Notan – The Japanese Design Concept: A Guide for Artists and Decorators

The world of art and design is vast, with concepts and techniques from various cultures influencing artists globally. One such concept that has gained significant attention in recent years is “Notan,” a Japanese design principle.

What is Notan?

Notan, a term originating from Japanese art, refers to the harmonious balance of light and dark elements in a composition (think of the yin-yang sign). It’s not just about black and white; it’s about the interplay of positive (light) and negative (dark) spaces. This balance is crucial in guiding the viewer’s eye and creating a visually appealing piece. Notan is often used in painting, but its principles can be applied to various art forms, including graphic design, sculpture, and even interior decoration.

In painting, notan is used to reveal the composition and inner harmony of a painting through the ratio of contrasting spots. To paint a good painting, you must first do notan: on a small piece of cardboard to make a sketch in black, gray and white, it will reveal weaknesses in the composition and show where and how to strengthen the contrast. This is similar to grisal, but not so gray and not so carefully)). You can, for example, squint your eyes and see the picture as if blurred, noting the lightest and darkest places.

How to use notan in painting and photography?

Every painting has a certain balance between light and dark elements. Sometimes there is a strong clash, a conflict between light and dark. See the chiaroscuro technique in the paintings of such Renaissance masters as Caravaggio, Titian, Rembrandt, Velasquez. And sometimes this balance is more subtle and imperceptible. As in the paintings of Impressionists Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gustave Caillebotte, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley.

However, the balance of light and dark spots is not always obvious in a painting at a glance. After all, there are many other elements competing for your attention, such as color and geometric elements of a painting. Notan is used to filter all of these elements to reveal only the balance of light and darkness. In a way, notan represents the most basic, abstract design of the painting.

Let’s take Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also called The Lady in Gold or The Woman in Gold) Gustav Klimt. If we decompose this picture into di-tonal notan, this is what we get.

This is what I would call a weak notan design because there is no balance between the light and dark elements, that is, a balanced interesting design.

It follows that while you can build a picture based on a strong notan design, you don’t have to always do so. You can create a good painting without paying attention to notan. But then look for a balance of other visual elements, such as color saturation and hues, rely on the lines of the pattern and the composition of the figures.

Two-tone (di-tone) Notan structure

When examining an image using di-tonal notan, I use white for any areas hit by direct light and black for any areas not hit by direct light. The usual exceptions are objects that have white or black as their own colors (such as a white dress or a black suit). Even then, a white dress in shadow may look darker than a black suit under direct light.

Another method is to conditionally divide all the halftones of a painting into two groups – halftones that are higher than the relative tonal average, and those that are lower.

Note that the use of white and black is symbolic. It does not mean that the actual lightest light and darkest dark in an image is actually white and black. White is symbolically used for all light and black symbolizes darkness. A notan study with two tones is ideal for subjects that have a simple tone structure and large shapes.

Portrait of Lady Barbara Lowther on Horseback by Alfred James Munnings.

Notan of three tones

In most cases, 2 tones in notan design will be enough to analyze the image. But sometimes in the picture expressive elements can be in the middle tones. This can be missed by the eye if you use only white and black in the design. Notan of three tones is useful for paintings with a more complex tone structure. It provides more information about the subject, but the fundamental design is less obvious. Below is a painting by John Singer Sargent. Although not the best example of notan design, here we see clear light, medium and dark tonal elements. In this case, it is useful to emphasize these mid-tones in the notan.

Notan of four tones

For objects that have 4 or more different tone groups, you can use notan of four tones. Use white, light gray, dark gray, dark gray, black pencil and other materials for this purpose. As mentioned at the beginning of this publication, if you use more than four achromatic colors in a notan design, you are essentially doing a tone study, not a notan study.

While notan studies and tone studies are similar, notan focuses on abstract shapes and the balance between light and dark. A tone study is more realistic and covers the full spectrum of tones between the point of black and the point of white. Rudolf Arnheim states that the maximum number of different shades of gray that can be distinguished by an ordinary person reaches 200 according to some sources.

How to Create Strong Painting Compositions using Notan Design?

You can name signs such as: light balanced with darkness, organic design, interesting pattern created by light and darkness. But the key feature of paintings that have a strong Notan design is the powerful clustering of tonal spots into groups. Light spots are grouped together and dark spots are grouped together. Grouping by tone will be the opposite of tonal spots scattered everywhere chaotically.

What makes a notan structure strong?

  1. Understanding the Balance: Before diving into the application, it’s essential to understand the balance Notan emphasizes. It’s not merely about having equal parts of light and dark but ensuring that these elements complement and enhance each other.
  2. Simplifying Shapes: Start by breaking down your composition into simple shapes. This doesn’t mean your final piece has to be abstract, but by beginning with basic forms, you can better visualize the balance of light and dark.
  3. Using Thumbnails: Thumbnail sketches are small, quick drawings that allow artists to experiment with different compositions. By sketching several thumbnails focusing on the Notan balance, you can determine which layout is most effective.
  4. Contrast is Key: Notan thrives on contrast. Ensure that the light and dark elements in your composition are distinct. This doesn’t mean you can’t have mid-tones, but the primary focus should be on the interplay between the two extremes.

How To Draw a Notan?

Drawing a Notan is a process of simplification and balance. In practice, this is done as follows: all dark areas are painted black and all light areas are painted white. This duotone is known as a notan structure with two tones. Sometimes gray is also used as an intermediate tone, creating a notan structure with 3 or 4 tones. A notan with more than 4 tones is almost a study of light and shade, an analysis of valor.

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Choose a Subject: Start with a simple subject, like a tree or a vase.
  2. Break it Down: Simplify the subject into its most basic shapes. For a tree, this might mean representing it as a circle (canopy) and a rectangle (trunk).
  3. Apply Light and Dark: Decide which parts of your subject will be light and which will be dark. Fill in these areas solidly, without focusing on details.
  4. Evaluate and Adjust: Look at your Notan drawing. Does it feel balanced? If not, adjust the shapes or their positioning until you achieve a harmonious composition.

How do you start your own Notan design research?

The notans in this publication were created by posterizing techniques on a computer. The purpose of practicing the art of notan is to master the simple tool of creating a composition. The kind of vision that will help you then create harmony in the plane of a frame or painting. Here are a few ways of visual simplification that you can use in your studies of notan design.

Download this one (Check.atn Action Photoshop) and import it into Photoshop Operations. Or make a notan of the analyzed image on your computer yourself. You need to simplify the image so that you get rid of textures and colors, and most of the tonal gradients. To do this, create a copy of the background layer and turn that copy into black and white (adjustment layer – black and white). This is a simplification in terms of color. But if you create a merged copy of all layers (Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E), you can also get rid of texture complexity – Menu Bar Filters ► Blur ► Gaussian Blur. Finally, you can use the menu bar Image ► Adjust ► Threshold to finally simplify the image to two tones – white and black.

But you can also do this by hand. Draw a notan on a piece of paper with white and black paint. The material does not matter much. Use gouache, tempera, acrylic or watercolor). Draw the notan of the painting or photograph you are studying with dark pencils or thick black markers.

Book about Notan: Recommendation

“Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design” (Dover Art Instruction) – Published on September 19, 1991

For those deeply interested in the world of design and art, the book “Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design” is a must-read. This insightful work delves into the Japanese concept of Notan, a design principle centered around the harmonious balance of light and dark elements in a composition.

While many resources touch upon the concept of Notan, this book offers a comprehensive exploration. It not only defines the principle but also provides historical context, making it a rich resource for both beginners and seasoned artists. The book doesn’t stop at theory. It offers practical exercises and examples, guiding readers on how to incorporate the Notan principle into their own work. Whether you’re a painter, graphic designer, or simply someone who appreciates art, the hands-on approach of this book is invaluable. A book on design would be incomplete without visual aids. “Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design” is replete with illustrations that not only exemplify the concept but also inspire readers to visualize and create their own compositions.

How to Use Apps to Help Visualize Notan?

In today’s digital age, several apps can help artists visualize Notan in their compositions. Here’s how:

  1. Photography Apps: Use a photography app to take a picture of your subject. Convert the image to grayscale and then increase the contrast to its maximum. This will give you a clear distinction between light and dark areas, helping you visualize the Notan balance.
  2. Drawing Apps: Some drawing apps allow you to create layers. Start with a grayscale background and use black and white brushes to sketch out your Notan design. The ability to adjust layers independently can be beneficial in achieving the desired balance.
  3. Dedicated Notan Apps: As the concept has gained popularity, some apps are designed specifically for Notan. These apps often have features that automatically break down images into their basic light and dark components, making the process even more straightforward.

In conclusion, Notan is a powerful design concept that can significantly enhance the visual appeal of a composition. By understanding its principles and applying them effectively, artists and decorators can create works that captivate and resonate with viewers. Whether you’re sketching a simple drawing or planning a grand mural, the principles of Notan can guide you towards a harmonious and impactful result. So, the next time you approach a blank canvas or space, remember the balance of light and dark, and let Notan lead the way. Next step is colours (read Colour of Painting: An Insight into the Artist’s Palette).

You can use notan to analyze an image, assessing the location of major tonal spots, patterns of light and dark elements. In most cases, a two-tone notan is sufficient to study the tonal structure of an image.

Hello! I'm Leif Sundberg, a decorator and artist. Here, we explore art tools, guides, and tips to enhance your creative journey. Discover art supplies, get guidance, and find practical tips for artists of all levels. I also curate Amazon product recommendations to help you choose the right materials. Join me on this artistic adventure, and let's unleash your creativity together. More info

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