Notan – What It Is And How To Use It In Art

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Notan is a Japanese term that literally means “light-dark harmony”. Artists use “notan studies” to explore different arrangements of light and dark elements in a painting, without having the distraction of other elements like color, texture and finer details.

In practice, this involves painting the darks with black and the lights with white (known as a 2 value notan). Sometimes, gray is also used as an intermediate value (3 or 4 value notans). A notan with more than 4 values is pretty much just a value study. In this post, I’ll cover:

Below is an example of a 2 value notan study of James Whistler’s painting:

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Whistler's Mother, 1871
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Whistler’s Mother, 1871
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Whistler's Mother, 1871 - Notan

Notice how simple the notan is? The detail is simplified dramatically and all that is left is this the light and dark elements.

A mistake many artists make with notan studies is using too much detail, but that is missing the whole point of the notan study in my opinion.

How To Use Notan In Painting

Every painting has some kind of balance between light and dark elements. Sometimes there is a strong clash between lights and darks (like in the Renaissance paintings), and sometimes it is more subtle (like in the Impressionist paintings).

However, the balance of light and dark elements in a painting is not always apparent on first glance, as there are many other elements competing for your attention like color and brushwork.

A notan is used to filter out all these other elements so that the balance of light and dark elements is revealed. In a sense, a notan represents the most basic abstract design of a painting.

For example, take the following painting by Ilya Repin:

Ilya Repin, Girl With Flowers, Daughter Of The Artist, 1878
Ilya Repin, Girl With Flowers, Daughter Of The Artist, 1878

My simple 2 value notan eliminates all the “noise” in the painting and reveals what would appear to be a strong composition of lights and darks.

Ilya Repin, Girl With Flowers, Daughter Of The Artist, 1878 - Notan

In some paintings, the notan design will be a dominant feature, with a strong arrangement of light and dark elements. In other paintings, the notan design will be less influential and other elements will be the focus. This is apparent in many of the high-key paintings by the Impressionists which do not have strong underlying notan designs.

Claude Monet, The Entrance To Giverny Under The Snow, 1885
Claude Monet, The Entrance To Giverny Under The Snow, 1885

If I do a 2 value notan of this painting by Claude Monet, this is what I get. This is what I would call a weak notan design, as there is no balance between the light and dark elements or an interesting design.

Claude Monet, The Entrance To Giverny Under The Snow, 1885 - 2 Notan

This brings me to the point that whilst you can build a painting around a strong notan design, it is not essential to do so by any means. You could create a beautiful painting without any regard for the notan design, but you would just need to rely more on the other visual elements like color saturation, brushwork and composition.

What Makes A Strong Notan Design?

Here are some key features of paintings which I consider to have strong notan designs:

  • Strong value groups (lights grouped together and darks grouped together). This is the opposite of having values scattered all over the place. The painting by Sir Arthur Streeton below is a perfect example of value groups.
  • Lights balanced against darks.
  • An organic design.
  • An interesting pattern created by the lights and darks.
Arthur Streeton, Golden Summer, Eaglemont, 1889
Arthur Streeton, Golden Summer, Eaglemont, 1889

How To Create Your Own Notan Studies

The purpose of a notan study in art is not to show off your dexterity with a brush. It is merely a composition tool to help you design your paintings. So it does not really matter how you do your notan studies.

Here are some of the different ways you can do a notan study:

  • On your computer by simplifying the values and posterizing the image (you can do this in most editing programs).
  • With white and black paint (the medium does not matter – oil, acrylic or watercolor would be fine).
  • With pencils (however I suggest you use a dark grade of pencil).
  • With thick, black markers.

The notans in this post were created either by using the posterize technique on the computer or with paint on canvas boards.

2 Value Notan

When creating a 2 value notan study, I use white for any areas which are hit by some kind of direct light and black for any areas which are not hit by direct light. The usual exceptions to this are objects which have white or black local colors (like a white dress or black suit). But even then, a white dress in shadow can appear darker than a black suit under direct light.

The other method I use is just to split the painting into two value groups – values which are above the half-way point in the painting, and values which are below.

I also note that the use of white and black are merely symbolic. It does not mean the lightest light and darkest dark are actually white and black. White is just symbolic of light, and black is symbolic of dark.

A 2 value notan study is perfect for subjects which have a simple value structure and large shapes, like the painting below by Claude Monet:

Claude Monet, Etretat, Cliff Of D'Aval, Sunset, 1885
Claude Monet, Etretat, Cliff Of D’Aval, Sunset, 1885
Claude Monet, Etretat, Cliff Of d'Aval, Sunset, 1885 - 2 Value Notan.jpg

You can always tell if a painting has a strong value composition if you can identify the subject through a 2 value notan. Take for example the intricate portrait below by Giovanni Boldini.

With just a 2 value notan you should be able to make out what the subject is. It provides a significant amount of information about the subject with only white and black. This is because Giovanni Boldini skillfully grouped the lights and darks so that there is this strong foundation built on value. This may not be apparent on first glance.

Giovanni Boldini, Girl With Black Cat, 1885
Giovanni Boldini, Girl With Black Cat, 1885
Giovanni Boldini, Girl With Black Cat, 1885 - 2 Notan

3 Value Notan

Most of the time a 2 value notan will be sufficient, but sometimes a painting will have a distinct mid-tone element which is overlooked when just using white and black. A 3 value notan is useful for paintings with a more sophisticated value structure. It provides more information about the subject, but the fundamental notan design tends to be less obvious.

The painting below by John Singer Sargent, whilst it is not the best example of a notan design, has a distinct light, mid-tone and dark element. In this case, a third value is useful to capture those mid-tones.

John Singer Sargent, Morning Walk, 1888
John Singer Sargent, Morning Walk, 1888
John Singer Sargent, Morning Walk, 1888 - 3 Notan

4 Value Notan

For subjects which have 4 or more distinct value groups, you could use a 4 value notan. For this you would use white, light gray, dark gray, black.

As mentioned at the start of this post, if you use any more than 4 values then you are essentially doing a value study, not a notan study. Whilst a notan study and a value study are similar, a notan study is more focused on the abstract shapes and design created by the balance between light and dark. A value study is more realistic and captures the full range of values.

For the painting below by Ilya Repin, I provide 2, 3 and 4 value notans to demonstrate the differences between them. The 4 value notan seems to be useful in this case to capture some of the subtleties of the painting.

Ilya Repin, Portrait Of Composer And Journalist Pavel Ivanovich Blaramberg, 1884
Ilya Repin, Portrait Of Composer And Journalist Pavel Ivanovich Blaramberg, 1884

The 2 value notan provides the least information and ignores the mid-tones of the painting.

Ilya Repin, Portrait Of Composer And Journalist Pavel Ivanovich Blaramberg, 1884 - 2 Notan

The 3 value notan captures the mid-tones, but I think we could do better with the addition of another value.

Ilya Repin, Portrait Of Composer And Journalist Pavel Ivanovich Blaramberg, 1884 - 3 Notan

The 4 value notan accounts for light and dark mid-tone elements, which appears to be suitable for this painting.

Ilya Repin, Portrait Of Composer And Journalist Pavel Ivanovich Blaramberg, 1884 - 4 Notan

Summary

  • Notan refers to the balance between light and dark elements.
  • You can use notan studies to explore the different arrangements or patterns of light and dark elements.
  • Depending on how diverse the values are in your subject, you could use either a 2, 3 or 4 value notan study. Most of the time, a 2 value notan is all that is needed.

Want to Learn More?

You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.

Thanks for Reading!

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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40 comments on “Notan – What It Is And How To Use It In Art”

  1. I always enjoy your posts. I learn new thi gs with each one. I can’t wait to work on this. Thank you for showing me new ways to look at art and my own work. Always intriguing.

    Reply
  2. Hello Dan,
    Just want to say thank you for sharing your knowledge, I have never learned this much in all the 3 years I have spent in a painting class. I haven’t painted in a long while and now I am eager to get started!

    Thank you again,
    Carole

    Reply
  3. MY TUTOR IN THE STUDIO THAT I PAINT TALK WITH ME ABOUT NOTAN AND I SEARCH IN THE INTERNET TO SEE WHAT U SAY ABOUT IT, IT WAS SO HELPFULL. THANK U A LOT

    Reply
  4. Hello Dan, as a new and self-taught artist, I am eager to learn and capture and understanding of the various tools and aspects of painting. Notans are still a struggle. Your writing and examples were very helpful. I will continue with my practice.

    Thank you!
    Taylor

    Reply
  5. Hello! When designing a composition and using notan to determine if it’s balance, how do I know if it really is balanced and how do I fix it when it is off balance?

    Reply

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