I always enjoy learning new things, especially things involving art, and especially things involving other cultures. Put them together and imagine my joy at discovering notan — a Japanese art form that explores light and dark.

I’ve long been familiar with the Chinese concept of “yin” and “yang”, and surely you’ve also seen this illustration. I’ve heard it explained as showing that there’s always a bit dark in the light, and always a bit of light in the dark. In other words, nothing is pure good; nothing is pure evil.

I’ve also seen long lists of attributes for each side, with yin representing the feminine qualities and yang representing masculine qualities. Others refer to these as positive — or projecting — energies, opposed by negative — or receding — energies.

We can interpret the yin and yang however we choose, I suppose, but no matter how we see it, the stark contrast between black and white always catches my eyes.

And so it is with notan.

But, what is notan?

I found this defintion: “Notan is a Japanese term which literally means ‘light dark harmony’. Artists use ‘notan studies’ to explore different arrangements of light and dark elements in a painting, without having the distraction of other elements like color, texture, and finer details.” — Dan Scott —

Although what I’ve read indicates that notan is essentially a Japanese art form, I’ve found other sites that trace it back to Chinese ink art, explaining that notan literally means concentrated/weak, coming from the Chinese words nong and dan.

It is said to refer to the amount of water added to ink during drawing. With little water, the ink would be nong, creating dark shapes. More water would create dan ink and lighter shapes.

Either way, whether it’s Japanese or Chinese, I suppose you might say that a notan study is a value study taken to extremes. The simplest notan studies, you see, use only 2-values — black and white.


Just for fun, can you recognize this famous painting when re-created in notan? It might not be recognizable at first glance, but step back away from it, and chances are it will begin to look familiar.

So, what’s the point in creating notan?

It’s a good way to look at and learn about composition, for one thing. And if, like me, you’re looking more at how to use lights and shadows in painting, notan studies can be excellent exercises.

One way to create a simple notan is by using black and white paper to create patterns and collages of light and dark. Or use a wide-tipped black Sharpie on white paper.

A strong notan design has certain characteristics:

  • Lights are balanced against the dark. Neither predominates.
  • The lights and darks create interesting patterns.
  • The shapes are organic and natural.

But, wait… does this mean that every painting must have these strong contrasts between dark and light? If so, well, where does that leave tonalists like my dear Geroge Inness or others who painted in a tonalist style?

Let’s look at another painting by a very famous artist — looking at it as a notan study, that is.

Japanese Notan

Not much to see here, is there? The painting obviously doesn’t have strong value contrasts, but it does have other qualities that make it a true work of art. It is, by the way, The Entrance to Giverny Under the Snow, painted in 1885 by Claude Monet.

Here is the actual painting:


Good art can be created with strong composition, color harmony, color saturation, and brustrokes, as well as with contrasts between light and dark.

It’s good for us to know and understand these different approaches. Because value plays such an important role in most paintings, notan studies can help us appreciate the use of light and shadow, even if we ultimately paint more like Monet or Inness or any of the other impressionists and tonalists.

And, by the way, the answer is James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and that’s his famous mother in her rocking chair. Did you recognize the painting?



  1. Fascinating. If you are using reference photos to paint from, you can fiddle with the contrast, brightness, shadows and highlights to get a good notan study. Sometimes it’s hard to discern where you want those values from the original photo. I also like to view my paintings in a b&w filter to see if I have ended up with too narrow a range of saturation.

    Art….there is always so much to learn. I saw someone use the term grisaille the other day. A beautiful watercolor where they had done an underpainting in various dilutions of india ink first.

    Nope. I could not have figured out that was Whistler’s mother.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! The concepts of “notan” fit in nicely with the Zen-doodling I’ve been doing. It’s helping me become more aware of design principles of balance and harmony as well as contrast.

      Liked by 2 people

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