Notan refers to the range of light to dark tones in ink and wash paintings. Ink and wash is a style of art that has been practiced in China, Japan and other Asian countries for many centuries. The tonal range is achieved by brushing ink onto paper or silk in strokes that range from dense and dark to dilute and faint.
Evening songs of the fishermen, an 11th-century Chinese ink and wash handscroll painting by Xu Daoning (ink and a little color on silk, 20 x 114, c. 1049, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri). Ink and wash painting originated in China in the 7th century. You can magnify this image by moving the cursor over it.
Japanese ink and wash painting is called sumi-e. This is Pine trees, one of a pair of folding screens by Hasegawa Tohaku (ink on paper, 62 x 140, 16th century, Tokyo National Museum). In the hands of a master, brushstrokes of black ink in various concentrations give rise to a symphony of light and dark shapes.   magnify
The other screen.
A 16th-century Chinese ink and wash by Wang Chen (from the Album of ten leaves depicting bamboo, ink on paper, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts).
Notan was transformed into a system for teaching composition by Arthur Wesley Dow, an influential American art educator at the turn of the 20th century. In Dow's notan, the infinite tonal range of ink and wash is replaced by specific values — black, white, middle gray, etc. The reason for the restriction: to convey the idea that a composition is basically an arrangement of dark and light shapes. Dow called this dark-and-light pattern "notan-structure" or "notan-scheme".
Notan ~ white, black and the spectrum of gray tones in between. This is no different than the design element, value (a term that Dow also used), but with one difference: Notan implies beauty and harmony, while value does not. In Dow's day, value by any name was considered an aspect of color, just as it is today.
The word notan is composed of two Chinese characters, no and tan. No means "degrees" (of depth, darkness, density or concentration); tan means "pale", "faint" or "fleeting". Dow translated notan as "dark-and-light".
Notan-structure (or notan-scheme) ~ a pleasing arrangement of "tonal masses" (dark and light shapes) on the picture plane (on a sheet of paper, a canvas, etc.). Minus the stipulation that it be pleasing, this is a value structure.
It's hard to exaggerate the importance of a value structure — because in every artwork that has one, it conveys the design.
For a scientifically based presentation of value and value structure, see Bruce McEvoy's Handprint website.
Balance and contrast, two principles of design, are evident in this arrangement of dark and light shapes. This is the first illustration in Dow's book, Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color, originally published in 1899.
In Dow's system of art instruction, students begin by making line drawings. This teaches them that composition is first and foremost about dividing the picture plane into positive and negative shapes — Dow called it "space cutting".
Illustrations from Dow's book showing line compositions in four formats.
Tonal "masses" are then introduced: the students fill in some of the shapes with black ink, charcoal or paint.
Illustrations for a notan-structure exercise in two values (black and white). The student's task is to trace a line drawing and experiment with different value structures. As the pictures show, the scene's actual shading is irrelevant.
Eventually the exercises call for more tonal values to be added — first middle gray, then light and dark gray and shades in between.
A composition in three values (black, white and middle gray), also from Dow's book.
Color is introduced after notan-structure has been mastered because, as Dow said, "a notan scheme underlies every color composition".
A charcoal study in five values from Dow's book.
Black iris, by Georgia O'Keeffe (oil on canvas, 36 x 30, 1926, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). O'Keeffe was introduced to Dow's theories when she attended a summer school class at the University of Virginia in 1912.
To Dow, a value structure's ultimate purpose is to create beauty and harmony in an artwork. He described five principles of composition that determine whether it does (opposition, transition, subordination, repetition and symmetry), all of which have been incorporated into the design principles taught today (movement, emphasis, balance, etc.)
Top: O'Keeffe's charcoal drawing of a banana flower (Banana flower No. 1, 1933, Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock). Bottom: As this print shows, Dow's own work reflects the views he promoted in his book. Rain in May, by Arthur Wesley Dow (color woodcut, 8 x 6, c. 1907, Detroit Institutes of Art).
Notan vs. illumination
"Careful distinction should be made between NOTAN, en element of universal beauty, and LIGHT AND SHADOW, a single fact of external nature."
Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color, p. 8.
Dow substituted "notan" for "value" to distinguish between light and dark shapes on a two-dimensional surface and illuminated forms, lit objects occupying three-dimensional space.
For centuries, art students had been taught to replicate the appearance of three-dimensional objects by observing the value changes that occur as light falls across their surfaces — the highlights, halftones, shadows, etc. Dow was convinced that this instruction had so diminished the importance of composition that Western art had reached a dead end. His remedy: replace the West's illumination-based approach to pictorial representation with the object-based approach of Japanese artists.
click on the pictures to see how their value structures differ. Left: In Dow's system of instruction, shapes represent objects, so value structures are object-based. Dow would consider this a notan-structure. Right: Modeling the same shapes to make them seem three-dimensional produces a different value structure. Here, the light and dark shapes no longer represent the objects depicted, but rather their illumination. Dow would call this "light and shadow". He would not call it a notan-scheme. (For more on this topic, see shape and value structure and Dow's notan-structure on the Shape in Practice page.)
Two compositions, one based on the shapes of the objects depicted (a black rectangle and a gray rectangle), the other based on the pattern of light and dark shapes created by moonlight on a river. Left: An untitled work by Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko (acrylic on paper, 68 x 49, 1969, Tate, London.) Right: Moonlight, a study at Millbank, by Joseph Mallord William Turner (oil on wood, 12 x 16, 1797, Tate, London).
Two illustrations by Charles Bargue, one of the authors of the 19th-century book on drawing, Cours de dessin. Dow did not approve of this method of instruction. Above: In the art academies of Europe and America, students drew casts as part of their study. Below: An illustration showing how to draw a foot — draw the shape, divide it into areas of light and shadow, and darken the shadow areas.
The shapes of the objects depicted in the painting on the left (the gray wall, the white picture matting, the woman's black gown, etc.) create the dark-and-light pattern. In the painting on the right, illumination is responsible for the value structure. Left: Arrangement in gray and black No. 1 (a.k.a. Whistler's mother), by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (oil on canvas, 57 x 64, 1871, Museé d'Orsay, Paris). Dow admired Whistler because he didn't let the modeling of forms detract from his compositions. Right: Rembrandt van Rijn's Self-portrait at an early age (oil on panel, 9 x 7, 1628, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). The air in this painting almost seems breathable.
A grayscale image with the distracting details removed makes a painting's value structure apparent.
Design vs. realism
According to Dow, realism is "nature-imitation". Composition, by contrast, is the act of creating "fine relations" among lines, shapes and colors.
"At the outset a fundamental fact must be understood, that synthetically related masses of dark and light convey an impression of beauty entirely independent of meaning."
Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color, p. 53.
"I am not arguing for the entire omission of shadows and modeling — they have their place — but am insisting that flat relations of tone and color are of first importance; they are the structural frame, while gradation and shading are the finish."
Ibid., p. 70.
Both of these paintings have clear value structures, and their pictorial elements (lines, shapes and colors) have been carefully arranged. The painting on the left is an example of trompe l'oeil, which means "trick the eye" in French: the objects are so accurately modeled and the shadows so believable that they appear to be real. The painting on the right is an example of analytic cubism, in which objects are reduced to overlapping planes in a nearly flat and obviously hypothetical universe. Left: The old violin by William Michael Harnett (oil on canvas, 38 x 34, 1886, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Right: The violin, by Juan Gris (oil on panel, 46 x 29, 1916, Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland).
The cellist, by Max Weber (oil on canvas, 20 x 16, 1917, Brooklyn Museum). Weber was Dow's student.
Realism focuses attention on a painting's subject and on how well the artist has painted it. As a result, (according to Dow), composition, art's structural framework, is forgotten and ignored.
Dow believed that realism is at odds with art because it obscures and devalues design. Left: Girl in white with chrysanthemums, by Samuel Isham (oil on canvas, 1891, Muskegon Museum of Art). Right: Pablo Picasso's Seated woman with wrist watch (oil on canvas, 51 x 38, 1932). This picture is even flatter and less beholden to reality than the cubist painting, above.
According to Dow, composition has a decorative aspect that realism lacks:
"The modern arbitrary division of painting into representative and decorative has put composition into the background and brought forward nature-imitation as a substitute."
Ibid., p. 44.
To develop an appreciation for the decorative side of art, Dow recommended that students copy Victorian wallpapers and Japanese prints like the ones above. Left: Acanthus, a William Morris wallpaper (woodblock, 1875, Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Right: Sparrows and pinks, a late 19th-century stencil by an unknown Japanese artist (Art Institute of Chicago).
In Dow's view, Leonardo da Vinci was one of the last Western painters whose work is both decorative and representational, and, consequently, one the last Western painters to produce great art. Female head (La Scapigliata), oil on panel, 11 x 8, 1508, Galleria Nazionale, Parma, Italy.
In 1884, when he was in his mid-twenties, Dow went to France to study art for five years. Impressionism was in full swing and Post-Impressionist artists such as Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were starting to emerge. Also in evidence were goods from Japan, which had begun to be imported in the 1860's — silks, including kimonos and fans, porcelain, bronzes, cloisonné enamels and, most importantly, woodblock prints by Japanese artists. The prints had initially arrived as the wrapping paper, but by the time Dow entered France they were being brought in as art and sold to collectors, among them the Impressionists Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. The interest in Japanese art and culture was so great that a word was invented to describe it — Japonisme (in French), or "Japanism".
The great wave off Kanagawa, a color woodblock from the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai (10 x 15, c. 1829-33). A copy of this print is in Monet's home in Giverny, France.
A Japanese, by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (oil on canvas, 51 x 36, 1882, Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia).
One of Monet's many paintings of the water lilies in his Japanese-style garden at Giverny (oil on canvas, 32 x 39, 1897-99, National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome). Before moving there, he painted his wife Camille Monet in a Japanese costume (oil on canvas, 91 x 56, 1876, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Japanese art is characterized by flat shapes (i.e., little or no modeling), beautiful lines and decorative patterns. Mary Cassatt, one of the Impressionists, and Toulouse-Lautrec, a Post-Impressionist, used this aesthetic in some of their work.
Left: Mary Cassatt's Maternal caress (color etching, 14 x 11, 1891, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Right: A woodblock print by Kitagawa Utamaro. Midnight: The hours of the rat; mother and sleepy child, 14 x 10, c. 1790, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Toulouse-Lautrec's La troupe de Mlle Eglantine (lithograph, 24 x 32), 1896.
Utamaro was known for his portrayals of beautiful women. Three famous beauties, woodblock print, 1792-93.
The two Japanese prints below were being sold in France while Dow was there. They so enthralled van Gogh that he made oil copies of them. (The copies can be seen at the Van Gogh Museum website.)
Two prints from Utagawa Hiroshige's spectacular series, One Hundred Views of Edo. Left: Great bridge, sudden shower at Atake, 14 x 10, 1857, Honolulu Academy of Arts. Right: Plum estate, Kameido (Kameido Umeyashiki), 13 x 9, 1857, Brooklyn Museum.
Van Gogh's tracing of a courtesan by Kesai Eisen. The woodblock print was featured on the cover of the May, 1886 issue of Paris Illustré, which was devoted entirely to Japan. Van Gogh's oil copy of the courtesan can be seen at the Van Gogh Museum website.
Art Nouveau began around 1890, the year Van Gogh died (he was 37). Its unique look is due to its mixture of Japanese stylization and Victorian design.
Left: Summer, by Alphonse Maria Mucha (color lithograph, 11 x 8, 1896). Right: Hokusai's morning glories. (The great wave off Kanagawa, above, is another of his prints.)
Dow returned from his studies in France thoroughly dissatisfied with the academic painting style promoted by the art academies. At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts he met Ernest Fenollosa, curator of the museum's collection of Japanese paintings and prints. Fenollosa, who had helped found the Tokyo Fine Arts Academy and Japan's Imperial Museum, facilitated Dow's trip to that country in 1903. Together, they developed the approach to composition presented here.
A Victorian embroidery design by Mary (May) Morris, daughter of William Morris, who designed the acanthus wallpaper above (pencil and watercolor, c. 1885, Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
The apex of academic painting, which 20th-century modernists abhorred. Aurora, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (oil on canvas, 85 x 42), 1881, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama. Thankfully, technical mastery is returning.
A note
In researching this topic, I was surprised by the overlay of Zen Buddhist philosophy that Arthur Wesley Dow's notan has acquired:
"Notan is a Japanese word meaning dark-light. The word, however, means more than that. The principle of Notan as used here must be further defined as the interaction between positive (light) and negative (dark) space.
"The idea of this interaction in Notan is embodied in the ancient Eastern symbol of the Yang and the Yin, which consists of mirror images, one white and one black, revolving around the point of equilibrium. Here the positive and negative areas together make a whole created through a unity of opposites that have equal and inseparable reality. Neither seeks to negate or dominate the other, only to relate in harmony. It is the interaction of the light and the dark, therefore, that is most essential."
Dorr Bothwell and Marlys Mayfield, Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design, p. 6.
This is a dimension away from the idea that a good value structure engenders beauty and harmony in a painting. True, Zen Buddhist priests in China and Japan developed ink and wash painting, but Dow attributed their mastery of "tone-harmony" to the fact that they "discarded color, and for ages painted in ink" (p. 53) — not to any religious practice involving the reconciliation of opposites. The priests' objective, he said (and I believe this is the case), was to convey to viewers the spiritual core of reality.
The symbol for yin-yang, the belief that reality is sustained by the interaction of opposing forces (male and female, day and night, active and passive, etc). When these opposites are brought into balance, harmony is achieved.
I don't like the New Age overlay. The notan-structure concept is too important to art and artists to be obscured by a nineteen-sixties-style quest for enlightenment.
Dow himself is partially to blame for the confusion and misunderstanding that have grown up around his Japanese-informed theory of composition. He didn't draw clear boundaries around the terms "value" (or "tone"), "notan" and "notan-structure". He reserved the word "shape" for regular enclosed areas defined by lines (circles, rectangles, etc.), and referred to irregular enclosed areas defined by value changes as "masses". (Both are considered shapes.) He called the picture plane "space", a word that doesn't convey the idea of a flat surface with a perimeter. In short, paying more attention to his terminology than his meaning is going to lead the reader astray.
Whether attributed to him or not, Dow's ideas have become deeply embedded in American art instruction, including his prejudice against realism:
"The realistic standard always tends to the decay of art." (p. 59)
"Then comes Realism, conventionality, and the death of art." (p. 38)
Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color
If he had lived through the anti-representational, bourgeoisie-hating, deconstructionist craziness of the mid-twentieth century, he would have seen that abstraction is a dead end as well.
Primary light group: red, green, blue, by Minimalist Jo Baer (oil and acrylic on three canvases, each 60 x 60, 1964-65, Museum of Modern Art, New York).
Neither imitative realism nor design for the sake of design promotes art. To create art, these opposing forces must be brought into equilibrium.
Three blind men on a bridge, by the 18th-century Zen Buddhist master, Hakuin Ekaku (ink on paper, 8 x 26, Chikusei [Japan] Collection).
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