Notan in Art: Definition, Examples & Tutorial

Notan is a useful tool for artists. It is used in the planning stage of a piece to improve the composition of the final artwork.

A notan is an artwork completed in black and white. It can inform how the artist will arrange elements such as shape, line and values in the final piece.

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Notan definition

Notan is a Japanese term that literally means “dark-light.” In the visual arts, notan is used to describe the relationship between dark and light values in a composition.

Notan can be thought of as the “design” or “pattern” of a work of art, created by the placement of lights and darks. Artists use notan to separate light and dark areas of an artwork by visualising it in just two values: black and white.

notan example
Notan of painting ‘Horizon

The black and white values are used to denote masses, that signify the shape and form of a subject, object or scene on a 2D surface. Mediums such as lithography and ink use notan to create final pieces. However, notan is also used by painters as a visual aid to plan the composition of larger artworks.

Notans can be created by various means such as drawing, photo editing or tearing paper. Once the notan is complete, it can be used as a reference when creating a final artwork. The artist will aim to create a sense of harmony in the final piece, depending on how well balanced the value masses are in the notan drawing.

Composition and values

By using notan in the planning stage of an artwork, artists can see more clearly how the values of the piece affect the overall composition.

The artist will first draw a notan, or edit a photo so that the dark and light values are simplified to pure black and white. This allows the artist to see how elements relate to one another and the underlying value structure of the piece.

A good composition will have a focal point, with clearly defined elements. If a notan appears busy and elements are indistinguishable from one another, this tells the artist to change the composition and switch elements around until the design and purpose of the painting appears more clear.

Notan examples

notan example values

This is a notan study that I made for a final piece. To help gauge the midtones better, I also created a 3 value notan. My intention for the painting, was to have the bottom two thirds of the piece dominated by the dark masses and shadowy tree tones. The light values come from the sky and the bright reflection in the lake. The trees act as framing elements around the lake. This unifies the dark tones of the tree shadows with the bright sky.

final piece notan

This is the finished piece ‘El Chorro‘. This is an example of how you can use notan to create a desired effect in an artwork. My intent was to lead the eye into the piece, to create a balanced and peaceful landscape.

Here you can see that I’ve converted a reference photo I’d taken of a ruined abbey into a black and white notan study. This is a good example of how the notan can show you that a painting wouldn’t work to create the desired effect.

The abbey, which is the intended focal point, doesn’t appear to stand out against the grass or the trees. This is due to the value contrast between the abbey and the grass. It’s also due to the fact that there are too many trees and clouds surrounding the abbey. As this detracts from the view.

The tree in the front acts as a framing element, but it obscures the abbey. To improve the image to make this into a painting composition, you will need to make a few alterations. With the abbey as the focal point, you could crop the image, increase the contrast of the building, then remove the trees and clouds that make the image appear busy.

The benefits of using notan in art

Notan is a useful technique in guiding artists towards making better compositional decisions.

It is a useful tool for artists of all levels, from beginner to master. By taking the time to create a notan before starting an artwork, the artist can save time and effort by making sure the composition is balanced and well-planned.

A benefit of using notan to plan artwork, is that it allows artists to simplify their image to the point of abstraction. This forces the artist to focus solely on the aesthetic qualities of the image in terms of the visual structure. In a notan study, the lines, shapes and spacing become the most important elements. By breaking the image down in this way, by isolating the shapes of the subjects and seeing the image without colour, tone or other elements that may confuse the effect of the way that the broad shapes and masses are spaced, you can be more intentional about the effect you create from the size, shapes and distribution of elements.

How to use notan in art

values in cafe terrace at night
Vincent van Gogh: Café Terrace at Night and notan

Think of how the elements relate to one another and how you will create a focal point in the artwork. Notan helps you see the masses of the image in black and white. This allows you to focus on spacing, positioning and simplifying sections of the image.

To create a great artwork, the painting should have a sense of atmosphere. This is where you can use the notan to help you create your intended effect on the viewer. You can choose to create a sense of dynamism, tension, rhythm or unity by arranging different elements. Notan will enable you to see whether the image first needs to be changed or simplified. Arranging the value masses so that the viewer’s focus is on the main subject. Create rhythm by drawing the viewer’s eye to the next most salient features of the image, using value masses.

Notan ideas

Use notan to see whether you could include a framing element. This works when the main subject is in the distance or has a lightsource shining on them. Another idea is to use notan to gauge how large the main subject should be to fit within the frame. You will also be able to tell from a notan study if the image appears too complex, or if subjects are too close to one another. Of course, you can break some compositional rules to create tension in the piece. For example, you could place elements close to one another to create a sense of unrest.

How to make a notan: Tutorial

If working from a photo reference, the first step would be to convert the image to black and white. You can do this digitally, using a photo editing software like Photoshop, or you can draw the notan yourself using white paper and black ink pen.

For artists who choose to edit their reference image digitally, the process is easy. First edit the image so that it is in greyscale. Then, apply a blur to the image, so that details are omitted, go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. Finally, posterise the image so that it is made up of two or three values. Go to image>adjustments>posterise to create this effect.

Another way of creating a notan is by drawing one yourself. Get a black ink pen, or a pencil and copy the image, drawing around where the dominant masses of dark values are. This can also be done by printing the image out and using a graphite pencil to shade in the dark values.

For artists drawing from life, squint at your scene to analyse it. The elements in the scene will blur in front of you, allowing you to see the value masses more clearly. Create a quick notan sketch, drawing out the darkest areas and leaving the lighter tones free from any shading.

Once the notan is complete, the artist can start to plan their composition by determining which areas should be light and which should be dark. From the photo reference, make a few thumbnail composition sketches.

Notan tips

  • Try to see the image as shapes and values, rather than objects.
  • Use a range of materials to create your study. This can include graphite pencils, black ink pens, white paper and photo editing software. Find which method works best for you.
  • Draw around the largest darkest areas first, try not to include tiny details.
  • Make sure the composition is balanced, so there is a good mix of light and dark tones.
  • Analyse the notan sketch you have created, ask how the general composition of the piece can be improved.

Three value notans

three value notan
Vincent van Gogh: Café Terrace at Night and three value notan

If you want to plan how the midtones of your artwork fit together, create a three value study. This can help you to better place elements in pieces that are less contrasted.

To create a three value notan, you can use the same process as above, but with a few tweaks. When posterising the image in Photoshop, set the levels to 3 rather than 2. This will give you an image that is made up of three tones—black, white and a midtone grey.

When drawing a three value notan from life, it can be helpful to use a black pen and a grey pen, so that you can block in the darkest areas then use the grey to fill in the midtones.

Notan and chiaroscuro

Notan chiaroscuro
Caravaggio: Saint Jerome Writing

Notan can also be used in conjunction with chiaroscuro to create more dynamic artworks. Chiaroscuro is the use of light and dark values to create the illusion of three-dimensionality and to create a sense of drama. In this case, the notan can be used as a guide for where to place the darkest darks and lightest lights in the piece.

Value studies

A notan is not the same as a value study. A notan can include two or three values to denote the masses and areas of contrast in an image. Whereas a value study, will include more detail and value transitions. A value study will be made in greyscale, so that the artist can see the value scale of the image, including all of the midtones.