The Value of Notans

Notan of Grape Cluster
Notan of Grape Cluster

If you’ve studied art, you might realize my title is a bit of a pun.  Most established artists will tell you that values are more important than the actual or “local” color of your subject.  A Notan can help you see or create values in your subject.

The value scale for artists is normally represented by ten monochrome values from white to black.  Most instructors will tell you to try to achieve a minimum range of values from 3 to 7.  Without this range, your art or photo will likely look flat or dull.  It fails to “read”, lacks depth or the “pop” that attracts viewers.  Values can also help you guide the viewers eye through your composition.

For this reason my instructor Rick Surowicz advises us to make a value study before starting a painting.  These studies can be quite small, ranging from a square inch to 5×7 inches, but it serves as a roadmap showing you where to put your strongest values.  Some instructors go so far as to suggest putting your original reference aside and painting from the value study only.

Arthur Dow defines Notan as a Japanese word meaning “dark, light” which refers to the quantity of light reflected*.  A true Notan  is only two values, 0 and 1 or white and black.  I’ve been able to create these with pencil, pen or Paynes Grey, but I find they don’t give me enough to go on.  However, when I try to add more values, I become a bit lost.  Black and white is one thing, but finding values in color can be confusing.  Certainly, this method takes practice.

Fortunately, there’s an app for that.  I found NotanIzer to help me see values.  This app is available for free or marginal cost on on Mac, PC or smartphone.   The developer similarly describes a Nōtan as a Japanese design concept involving the play and placement of light and dark elements next to the other in the composition of art and imagery. The Yin Yang symbol is an example of this design philosophy.  I’ve loaded NotanIzer onto my iPhone so that I can quickly evaluate subjects in the field as well as in my studio.