Recently, I’ve been reviewing the Japanese design term known as Notan. This ancient Japanese word literally means “light-dark balance.”
The Notan is an ideal type of study for finding the shapes and patterns that serve as the foundation of every composition. In one of my favorite art books, Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow, Notan is covered in depth.
In plein air, landscape painting, Notan is more than merely depicting light and shadow. Instead, the artist uses every line, light and dark to create a deliberate design.
For the past few years, I’ve been teaching workshops in Giverny, France and taking my students to plein air paint in Monet’s Garden! Monet’s Garden is a feast for the eyes! However, with all the beautiful bramble of color, textures and patterns, it will be complex for the novice (and advanced!) landscape painter.
On the first day of my painting workshops, I like to introduce my students to the principles of Notan. We use Notan as a tool to simplify their plein air compositions using thumbnail sketches beginning with only two values. Once they feel comfortable, we will add a tone of gray, midway between the two extremes of black and white.
I found an online tool to help me illustrate the use of Two and Three Value Notan. A free app, Notanizer. It might seem like cheating, but I this a great tool to help the novice see value instead of color.
Below, I’ve uploaded a few pictures from Monet’s Garden. I then used the Notanizer app to simplify them into two and three values.
Here are two examples below:
The famous bridge at Monet’s pond is also put through the Notanizer app below…
Although the Notanizer helps to simplify the design, there is still work to be done! The next step will be to link the light and dark patterns into a pleasing design.
Below are a few Notan exercises from the book, Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow.
Exercise for Two Value Notan: Choose a landscape with a variety of large and small spaces.
1. Compose this within a border in your sketchbook or on a small canvas. Try painting certain spaces black or dark gray, or some dark color like blue. Leave other spaces white or light gray. Landscape are capable of many 2 value arrangements, but not all will work.
2. Compose the landscape into borders of different proportions; then vary each of these in two values.
3. Work to ‘spot’ Notan design in the field in two values.
Exercise for the Three Value Notan Design: (4+ values can be used as you progress) Determine the middle value between black and white or light and dark gray.
1. Using paint, mix up these 3 tones.
2. Keep the tone of each value flat so the value can be easily recognized.
3. Apply the three value tones to a design.
You may choose to use ink, charcoal, pencil or paint.
An exercise in charcoal: Make flat tones and feel the outlines without drawing them.
1. Cover the paper with a very sketchy tone of soft charcoal or pencil. Blend this with a paper stump or soft tissue.
2. Once the mid-gray is obtained, sketch in the darks and lift the lights with a soft eraser or kneaded eraser.
An exercise in oil: Mix 3 tones with enough to cover your canvas without remixing. Ivory Black & Burnt Sienna make a good neutral gray. Or blue, black & white. Don’t have black? Use Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna plus white.
*Use linseed oil and mineral spirits to thin the mixtures.
*Use a flat brush to keep the tones of each value even.
*Try different designs.
It is such an honor to be invited to paint where Monet lived and where Impressionism began. My students and I will walk in the footsteps of many great painters and we will be inspired by the same scenes that captivated Monet!
I hope the use of Notan helps us all create some successful plein air paintings! ~Lori