Notan – What is a Notan and How to Create Notan Artworks?

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The use of Notan in paintings is not something spoken of often. When hearing sentences such as Notan art examples and Notan artwork, you are probably conversing with a seasoned art teacher or a professional painter. In this article, we will answer questions such as, what does Notan mean? We will talk about Notan designs. We will also answer the question, “what is a Notan” Hopefully, with this new information in hand, you will be well on your way to realizing your dream as a professional artist in our beautiful colorful world, which sometimes can be just black and white.



What Is a Notan or Notan Artwork?

So exactly what is a Notan? Notan is pronounced as “no-tan.” Notan artwork is the practice of painting with dark and light, usually black and white and, on odd occasions, gray. When painting with two colors, we call this a two-value Notan. The Japanese describe Notan artworks as having harmony between light and dark. A painting that incorporates Notan designs should ideally not have any other detail that will prohibit the use of the dark and light seen in harmony.

Japanese Notan Designs
Old Plum (1646) by Kano Sansetsu; Kanō Sansetsu, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

When incorporating Notan designs into your painting, you are helping the viewer see the graphical design that you want to achieve. You don’t necessarily have to use black in a Notan artwork, and you can create it in color. Acrylic marking pens are often used in Notan designs and will also help visualize the painting in a color, which is conducive to the finished painting. We often tell each other that the world is not painted in only black and white, but using these two colors will certainly assist in creating a painting using design skills that you never even dreamed of.

All paintings have a positive and negative space, and when using Notan artwork, you have to find a balance between these two spaces. The Yin and Yang symbols demonstrate this very well. It is a symmetrical Notan design as it depicts both light and dark elements in perfectly equal proportions.


Notan Artwork and Shading

These two are often confused, and one has nothing to do with the other. Notan designs are abstract design concepts that work in dark and light, and the shading is the effect you get when tapering down color from dark to light. A Notan artwork is an arrangement of abstract shapes. An artist who is venturing out for the first time needs to learn shape recognition, and using Notan art examples, will assist in finding patterns and various shapes that will serve as the foundation for any painting going forward.

The study of shapes is exceptionally important no matter what you are going to try and paint.

Thinking about a landscape does not necessarily bring to mind the concept of shapes. However, a landscape is a large element within a painting, and the size and shape will either add or detract from the final picture. Notan artwork delves underneath the surface of shapes so that the invisible element can be unearthed as a visible element. The artist, with the help of shape, will be able to draw a core structure and keep it central to the picture without it losing its tone and detail.


The Soul of a Painting With Notan Designs

When looking at a piece of Notan artwork, the main subject painting is clear, and the eyes will take in the full composition at once. Although there will be smaller objects in the background of Notan designs, these smaller objects should not take away from the primary object. The dark-to-light concept is used in equal parts, and using only three main object shapes in a Notan artwork will make the smaller object just as interesting as the main object that the eye is first drawn to. A painting that incorporates the Notan art examples will stand stronger on its own and will be far more enduring when comparing it to another painting.



Famous Notan Artworks

In Japan, Notan artwork is used by monks and laypeople alike. The concept of connecting their art to spiritual work and philosophy makes this a common form of art in their culture. Notan designs are not only restricted to the Japanese folk and have become a medium used worldwide where artists explore concepts and compositions when creating masterpieces.

Probably one of the more famous paintings using the Notan designs would be the painting of James Whistler, who in 1871 painted the picture called Whistler’s Mother. The Notan design in this particular painting is very simple but very dramatic, and the first thing that draws your eye is the comparison between light and dark. This picture is painted in a three-value Notan structure, which incorporates dark, white, and gray shapes. If you look at the painting, you will note that the white objects in the painting are much smaller than the large central object, but this does not detract from the importance of the painting. Instead, it enhances the painting as it adds interest to the overall design.

Notan Designs
Whistler’s Mother (1871) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler; James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Color can be used as Notan artwork refers to the amount of light reflected on a painting. We also call these painting tones of different values. Rembrandt’s famous pieces of art are typical Notan art examples. In many of his paintings, the dark and light Notan artwork can be seen. The Landscape with a Stone Bridge, painted in 1638, is a great example of the Notan designs. For example, if you took a photograph of this famous painting in black and white, you would see the different plays on the dark-to-light concept.



Using Notan in Art

So, how can you use Notan in your own artwork? When incorporating Notan designs into your artwork, try to avoid too much detail, which will detract from the simple light and dark formations. The Notan artwork concept is used by artists to show patterns of light and dark into shapes.


Using Notan in Paintings

When painting with Notan designs, it is important that other elements used in a painting can detract from true Notan art examples, and elements such as texture, fine detail, and brushwork could detract from the overall effect that you want to create.

The main theme of a painting using Notan artwork should create a balance of light and dark. There should be a good contrast between light and dark, and it should be apparent when using this technique. The use of Notan art examples in a painting will filter out the other elements so that balance is achieved between light and dark.

Notan Art Examples
Illustration from Our Philadelphia (1914) by Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Using Notan designs in a painting is important as it is the building block of the design you want to put onto canvas. To build the rest of the design into a painting, you first need to develop a strong framework for the picture.


Notan in Sketching

Japanese explore the harmony between light and dark particularly well in sketches. A drawing that encompasses a good Notan art example is usually a simple or basic theme where the relationship of a major scene is depicted. Using dark, light, and halftone will ensure that you have a good Notan drawing.


Notan Calligraphy

Surprisingly enough, the art form of calligraphy is a great example of a Notan artwork. The calligraphy created with black onto white using writing symbols creates beautiful images, and it is even more evident that the Notan artwork comes out of Japan when we notice these images that are so easily captured as Notan artwork.


Notan Paper Cutting

The concept of Notan paper cutting stems from Japanese culture, and it also relates to the concept of light and dark. The main objects in a drawing, a painting, or a paper-cutting design should work and have balance and complement a negative shape. An example of Notan cutting paper is cutting out a design on white paper using a sharp pair of scissors. Once the shape has been cut out, place the shaped white piece of paper over a black piece of paper. The negative and the positive pieces will glare out at you once the two different colors are placed on top of each other.


Notan Photography

The world has certainly become a world of exploration, and this is true for Notan photography which has become exceptionally popular over the decades where light and dark are in harmony in photographs. Color photographs are being manipulated into Notan designs more and more, where the images in the photographs are rendered into black and white images with no middle values or no other textures or designs to take away from the overall effect.



Tips on How to Create Notan Artworks

  • As you look at a picture, try and see the differing shapes. You should identify no more than three shapes in a picture, which are normally the biggest shapes in a picture. A Notan picture is much easier to create when using brush pens. Brush pens are shaped like paintbrushes but are drawing pens.
  • After identifying three big shapes, use a brush pen to draw the outside contour of the shape. The size of the shape is not important but make sure that one size does dominate at last half of the drawing. The other two shapes should then be added to the picture, making sure that the larger one retains its unique size. The fewer objects you have in a picture, the stronger your Notan artwork will be.
  • Less is always more in a Notan design. The fewer gradations and the few textures you have in the picture will automatically enhance the overall effect. The biggest structure in a picture should be the focal point of the picture. Maintain the size of the structure as you add in detail. Downsizing the big structure in a picture almost always leads to the downfall of what is a Notan art design.


Positive and Negative Spaces

When creating Notan art examples, it is important to know what positive and negative spaces are. The positive space on a canvas will be the main subject of interest. This subject is normally enlarged and will be bigger than other objects. The negative space in a painting is usually the background that surrounds the main object. For example, if you are drawing a vase of flowers, the main objective would be the vase, and this would be the positive space, and the flowers and background would then be the negative space. Negative space is used predominately as a neutral background so that attention is drawn to the main object in a painting. The main object does not necessarily have to stand center stage on a canvas. Using Notan artwork in a picture, the main object will always be noticeable because the eye will be drawn to dark and light concepts.

We always talk about the wonderful world of color that we live in but sometimes, to look at things in light and dark ways is also completely acceptable. The Notan art examples outlaid in this article are a true testament that light and dark are just as attractive as color. It all comes down to how you interpret it in your paintings. We hope that you now have a little more insight into exactly what Notan artwork is and that in your very next painting, you will try and experiment with the Notan art examples that are fluttering in your head and just waiting to come out on canvas.

Notan Artwork Designs
Illustration from Trees in Nature, Myth, and Art (1907) by John Ernest Phythian; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons



Frequently Asked Questions


What Is a Notan?

Light and dark harmony are how the Japanese describe the word Notan. Seasoned and professional artists will use Notan study when exploring different light and dark elements and different arrangements of light compared to dark. Paintings incorporating Notan art examples will not have any other distractions incorporated into a painting, such as texture or fine detail.


What Does Notan Mean?

In simple layman’s terms, Notan is a play on the placement of light and dark in a painting without adding any other imagery that will take away from the Notan artwork. When working on a Notan artwork piece, how you plan the light and dark in a picture is what matters. Other colors can be used in the picture. However, the structure of a black and white and gray picture will be the simplest form of Notan art examples.

Top Notan Art Examples
The Cliff, Étretat, Sunset (1883) by Claude Monet; Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


What Is the Difference Between Notan Art and Value Study?

A Notan study is what is going to help you with the planning of a picture from an abstract point of view, and the subject is completely dependent. The Notan artwork forms the basic structure of a picture. A value study can be explained when you paint a picture from a real point of view, and the painting is then completely dependent on the subject. The values in a value study are always very accurate so that the value can be seen in a picture. The Notan art examples will help you to dependently plan an abstract design within a picture, and the value of the painting is what you do to the picture to make it more realistic.


How Do the Japanese Create Notan Artwork?

Notan was first created as art on paper using black ink. The ink would be diluted to consistencies that made the Notan artwork either darker or lighter. The white paper would form the negative space of the picture, while the black ink would form the positive space of the picture. This balance of creating dark and light and balance of compositions was soon regarded as a Notan art example.

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