The Power of Notans

For those of you who have never heard the word “notan”, it is a Japanese word meaning “dark, light”.  Notan is best described as the design of a work of art as seen in flat areas of dark and light values only.

“A notan painting is a small, quickly executed monochrome painting that consists of simple shapes with a limited number of flat values,” says Barry John Raybould, owner of The Virtual Art Academy.

Notan Blog

The image above shows a few notan studies I created using a Tombow marker and a 6″ x 8″ Strathmore Drawing pad.  I used a #15 Tombow for the darks, and the white of the paper for the lights.


I took this photo of a road close to my home in the winter of 2010.


A few days later I executed this notan painting from the photo in just a couple of minutes. This gave me a two-value study that was much easier and quicker to create than the value studies I had done in the past.

If you would like to do four-value notan studies I recommend using a Tombow #15 for the darks, a #65 for the dark mid-tones, a #75 for the light mid-tones, and the white of the paper for the lights.


Another photo I took the same day in the winter of 2010.


And another rapidly executed notan painting created from the photo above.  As crude as this little study may look, it achieves the goal of being able to quickly state your values in order to see if a good design has been established before beginning a painting.  By using this powerful technique you will know instantly whether you have a good composition or whether you should experiment with different compositions and ideas before proceeding to paint.

For more information about notans, check out the Notan Painting Lessons offered by The Virtual Art Academy.