The Black and White of It

Yesterday I taught a class on the Japanese concept of notan (NO-tahn) , meaning 'black/white'. I find this means of analyzing the underlying distilled abstraction of a composition to be quite valuable. It gets me back to basics, where I can make decisions that aren't muddied up with lots of useless details or frivolous color. Just simple black and white.

The idea is to
  • use no line
  • keep spaces between shapes unequal
  • establish a primary value (50% or more), a secondary value, and an accent value

If you create a good underlying value structure and stick with it to the end, you'll have a strong painting when you're finished. It's the same in life. The word of God is the value structure you need to stick with... as the old hymn says:

On Christ the solid Rock I stand.
All other ground is sinking sand.

Here are a few of my studies, done about the size of a business card using an 8b pencil.

And another composition:


  1. Great examples Deborah...thanks for posting these!

  2. Little by little I am understanding notan better. Thanks for this lesson!

  3. You're welcome, David and Sara. Thanks for your comments, too.

    I find I need to move fast to see well, and the limitation of only three or four values strengthens the simplification of shapes.

  4. Thanks for this lesson!
    I am understanding the importance of notan more and more. I think the "fast", get it down is important: as that first, rapid getting down makes you simplify! If I doodle around too much, putting in lines like a coloring book then fill them in, I miss the real idea of the value shapes. I was using four different shade of markers. But, the time it took to get to the next marker, decide etc. I missed getting the real value shapes.
    The "size of a business card" is a great one!
    Simple: we all know it and can just skip thinking about size until later in the process when I get to planning the exact painting.


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