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.


Torben said...

Thanks for this awesome introduction to designing with notan! This finally puts a name on something that I've been semi-consiously designing and pursuing in my own imagery. So happy I found this page.

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