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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Notan: A Creative Journey

The subject is Herefords grazing.  One cow is looking out at the audience while the other three go about their business.  Light coming from the left joins with shadows entering from the bottom and upper right to create the context within which we see these subjects in their environment.  This interrelating of shadow and light creates the Notan of the scene. 

 

Notan is a Japanese word meaning dark-light.  Its original visual use was to create two-dimensional designs in black and white, the purest and most ancient we know being the yin yang symbol.

 
The Notan concept relating to visual thinking didn't enter western art until the 19th century when we believe it was introduced by Oriental art scholar, Ernest F. Fenollosa.  In the early 1920s, American artist and teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, a colleague of Fenollosa, was the first to apply Notan as a principle to Western art in his book, Composition.  In this text he attempts to blend the Eastern concept of dark/light with the Western approach to negative/positive.
  

But Dow was handicapped by the mainstream trend of his time.  Consequently, his efforts could not transcend that attitude beyond abstraction.  With that era's concern being two-dimensional space rather than a translation of images within space, shadow as a construct of light was not a consideration.  He took the idea of Notan as far as he could within the context of his time.  We sometimes forget that during the Abstraction Expressionist era, shadow and light gave way to negative-positive shapes and value relationships.  

What Dow did though was to introduce an idea that has become a valuable tool for realistic painters today.  Even though he could not quite see the Notan construct in the natural world, subsequent artists have seen it clearly.  Like any discovery, this one began with an insight that eventually became a working tool.  Today we understand it as a principle with which we can comprehend shadow and light and one we can use to undergird the composing process.

Winter Morning on the Tallulah   Oil on Canvas
For several decades, my personal work has been based on Notan. It is the basis for all our instructional videos.  Our newest series digs deep into the Notan process, showing how we capture and create Notan, how we can find variations with in it and how we can creatively translate it into a painting.  We hope you will find within these tutorials a breakthrough that will burst your creative stream wide open.

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