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Lesson #15 – What the heck is NOTAN?

NOTAN: no·​tan | \ ˈnōˈtän \

(as defined by Marriam Webster’s Dictionary)

plural -s

Definition of notan

the combination of lights and darks especially as used in Japanese art the design or pattern of a work of art as seen in flat areas of dark and light values only.


NOTAN: as defined by me if you will…

The poetry beneath your painting. The pleasing combinations of light and dark masses that make your eyes want to dive in and dance for a while.

I don’t remember which one of my many teachers first introduced me to NOTAN, or why it always seems to appear in capital letters. Perhaps it took me a little time to really appreciate the power of it (maybe the capital letters were trying to tell me something). It seems basic enough – the balance of light and dark create a pattern. Is that pattern pleasing, interesting, evocative, soothing? Perhaps I confused it with light and shadow, which is an element of nature rather than an element of universal beauty created by the harmony of a dark and light pattern. There is a difference. As you will see, an object can be in light while still being part of the dark. Oh my.

The Yin and Yang symbol is perhaps the most infamous of NOTAN designs, but it’s the opposite of what you want to do in painting.

The Yin and Yang symbol is perfectly balanced, and while this is a nice thing to strive for in life it seems impossible to ever really reach. If your paintings are going to reflect the reality of life and nature, they need to have a variety of shape and line. The focus should be slightly off center, the light and dark should not be evenly balanced, and objects/lines/strokes should not be repetitive. The poetry that you create with this underlying NOTAN is what draws someone to your painting from across the room, or across the street. They see this pattern of lights and darks and it draws them in. They may not be fully aware of this, but it’s surly a factor. Once they are there they will be delighted by the nuance of your color, your brushwork, your lost edges (we will get to all of that) but that pattern is what brings them there.

In this section we are going to create a number of NOTAN thumbnails – some based on nature and some just on abstract shapes that please your eye. Understanding how to break a scene down into its simplest form – its large masses of dark and light shapes, will help you compose strong paintings from the get go. Playing with abstract forms will help activate your imagination, and it’s quite relaxing too.

We are going to take our favorite NOTANS and dive in even deeper by building them up into 4-5 value sketches. and then jumping into the bliss of color harmony. Wahoo! Let’s go!

Here is an example of how a NOTAN evolves into a value sketch, and then into a full-blown painting. In this section we are going to take our value sketches and play more simply with color harmony as you will see, but we move into the full-blown painting very soon. Admittedly, I do not create NOTAN and value sketches before all of my paintings, but I am ALWAYS looking for the NOTAN before I begin, and I analyze the value structure throughout the entire process of painting.



Final Painting. “Fresh Cut”


Here are several thumbnail NOTANS that made their way into paintings. Notice the connected darks, the variety of line and shape, and the unequal balance of light and dark masses.

In the next lecture we will begin by making some simple NOTAN thumbnails and then turning them into value sketches, and then turning them into color harmony studies.

Are you ready? Click on through to the next lecture and let’s get going.

Enjoy this stress free and fun exercise!

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