The VALUE of Notan

In the previous blog post “Light as it Falls on Form,” I discussed the use of value relationships as a means of creating the sculptural aspects of representational painting. For this post, I’d like to talk about the use of value as an element within the compositional layout of a painting. In Japanese, Notan means “dark/light”. The term refers to the harmony that results from the arrangement of dark and light spaces within the composition of the painting. This arrangement reflects the quantity of reflected light, or the massing of varied value tones, to create a design. It is important to separate this from light and shadow, which models individual form. By generalizing abstract areas within the composition into value masses, a better understanding of the overall value-design aesthetic will be understood.97-notan.jpg

Getting individual value shapes correct as they apply to an individual object without analyzing the overall arrangement of values throughout the composition often leads to a frustrating day of painting. Before committing to placing pigment to surface, it is advisable to do a few “Notan” or value map sketches in order to understand the design of values. See my example of a photo and the accompanying Notan sketch (here).

Some tips:

  • Keep the sketches small to avoid the introduction of unnecessary detail into the equation.
  • Generalize areas and mass together similar values to create abstract patterns of value.
  • Work with as few values as possible. If associating just dark and light is too confusing, try to limit yourself to no more than three values (a dark, middle and light).

This allows you to scrutinize the overall design and make adjustments in advance of painting. Confront reality with these “Notan” sketches. If it feels better to make the sky darker to balance a composition, do it. Experiment with the possibilities. Don’t become too married to the literal. As for pens, the Tombow brand neutral-grey markers, which come in a variety of values, are one of my favorites for making a quick representation of value masses.

Whatever means you employ for the sketch—pencil, pen or marker—keep it simple and abstract. Allow this tiny sketch to guide your value mass arrangements and then model values throughout the painting to create the individual forms necessary to represent reality, ultimately creating an overall aesthetic of value harmony. To learn more about this concept and its applications, study Arthur Wesley Dow’s book Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color, originally published in 1899 but now available from Dover Publications.

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3 thoughts on “The VALUE of Notan

  1. Richard McKinley

    The Tombow markers are numbered N65-cool gray 5, and N35-cool gray 12. Tombow makes a cool and warm gray marker. Personally I think the cool is more neutral. Hope this helps,Richard

  2. Mary Ann Pals

    Hi Richard,

    I learned Notan from Sally Strand about two years ago in a workshop I took from her. It totally changed my artwork…..for the better. I am now able to see how all my shapes and values work together to make a cohesive, harmonious whole even before I start in on my artwork.

    At first I didn’t think I needed such a seemingly elementary first step. Now I can’t carry on without it. It is my roadmap as I travel to the completion of my artwork. My artwork is much stronger than it ever used to be. Lastly, when a piece works, I know why it works. It’s not just a happy accident.

    Thank you for this very sage advice. I hope many artists will take the time to try it. They won’t be sorry.

    P.S. When you finish the artwork based on your value sketch here, please share it!!

    Mary Ann Pals
    Charcoal & Pastel Instructor
    Chesterton, IN

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