Special Workshop: Exploring Composition through Shape and Notan


If a composition has a soul, then the notan is the doorway to that soul. The gift of notan is the access it gives us to the underlying energies that drive a composition. Learning about notan teaches us to be better composers.

13-minute video introduction: Notan: Exploring Composition through Shape and Notan
Full length introduction: The Wisdom of Notan: A Brief Introduction

Workshop Description

notan-markerEvery composition is fundamentally an arrangement of abstract shapes. To truly “compose” and take command of those shapes, we must first be able to identify them. The notan is a unique type of compositional study that allows us to discover the underlying energies of a composition through the arrangement of dark and light patterns. “Notan” is a Japanese word that means “light-dark harmony.” The notan study uses an extremely limited set of tones — in its most strict form, black and white; and in its more liberal form, black white, and a mid-tone. This simplified and graphic design notation is uniquely suited for expressing a composition in its irreducible shape terms. Working first from masterworks, then photographs, in both painting, drawing, and abstract exercises, you’ll learn to “think in notan” and begin to see the underlying structure of your compositions. You’ll learn to make better choices in the formative stages of your work and bring greater order and power to your compositions.


In one exercise we do an abstract notan with paint. With no representational subject or object to latch on to, you can begin to see the composition purely in terms of abstract shapes and patterns.

Expanded definition of notan
Notan is a word that is unfamiliar to many artists, yet the visual precept it describes is at the foundation of any work of art we would recognize as having a “strong” or “beautiful” composition. Notan is a Japanese word that translates as “dark-light harmony.” It refers to the arrangement of dark and light patterns that serve as the foundation of a composition. In the Western tradition this is sometimes called the dark-light composition, or in graphic parlance, a “posterized” study. Artists work with darks and lights every day as they consider value relationships; however, the notan is more specific. It gets at the essential spirit of a composition, its pattern and design, through a strict black-and-white, dark-light arrangement.

Every composition, be it a short study or a more developed studio painting, is fundamentally an arrangement of simplified shapes. And our ability to truly compose—to take control of those shapes and arrange them beautifully — requires that we be able to identify those shapes. Artists traditionally cultivate shape perception by working with limited values. When we restrict ourselves to just three, four, or five discrete tones, we discover that these simplified tones also conform to simplified shapes. Furthermore, we see that those shapes are fundamentally abstract.

If we push the exercise one step further and develop the composition in just two values — black and white — then the underlying foundation becomes even more apparent. This is the notan. It is a type of perceptual lens that allows us to explore the composition in its most basic, irreducible shape-terms. When we observe the human form, we don’t actually see the bones, yet the balance and integrity of the skeletal structure is clearly reflected in the outer form. Similarly, if the underlying notan design is strong and balanced, then the painting based upon it is also strong and balanced — regardless of the subject or the colors, details, and additional tones that may be added later.


A notan serves as the foundation of a composition. Ultimately, additional values and color are be applied over the notan structure, as shown in this exercise. A good notan design will serve as a map, a guide to good placement and arrangement.


In one exercise, the class analyzes masterworks to identify the underlying notan design. We learn that the notan is less about identifying darks and lights than it is finding the balance between them.

East Meets West
Western artists have at times been influenced by traditional Asian art. However, the two styles have very different approaches to representation. The notan as it is presented in this workshop is not meant to encourage you to adopt an Asian style in your work. Rather, it aims to show that a universal principle in composition — dark-light balance as a means to expressing beauty and harmony — can be just as applicable to a Western style of painting. While the word “notan” may be Japanese, the principle it stands for is universal, regardless of the style that implements it.


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 feedspot.com’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.

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