use only what you need. Edit your subject. Just because something is in front in your still life or landscape doesn’t mean that you must copy that reality. You are the conductor. Make your subject ‘play the tune’ in the tempo and key you choosing.
A series of notans enables you to compare designs and choose one that best suits the story you want to tell. Doing a single notan will not help much with the design process. A series gives you time to learn more about you subject. A series gives you time to see. You have an opportunity to explore your ideas about how you want to present the subject. Use the series to try out different motif, patterns, or themes. This where you generate new visual ideas and test and refine them. Let your drawings do your thinking. Don’t stop to judge them. Get your your ideas down on paper. The good-great ones will obvious.
Don’t be concerned about making a mistake. There is no great investment in materials for your notan sketches. Just draw another frame and start on a new sketch. If you are not happy with a particular design, start a new one with different shapes, distribution of values, or a different proportion of height to width. Change your point of view.
Conversely, if you like a particular sketch, build on it by trying variations. Accentuate the strongest aspects of your design while de-emphasizing or eliminating the weaker aspects.
Make notes in the margins of your sketches. direction of light, tone-mode of scene, smell and sights and sound how do i feel what feeling do I want to convey? thoughts on titles!
I mentioned this previously. I use a piece of mat with a rectangular hole in it to allow me to quickly draw a new frame for the next notan. I have one small set that range in proportion from a square to a over long rectangle of 3:1 ratio. In your explorations of composition, you might consider changing the layout proportions and-or the orientation: landscape or portrait.
I titled this section A Notan Design Process. It isn’t The notan process. The Notan Process, is the one that works for you. It’s the one that you develop for yourself, retaining the useful and practical ideas while discarding the less appealing aspects.
Advice on advice: Always feel free to accept, reject, ignore, and or modify any and all advice received to suit your own working process.
Sometimes Notan doesn’t work!
There are two patterns in which Notan will not work. The gradient and the all over pattern or checkerboard. Neither have a dominant underlying pattern. Also, Notan does not work well for low contrast or foggy-misty scenes. Notan design can be elusive to artists who habitually over-think the details.
If two value notan doesn’t work or is found to not be working for a particular scene, try 3 value, then 4 or 5. Then stop. The scene may not make a good painting if you can’t find the abstract shape. Alternative thoughts: The scene may still be good to paint but not a good fit any hierarchical format or abstract armature; a’la Jason Pollock, Jasper James, or even Frank Webb. It may be a checkerboard-all over pattern, a Webb favorite or no pattern at all.
A Notan Checklist
- A quick sketch of the dominant features of a scene.
- Use a tool that makes bold marks. It encourages bold thinking.
- 30 seconds to 5 minutes
- quicker and bolder will be more likely to capture the essence of your subject
- your marks will be bolder and more direct
- 2x3 inches is a good starting size
- 3x5 if it works for you
- Bigger if you must, but it takes more time and tempts you into too much detail
- Draw in the same format as your support
- try other formats
- try out a ‘wrong’ orientation
- 2 or 3 values
- Work with as few values as you are comfortable with.
- If associating just dark and light is too confusing but try to limit yourself to no more than three values: a dark, middle and light
- no more that 5 values max, otherwise you are into value sketches and not Notan
- Do a series
- build on the strengths of the previous sketch
- eliminate or de-emphasis weakness
- edit reality
- Felt tip pens or brush pens work well
- Use a pencil if you must, but don’t erase
- critical to developing a strong painting
- identify the most dominant shape
- try to make it interesting
- 5 to 9 shapes should be sufficient
- identify the dominant value, the one that occupies more than 50%: light, mid, or dark
- check balance of darks and lights
- saves time before wasting paint on a weakly structured painting
- Always prepare a notan study when assessing the viability of a scene
In closing, remember that Nōtan for Painters may not work for you. It works for me, but I’m not you. Take anything from this that works for you and leave behind anything that doesn’t. It’s no use saddling yourself with a technique that doesn’t work for you, but give it a fair chance.
Challenge: 50 minutes to better compositions
Here is a challenge. I want 50 minutes of your time. Pick your subject. Do one notan now. Tomorrow, do another, and the next day another. Take only 60 seconds to make the sketch. Think time is extra. Continue with this process for 50 days making 50 sketches in total. Each one based on the identical subject. You should a remarkable improvement in your design and compositions. Please let us know how you get on with the challenge.
All the best and enjoy the journey.
- Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color: http://www.amazon.com/Composition-Understanding-Notan-Color-Instruction/dp/048646007X
- Drawing Lesson – A Theory of Light and Shade: http://www.artinstructionblog.com/drawing-lesson-a-theory-of-light-and-shade
- Notan of JWM Turner “Snowstorm”: http://artbyborsheim.blogspot.com/2011/03/notan-art-design.html
- Notan example sketches by Barry John Raybould http://barryjohnraybould.blogspot.com/2008/10/notan-sketch.html
- Notan: Design in Light and Dark http://www.artcafe.net/ah/Notan/
- Seeing “Notan” – How to Make Stronger Compositions Using Lights and Darks: http://emptyeasel.com/2008/08/12/seeing-notan-how-to-make-stronger-compositions-using-lights-and-darks/
- PlainView: Class Notes: Notan: http://pleinview.blogspot.com/search/label/Class%20Notes%3A%20Notan
- Landscape Processes: A Sampling of Demonstrations and In-class Exercises http://www.mitchalbala.com/classes/landscape-process/landscape-process.html