Watch the13-minute video introduction: Understanding Composition through Shape and Notan
Every composition is fundamentally an arrangement of simple abstract shapes. If an artist wishes to become a true “composer” — who can wield compositional energies as readily as he wields the brush — then he must first become a master of shape recognition. The notan is an ideal type of study for finding the shapes and patterns that serve as the foundation of every composition.
Notan is a Japanese word that means “light-dark balance.” A notan uses an extremely limited range of values: in its most strict form, just black and white; in its more liberal form, black, white, and a mid-tone. This flat and abstract design notation is uniquely suited for expressing a composition in its irreducible shape-terms. The power of notan is that when a design is expressed in such simplified terms, compositional energies like dominance and recessiveness, weight, movement, and balance become easier to see. (The examples in this article all demonstrate the strict 2-value form of notan.)
Why is a study that helps us identify shapes so important? Because the underlying shapes that define a composition are not always obvious. When developing a composition from life — be it a landscape, a still life, or a figure — we are confronted with a lot of information: elements of all shapes and sizes, innumerable gradations of tone and color, and an abundance of detail. All this has bearing on our final painting — but it is also quite distracting. The core shapes and patterns that underly the composition are often masked. A notan drills down beneath the “surface story” to make the invisible visible. Like the sculptor who must visualize the final form embedded within the stone before he begins, so too must the painter be able to find the core structure of their composition amidst all the distracting tone, color, and detail.
A shape- and pattern-defining tool
When painters first see a notan study, they often incorrectly identify it as a two-value study. A notan, however, is not a value study in the traditional sense. A value study attempts to to map at least part of the range of values we see. Even a limited 4- or 5-value study can do this reasonably well. But a notan, with just black and white, cannot. What it can do very well is define the patterns and shapes that form the basis of the composition, which is what makes it such a powerful compositional aid.
When I observe subjects through the lens of notan, I can isolate shapes more easily. I can see them as though they were pieces of a puzzle. And if I squint, I can see the relationship of the pieces, through the dark and light balance, and begin to assess the composition. While a notan design can be beautiful in its own right, I call it a “study” because I use it in the early stages of my work to consider compositional options before I get too involved with layers of color and detail.
The soul of a painting
As you begin to look at paintings and drawings through the lens of notan design, you will discover that the most powerful compositions often have a strong notan structure at their core. Interestingly, you will also notice that many great paintings are not built upon a solid notan design. Does this mean that those paintings did not have good compositions? Not necessarily. Art and design are far too diversified for any single theory to cover all compositional situations. However, a painting that does have a beautiful notan design at its core has a far better chance of being a stronger and more enduring composition.
The notan is the single most direct method I have found to gain access to the invisible energies that animate a composition. If a composition has a soul, then the notan is the doorway to that soul. Fortunately, the qualities of an effective notan are the very same as those of an effective composition. They are inseparable. Learning to work with the notan teaches us to be better “composers.”
The notan in action
How can notan theory be practically implemented? When perceived through the lens of notan, a subject is becomes a collection of light and dark shapes. Finding the most effective composition, then, is largely a matter of considering different arrangements of these shapes. How much “white” real estate is given to this area? How much “black” real estate is given to that area?
Each of the notan studies below takes a slightly different viewpoint or “cropping.” This is a very important aspect of notan design (or any kind of compositional study), because it is one of the main ways we decide which shapes will be part of the composition and which will not. It can also help simplify the design. These three views are not so different from what you might find when looking through your viewfinder or cropping device, except here the notan’s graphic style makes the shapes even more apparent. Also note that the areas assigned to black and the areas assigned to white are not the same in each study. The notan isn’t just about which shapes are included, but the shape of those shapes, as determined by whether mid-tones will fall to white or black.
A. The dark shadow to the right of the large jug is an interesting shape. To “test” it in the composition, I allow the blue cloth around the shadow to fall to white. It’s a good first attempt, but the composition feels too centered. The vertical shadow on the background cloth is also conspicuously centered. This version has less movement than will I find in the other two studies.
B. Now the group of objects sits more to the right with more open space to the left. This adds some asymmetry and more interest. I consider how color may be applied to these shapes in the painting. Maybe all the warm light coming in from the left can be an entry into the painting. I try to express that in the notan with a large white area. The dark shadow to the right of the jug, noted in A, is now one dark area of cloth. It serves as a counterpoint to the white area on the left.
C. The diagonal shadows on the beige cloth form patterns that add movement to the design and activate the “empty” area of cloth. A vertical orientation helps draw attention to this. The diagonal shadow is a mid-tone and is quite thick, but I make it thinner here to give the shadows less visual density. The overall movement and balance between light and dark makes this version most satisfying to me.