Video Lesson: Exploring Composition through Shape and Notan


notan-video-small-thumbThe notan is a type of compositional study that reveals the underlying foundation of a composition through the use of just dark and light, black and white. Although a notan relies on light and dark to define it’s shapes, it is not a value study in the usual sense; it is primarily and shape- and pattern-defining tool.

In this concise 13-minute video, excerpted from a presentation given at Lisa Harris Gallery in July 2014, I introduce the concept of notan using contemporary and classic examples.



Trouble viewing the video here? Watch it at YouTube.

Additional Resources

Special Workshop: Exploring Composition through Shape and Notan

The Wisdom of Notan – A Brief Introduction

Notan-based “Garden Steps” featured on Gage catalog cover and at Lisa Harris Gallery

Painting Exercises: Limited Focus, Shape, Color and Notan in Studio Landscape



About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 40,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials. He led painting adventures in Italy in 2015 with Arte Umbria and in 2017 with Winslow Art Center. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.


  1. Stan Chraminski on

    Great insight in using color contrast versus value contrast to enhance the composition. I get this issue a lot in local plein air painting where often the values are not that strong in their differences on cloudy days. I feel I can now better push the colors to get the contrast to make a better painting.

  2. Jean Allemeier Boot on

    Thank you for creating and posting this video, Mitch. I found your explanation regarding the ultimate benefit of the Notan to be very helpful; you definitely clarify its use as a tool for composition beyond simply value structure. Much appreciated. Thanks!

  3. Found the Notan video on YouTube. Wonderful! Some nationally known pastelists have recommend Notan studies before tackling a pastel painting. Now that I’m in oils for the past 2 years, I am grateful for this reminder and instruction. Quick Notan studies are the way to go before I put expensive, impasto oils to canvas. Saves a lot of scrubbing and sanding! I also use my iPad Photoshop program to posterize to two values to apply to all my inspirations from Google images to see how realists and abstract artists set up their basic compositions. Great video! John Clegg

  4. Mitchell Albala on

    Glad to see the notan is of benefit to you, John. The is one filter, both in regular Photoshop and in the iPad Photoshop, that is ideally suited for Notan. “Threshold” converts an image to black and white and then lets you control the distribution of those darks and lights. By moving the slider to the left or right, you can see how the image looks when the darks are dominant or when the lights are dominant. Nothing else can give you a live, animated experience of the changing dynamics of a notan design in this way.

  5. One of the best talks on composition I’ve seen. Instead of the traditional ideas about thirds, focal points, leading the eye in around, etc., this is more useful to the contemporary artist who is interested in creating original compositions. I can even see applying it to my geometric abstraction. Thanks for posting.

    Love your work, too.

  6. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Will. I’m glad you’re “getting” the notan. I do like to think that my approach to teaching composition takes a different track than usual, and that it is helpful to contemporary artists. So thanks for validating that!

  7. Gloria Shelton on

    I’ve been studying Notan from a cut paper perspective and this was eye opening. Great presentation and examples.

  8. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Gloria. The cut paper approach to notan is very challenging, but can be an eye opener. Of course, the notan is all about eye opening! and seeing deeply. Congrats.