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Where Do I Begin? A Japanese Influence

Every painting has its starting point. For me, a ‘notan’ sketch is a technique that leads to my most successful work. So, what is a notan?

Notan is a Japanese design concept that focuses on the placement of light and dark shapes within a composition. Simply put, a notan is a sketch that breaks down the many values in a scene into a pattern of interlocking light and dark shapes.

Notan - A black & white preliminary sketch to create a stronger composition
Source photo - Water'sRush

I first learned of this approach while experiencing a low point in my art making. I was feeling as if I had hit a plateau that left me unmotivated. It was a chance visit to the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, CA that exposed me to the concept of notan. There was an exhibit of watercolors in a large room at the museum. When I entered, I found myself drawn to a specific painting that was on the far side of the room. I couldn’t determine what the subject of the painting was at first, but the urge was strong to go over and have a closer look.

What was it about that particular painting that attracted me past many other lovely paintings? I had no idea at the time why this particular piece called to me from across the room, but discovered a book in the museum gift store written by Jane Hofstetter, the artist who had created that painting. The book explained her use of 'value-shape plans' as she called them. I later learned this same idea is referred to, by many artists, as notan. I became intrigued. I began to experiment by taking my value sketches that employed a full range of values and I simplified them into a pattern of just light and dark. White and black. This approach of reducing a composition to a simple black and white design, helped to breathe new life into my work.

Notan sketches may not look like a recognizable subject. That is not the intent. The intent is to break down a complex image into its simplest form by establishing the pattern of light and dark values. This strong pattern of dark and light should ultimately form a strong, pleasing design.

If the first rendering of the light and dark values does not result in good design, it is up to me as the artist to modify the notan to improve the design. I then must incorporate this value plan into my final composition. What are some things I look for in a notan?

• A good design should be predominantly dark with interesting light shapes, or predominantly light with interesting dark shapes. A design that is evenly dark and light is not as strong.

• Shapes should be linked to create a way for the eye to move through the design easily. If the initial notan looks more like a Dalmatian, with many disconnected spots, I must find a way to connect the many small dark spots into larger, more interesting shapes.

• The light and dark shapes that form the design should interact with the edges of the composition in some way. An interesting dark shape floating freely in the middle of a light shape does not make for a strong design.

Source photo ot notan to final painting

• The shapes should ultimately form a pleasing design that allows for the viewer's eye to move across the composition.

I realize now that the painting that drew me from across the room, exhibited a powerful design of light and dark values. That is what demanded my attention. That is the effect I want my art to have on those who view it.

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