The term NOTAN, is a Japanese word meaning “dark, light,” and refers to the massing of tones or values. Notan-beauty means the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light spaces—whether coloured or not—whether in buildings, in photos, designs, any art or in nature. 

Did you ever wonder what makes a master painter? Many areas need to be conquered of course, but one of the vital areas to become familiar with (for all genres) is the element of value and the part it plays in achieving your design principles. (If you have not studied the elements and principles of design yet, now might be a good time)

To get a grasp on value patterns, a student of drawing and painting must do at least two things really well:

1/ squint very effectively to be able to 'see' just two to three value levels

2/ Always do a quick notan study as a part of the compositional plan before undertaking any art work.


Here we have a nice feature tree, some water reflections, lets do a notan of just how the reference appears now.

image-31 med hr-1

I have used photoshop to quickly break down this image into two tonal levels. (if you have a version of this software, use the Threshold adjustment for two value breakdowns or the Posterise {+de-saturate or greyscale} for three or more.)

You can do a similar thing below by squinting to visualise just two main values areas (dark and light), then do a small thumbnail sketch of the abstract pattern you see, just a quicky. It is after this point that you can use all that you know about compositional arrangement to adjust this value pattern . In this case I find that the design is horizontally split in almost even parts, so I make the decision that the foreground water area will dominate more because the reflections are what I am loving, see second image below, my new notan sketch which ensures that this is adjusted.

image-32 med hr

At the same time I have used a rectangle for my notan study which reflects the proportions of the canvas on which I will create my art work, killing two birds with one stone.

I feel that the positive and negative spaces are balanced now, and I have decided that the position for my focal point (where I will engineer the highest value contrast will be the trunk of the main tree.)

image-33 med hr

 We will take it back a step further now and look at a 5 value study. To further ensure I am fulfilling my goals and principles in design, I now can adjust the overall value balance as follows.

Medium - a lot

dark - some

light - a little

It could have been any number of combinations but notice that none of the 3 broad value measures are equal. (just as with other elements eg colours and temperature, I will ensure that no two intervals are the same). Now squint hard at this 5 value study and you can see it looks a lot like the 2 value study. Your reference may not have a decent value range or an effective value pattern, this is why a student artist needs to learn to create and compose, not copy.

image-34 med hr

©  2017