Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Useful Notan

Across from Library, Littleton, MA

Across from Golf Course, Maynard, MA

Across from Old Baptist Church, Yarmouth, ME

Four Corners, Groton, MA

A simple Notan (the word means dark light harmony in Japanese), contains only black and white. The Notans above were drawn using the principle that, anything in sunlight is white, anything in shadow is black. We've all learned that a compelling composition can be made when 2/3 of the composition is light in value and 1/3 is dark in value, or vice a versa. The Notan is a wonderful device to show us if we are achieving that goal. I know that on my first pass, I'm usually too close to 50/50 ratio.

It's easiest to draw Notans like those above, where the sun gives us an obvious choice for light and dark. But if you are inside, or the day is overcast, you have to make your own judgement as to where the threshold for light and dark should be placed. That often requires experimentation. Take a look at the page below, where I drew thumbnails of a bed, with a lighted lamp on a table to the left side of it. My first drawing is at the top left, and final drawing is at the bottom right. Which of these do you find the most compelling?


  1. I like the bottom right, but I can't really tell if it follows the 2/3s rule - maybe the one above? This is a hard lesson. Love your sketches!

  2. These look wonderful and I hadn't heard of Notan before. Although not strickly Notan I was reminded of Marc Mazzerelli's facebook sketches (see for example which also have a stark power.

  3. Oh - and I think I like the first thumbnail. I'm always a sucker for a strong diagonal.