Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The spirit of Notans

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – June 2010.

Notan is a Japanese word that literally means “light–dark”. This is a way to place light and dark next to each other to translate three dimensional shapes on a flat surface. The difference with traditional drawing is the absence of gradation in the shadows. Instead of a full palette of tones transitioning from dark to light with all sorts of greys in between, notans rely on the strong dark and light opposition. The Yin-Yang symbol, a disk with harmonious black and white curved elements, is a good example of what strong and elegant design a notan can achieve.

The concept of notan brings another important learning: black and white (or positive and negative spaces) have an equal importance. Because we draw in general with dark pigments on a white surface, we give more importance to the subject itself than to its background. Yet, the light forms come to life only when surrounded by dark areas and both dark and light spaces are necessary to create a complete image. Practising notan is exploring the power of negative space.

Two value notans are the simplest form but maybe the hardest one to master, because your only choice is between black and white. You have to cluster shapes into the light family or the dark family. The trick is to think and see in terms of pattern, not lines. In practice, squinting your eyes at your subject will increase the contrast as you won’t see mid-tone values. When you start, it is easier to establish the design with a line drawing and then darken some of the shapes with black. As you become more familiar with the process, try to shade the dark patterns directly.

Notans are a great tool to explore composition and lay out different ideas. Work small and draw a series of notans to experiment with symmetrical and asymmetrical designs and play with negative space. Crop your image and create tension by having some elements disappear beyond the frame of your notan.

Notans make you see abstract patterns in a scene. Don’t try to be representational when drawing notans: forget about details and go for geometrical, abstract shapes. If your composition works in black and white, then you will be working with a strong and tighter composition.

Three value thumbnails aren’t notans in a strict sense, but are a useful complement to work on the value arrangement by defining a simplified tone map based on dark, mid-tone and light values. They are quick to draw with a pencil (use an 8B pencil that makes very dark marks if you press on it or lighter ones if you draw lightly) or with a grey and a black felt pen (prefer makers with a large tip so you don’t get bogged down in details).

We saw how notans can help at the design stage. Using the “spirit of notan” can also help at a later stage. While working on your painting, take photographs of it, convert them to black and white and print them as thumbnails. You can use software to manipulate photographs and change the setting to greyscale or no colour. Print them in small format so that you can see better the large masses without any distracting details. It is like stepping away from your work and looking at it from a distance. This will assist you in judging the pattern of lights and shadows, and seeing if your composition is balanced. You can also check the photograph against your initial notan and make any necessary correction.

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