Tuesday, June 10, 2014

More Thoughts on a Notan Design Process

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
  • Small
    • 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.


other references

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Notan for Painters

Arthur Wesley Dow’s book, ‘Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color’ defines Notan:

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.

So we have a Japanese art term meaning dark-light, massing of different values, in a beautiful, harmonious combination.  Notan for painters has its roots in this classical Japanese notan.  We create our notan sketches-thumbnails in darks and lights.  We also try to create a harmonious balance between the dark and light values, but there are differences when we use notan for the development of a painting.
  • Notan for painters a simplified version of Japanese notan used in the design and composition of a painting.
  • You are allowed to, even encouraged to, use more than just black and white.
  • Generally, in traditional Japanese notan, there is an equal balance between darks and lights. This is neither necessary nor desirable when using notan to develop a painting.
  • Many classical notan images contain symmetry or partial symmetry which is not usually useful nor helpful when designing a painting.
  • Notan for painters also adds consideration for the balance positive and negative shapes and the division of space in the picture plane.
  • Notan for painters is just the first step rather than an end result, although the notan design sketch may be a picture in itself.
A notan sketch is quick to produce.  It only takes a minute or so to do one and you can quickly explore a number of different compositions with them.

Two Value Notan
Two value notan, black and white, is notan in it’s simplest form.  Just two values may make this form of notan the most difficult to master.  This two value limitation makes it necessary for you to consider your composition in terms of its most basic shapes and patterns.  It simplifies the value range of your subject into black and white shapes.  With no mid-tone shapes, you must collect all the shapes into either the light or the dark family shapes.  It is important that the shapes inside each family are linked together.  This is also referred to as massing. This linking of shapes will unify your composition.  If they cannot be linked you need to insure that they form a pleasing and eye catching pattern.  

"If any shape cannot be connected to another shape of similar value it's better to eliminate it.”  --Carl Purcell

Two value notan sketches excel at helping you discover the underlying abstract design of the scene before you.  “Abstract!”, I hear you say.  “I paint landscapes/still life/portraits/name YOUR favorite genre. I don’t paint Abstracts!”.  In reply, I ask you, “Do you paint the shadows of the trees/pots/planes of the face?”  Draw or paint the shadows without the casting object and you have an abstract shape.  Even the most photorealist painters uses abstract shapes.

Thanks to the kind permission of Marcos Mateu-Mestre, I am able to include three of his notans which I believe are some of the finest and demonstrate the quality that can be achieved in two value notan. 

This first sketch and notan introduces the subject: a train

The notan rendering of the train is distilled into just a few shapes.  The train itself and the rails on which it is running.  The remainder is either background or foreground.

As the train moves closer, it dominates the scene.

Just 4 simple shapes convey the strength and power of the train, sky and other elements of this scene.

The final viewpoint is an extreme closeup of the train engine.

This notan is about the energy and power we feel as the train speeds past.

Framed Ink-copyright: Marcos Mateu-Mestre available from Design Studio Press:
Notan vs Value Sketches
You can easily see the difference between Notan and a Value sketch.  Here is a value sketch of a sphere.

...and a Notan of the same.

Notan, distills the scene into its basic elements, their relation to each other, and their position on the picture plane: the simple structure of your painting.  Essentially, its composition.  In this respect, notan is much more than a value sketch with a limited number of values.  Even though notan uses values, and these values may be related to the light or dark areas of your subject, the object of your notan sketches is to create a powerful but simple design that will attract the eye from across the room. 

More than just black and white
It is not possible to accurately record the actual value relationships of a scene using two value notan.  Three value notan, black, white, and grey is almost as good at locating the armature/structure as  two value notan.  Three value notan also allows you a greater fluency of values.  You may be thinking, “If I can get greater fluency with three values, maybe I should try 4 or more values?”  Do what works for you, but here is a caution.  The more values you use, the more you depart for the core strengths of notan and the more you are entering into the realms of value sketches.  Use value sketches if that is what works for you but recognise that value sketches may disguise or hide the underlying structure and hinder your efforts to create an interesting abstract framework and consequently weaken your composition.
  • If two value notans don’t work for you try three value notans: black, white and mid-grey.
  • If three value notans don’t work for you try four value notan: black, white, light grey, and dark grey.
  • If four value notans don’t work for you try five value notan: black, white, light grey, mid-grey, dark grey.
  • If five value notans don’t work for you, STOP!  Notan is not for you, or is not for the particular subject you have chosen. 
A Notan Design Process
Let go of the idea that your Notan will be a representational drawing.  Details and representational value sketches will come later.  First you want to find that abstract shape and interesting balance of light and dark that will catch the eye from across the room. This is where Notan excels.  It doesn’t matter what you choose for a subject nor the values, colours, nor details that you will add later.  If you base your painting on a strong and balanced Notan design you will paint a strong and balanced painting.

I prefer do my notan sketches using felt tip pens, a black and a mid-grey on white paper.  You can use almost anything that can make a bold broad mark.  Broad stroke making tools makes you think about the larger shapes.  I suggest you avoid fine line markers and thin pencils.  They can  encourage linear thinking and/or a digression into detail, neither of which is desirable when creating compositional studies.  

By limiting myself to just two pens, I only have to decide if a shape is white, black, or something else.  I don’t get caught up in wondering whether to use a light grey, mid-grey, or dark grey for a particular shape.  If it not black nor white, it’s grey.  The big chisel end of the pen discourages adventures in detail while allowing you a variety of different strokes depending on which edge is used.  Yes, you could use a broad, soft pencil, but you might be tempted to erase. Don’t erase.  Just draw another frame and build on the previous drawing.  Keep the best bits and try to improve them.

One word of advice if you decide to use felt tip pens: For the midtone choose a lighter value grey, otherwise you notan will appear too dark.  

Start by drawing a frame, a border, that has the same proportion as your chosen support.  Give pause as to whether a Portrait or Landscape orientation should be used. Try both!  I cut a rectangular hole, about 2 inches by 3 inches, in piece of mat board.  It’s about the same ratio as a ¼ sheet or full sheet of watercolour paper.  It serves two purposes; a) I can quickly trace a new frame for my next notan and b) it can be used as a viewfinder.

When first starting out with notan, you may find it easier to begin with a simple line drawing of your subject and then selectively fill in the grey or black shapes where appropriate.  As you become familiar with notan drawing, try to directly shade in the dark shapes.  Your notan should contain 5 to 9 shapes.  Try to complete your first notan in 5 minutes or less.

Draw a second frame in the same orientation and size as your first.  Consider:
  • Do I have a dominant shape?
  • Are my shapes interesting?
  • Do I have a dominant value?
  • Do I have an unequal division of space?
Pick one of the above that you consider missing or weak in your first notan, and correct this in your second sketch.  Work small and do a series of notans.  It’s difficult (impossible) to settle on a particular design-composition on the basis of just one sketch.  You need at least two, so you have something to compare your chosen sketch against.  It’s even easier to pick the ‘best’ notan from a group of sketches.  Notans do not cost much in time or materials, so repeat as often as necessary.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Thoughts on Visual Design and Composition

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. `Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?' he asked. `Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'   -- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

If The White Rabbit were discussing painting composition: where to begin?  How to begin?

For the past couple of years, I've been searching for guidelines/rules/suggestions/NYFCN(Name Your Favourite Composition Noun) on how to compose a painting. I found and studied the 7 elements and the 8 principles, centres of interest, Fibonacci, golden ratio/rectangle/spot, the rule of thirds, value studies, and various composition checklists.  I located more than 100 websites with design or visual composition information.  Some very good; others not so good.  I don’t know how many art books I read in addition to the 30 or so books I purchased.  In all these resources, I never found a visual compositional framework until I obtained a copy of Ian Roberts' Mastering Composition, via my local library.

Early in his book, Ian introduces The Foundation of the Painting, and illustrations that contains the five planes of a picture.
  1. The Dynamics of the Picture Plane. Each proportion and scale of every painting-square, vertical or horizontal-has a special dynamic that affects and is affected by every mark or shape you put on it. The edges of your picture plane are the four most important lines in your composition since they, in the most basic sense, define the foundation you are starting with.
  2. Armature. The fundamental lines of direction or flow that connects the man compositional movement to the picture plane.  
  3. Abstract Shapes. The building blocks of the painting. Each shape is interacting with every other shape. This really is where the success or failure of the painting lies.
  4. Subjects. Bottles, mountains, kids on the beaches/
  5. Details. Highlights, wrought-iron street lamps and almost anything else painted with a little pointed brush.
Ian comments on picture plane 1-3: "This is where the real artistic thinking has to occur before you start to paint", and on points 4-5: "This is often where inexperienced painters focus their attention. The result is a lack of artistic clarity and drama in their paintings".

This is where I first started to understand visual composition. These five bullet points present a nearly complete visual design framework.  When I went back and reviewed Whitney, Brandt, Webb, Wade, Couch and others, I could see they were saying much the same thing, but with the clarity nor as concisely as Ian states it. This was a major learning event for me.  I knew I now had a framework for composition that I understood and could apply to my paintings. The proverbial light bulb was lit. Decide the format and size (Plane 1), select and apply an abstract armature (Plane 2), block in the major abstract shapes (Plane 3), refine these shapes into subjects (Plane 4) and add the details (Plane 5). Absolutely Fantastic! Five steps. Big steps no doubt, but a framework I understood and one I could work inside of.

Just as there is a spectrum of techniques and materials to make art, there exists a spectrum of composition methodologies and design tools.  This is one that works for me.  To the next person, this may appear as so much dross.  As they say in the promo ads “Your mileage may very” (YMMV).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mastering Composition

Here is a review I wrote a couple of years ago about one of the better books on visual composition.
Mastering Composition - techniques and principles to dramatically improve your painting, by Ian Roberts.  ISBN No. 978-1-58180-924-4

After a brief introduction, Roberts define: “What Is Composition” with a illustration of five planes of a painting:
  • The format: square, landscape, portrait..., “The Four Most Important Compositional Lines”, the edge of your painting.
  • Armature: the direction or flow of the main movement of the painting
  • Abstract Shapes: the main masses, their relationship to each other, and their interaction.
  • Subjects: Bottles, mountains, people, a river...
  • Details: A street lamp, a pearl earring, a distant figure, trees.

With reference to points 1-3 Ian said: "This is where the real artistic thinking has to occur before you start to paint". Points 4-5: "This is where inexperienced painters focus their attention. The result is a lack of artistic clarity and drama in their paintings".

Chapter One discusses Armatures with a study of the Masters, a discussion of Eight Common Armatures, twelve composition basics, and ends with a demonstration. This chapter also includes a very brief excursion into "The Four Most Important Compositional Lines".

Cropping and Framing are covered in Chapter Two with thoughts on Value Masses, Viewpoints, use of the viewfinder and another demonstration on planning big masses. Chapter Three discusses Color Shapes, the Color Wheel with a discussion of flow in the picture plane in Chapter Four. The accompanying DVD is also introduced.

Chapters Five and Six are the inclusion of almost mandatory padding in a 'Gallery of Greats' and a gallery of the authors paintings.

The DVD provides an animated view of changes in color and value that demonstrates the author ideas on composition. There are two sections. The first section with commentary, illustrates how changes in value or color affect the composition of a picture. The second section is identical without the commentary.

Personal assessment of content: 
  • The good: A great overview of composition. The simplicity of the framework of the 5 picture planes was a major learning point for me 
  • The Bad: Doesn't follow through on the overview as explained in the introduction. It was a perfect table of contents for a book on composition . 
  • The Ugly: Unnecessary padding of the “Gallery of Greats” and single media (oil) view of painting.

In his introduction, Ian Roberts nails composition with his 5 visual planes. I just wish he would have used this introduction as an outline for the remainder of the book. Some of the assumptions and comments regarding non-oil media are incorrect. Composition subjects are mostly limited to landscapes and still life. Finally, I would also suggest that the Elements and Principles of Design, which is not mentioned in this book, needs to be added.

The DVD, in my opinion, did not contribute significant additional material.

Personal prejudice: I not particularly endeared to the authors painting style and that distracts from my own learning experience. YMMV

Suitability for beginners, intermediate or advanced: Intermediate onward

Score on a scale 1-5 (1=poor 5=excellent): Best book I've found so far on composition, but limitations and omissions as noted suggest a score of 3-4

That was my initial assessment of Ian’s book.  In a separate discussion on Wet Canvas art forum I opined: “Ian Roberts' ‘Mastering Composition’ is the only book I've found that provided a framework for visual composition. Before the first chapter he defines ‘What is Composition’. After reading these two pages I knew I now had a framework for composition that I understood and could apply to my paintings. The proverbial light bulb was lit. Decide the format and size, apply an armature, block in the abstract shapes, refine these into subjects and add the details. Great! Five steps. Big steps no doubt, but a framework I understood.

Before Ian’s book, I had read and re-read numerous articles on the 7 elements and the 8 principles of design, but lacked a framework, a gestalt, an integration of the elements and principles.  Individually each made sense, but how did I apply them to creating a painting?  Ian pulled it all together for me.  All was good in paradise except the more I painted and the more I studied composition and design, the more I realized that I needed more than the 5 picture planes.

What about a colour plan, and had I considered the mood I wanted to express?  Indeed, what was about the scene before me that stirred me to paint it in the first place?  I needed another picture plane before the 5 that Ian described.  A zero plane.  The emotional plane.  Before I did the first preliminary thumbnail sketch, I needed to note down something about the emotions I felt about the painting I was going to create.  I also needed to consider the value range.  Should I use a high tone with a broad range or would it be better suited to a muted low tone value plan.  I also needed to give attention to what I’m going to leave out of the scene.

Not all of these items can be resolved immediately but a brief note to myself is a good starting point for any painting and it might contain a title once finished.  On the other end of a painting, once the details have been added, the mat and frame are needed to complete any painting: Picture Plane 6, for a total of 7 picture planes and we still need to consider the process of getting started.  No one ever said that design and composition was either simple or easy.