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Basic Information: Notan Design Technique

June 29, 2011

Notan drawing by Katherine Barton [source]

Japanese Notan art is a kind of value sketch showing a design composition, traditional Notan uses just two values; “Notan” translates into “light/dark”.  Notan is useful for compositions and shows the symmetry or asymmetry, dominant elements and balance of a design.  I have seen Notan techniques used for abstract art, representational art and patterns.  You can use Notan to make a final art work or as an early step in the process of designing an art work.  A grammar school teacher describes Notan to her students thus:

Notan is a Japanese art form that can be explained as: what is dark is not light and what is light is not dark. This is the basis of all design and an important guiding principle of art. It seems so simple but an artist can spend a lifetime exploring the possibilities of light and dark.

“Notan” is the term used by the Japanese to express “light-dark” as an element of design. In the west we use separate terms such as positive space and negative space, dividing the idea of light-dark into separate components. On paper it is easy to see that dark shapes cannot exist without a surrounding area of white. White shapes cannot exist without dark to define it. The two elements are really one. This is an eastern concept of yin-yang that each is what the other is not.

It is usually the dark aspects of a design that we see first and we are intrigued by optical illusions that seem to switch from one picture to another in our minds. We speak of negative space and mean the white holes in a dark design. In using the term “negative” we are giving it a connotation of null-ness or even sinister aspects. A dark pattern is considered “positive” and therefore dominant when that is not always the case. Sometimes the primary subject is light against an area of dark and thus a positive element.”

Designers today will also refer to “white space” versus “positive space”.  Notan is often executed with cut paper, pencil or ink.  It would be easy to do Notan art digitally as well but most people prefer to use physical media.

This really nice six and a half minute video rocks out some techno and written text instructions about starting a cut paper Notan project and has great visual samples.

Categories: Painting, Uncategorized
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