Notan is a Japanese word for light-dark and consists of a two value arrangement of shapes. It can be used as a tool to define and simplify shape and value patterns. So it may seem counterintuitive to say that Notan is not about light and dark. But it’s true.
Notan is an exercise in simplification and in assigning visual weight. As landscape painters it can help us see the complex layers of form and pattern in the landscape as simplified shapes of color and value. Dark and light is the language that notan uses to express these concepts but it is not what notan is about. Musical notes are a good analogy. We use musical notations as abstract representations of certain sounds or notes and as a way to express the arrangement of notes that make up a piece of music—a composition of music. In the same way we can use notan to express the abstract qualities of visual weight that make up a pictorial composition. When we reduce something to notan, we are using value (dark/light) to describe the weight issue, but it isn’t necessarily about value. See the distinction?
Why is visual weight important? Visual weight is what creates movement throughout the picture plane. It is what draws the viewer to first look at a painting and then to continue to look at it while visually exploring it. Visual weight can be created by a variety of means: value, chroma (the intensity or saturation of color), color temperature, edges and texture.
Here is one example. This painting is by Emil Carlsen (1853-1932). Carlsen is probably best known for his beautiful still like paintings which are very realistic and use chiaroscuro to great effect. However, his landscapes are lyrical, less realistic and also rely heavily on a higher key palette and temperature shifts.
Here is the greyscale version. As you can see, the values are very close! Carlsen uses temperature shifts to accomplish most of the design. The warm and cool colors are beautifully orchestrated.
Where is the weight or emphasis in the design? In most cases Carlsen used a temperature shift to define his shapes but not entirely. For example, notice how the cool blue grey rock on the left side is actually more part of the groundplane shape than the trees behind it. Carlsen uses that shape as a transitional space between the two which he accomplishes with a change in color rather than value. The warm and cool shapes in the top right corner are also very close in value.
In this notan I assigned the warm color to the light and the cool color to the black. As I studied the painting I could see how Carlsen used warm color to frame the verticals and create an opposing diagonal on the groundplane, creating a strong design element.
In this notan, I explored whether all temperature shifts should be given the same weight. The shift from warm to cool in the upper right corner seemed not to warrant the same weight. I wanted to explore whether the structure of the painting really needed that distinction. I grouped the warmer color with the cool color in the upper right corner, making both shapes light. The result was a stronger framing of the verticals and a stronger emphasis on the diagonal. Carlsen decision to make those two colors essentially the same value made them visually very similar (giving them less weight). Can you think of another way to do this?
Notan isn’t just black and white! It is a powerful design tool that can help you organize your pictorial design in a compelling way using value AND color!