Notan – The Art Principle That Emphasizes Balance

What is a Notan, and what are the benefits of this significant design principle? When appreciating an artwork, many do not stop to consider the amount of planning and meticulous attention given to a painting that appears harmonious and well-composed in color and value. The Japanese word Nōtan has been used for decades in Modern design and visual art as a tool for creating balanced and harmonious artworks that showcase one’s ability to leverage negative space and arrest the viewer’s attention. In this article, you can be sure to discover all you need to know about the concept called Notan and its role as a useful tool in design and painting. Read on for more about this highly recommended Japanese concept!



An Introduction to Notan Art

What is a Notan design, and what role does it play in visual art? The Japanese word “Nōtan” refers to a design principle that reduces a composition to its basic shapes and forms using color. To unpack what this design principle involves, we will refer to Nōtan as “Notan”, as it is recognized in Modern uses. In Notan, one can visualize the composition into a series of light and dark tones, particularly black and white, similar to the shades of gray found on a value scale. When the concept is applied to painting, it refers to the Notan drawing that is created as the underlying foundation of the work, such that the result of the painting process will highlight a more balanced painting in terms of tonal variation and contrast. Common definitions of Notan in art describe the concept as the placement of light and dark aspects of an artwork.

Notan Art ExamplesPortrait of Composer and Journalist Pavel Ivanovich Blaraberg (1884) by Ilya Repin; Ilya Repin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


When Did Notan Originate?

The term “Notan” is broken up into two Japanese words: “no” meaning watery and “tan” meaning heavy. The two words seem to contradict each other, yet their relationship and union signify a Zen Buddhist approach to balance. Notan art, therefore, relies on the interaction between the darker and lighter areas of artwork (also understood as the heavy and light areas).

Zen Buddhism is an ancient East Asian school of thought that also focuses on a lifestyle of balance and is often minimalist.

Since the concept is Japanese, the term is thought to have originated in early Japanese artwork, when laymen and monks used to apply the concept to form a connection between the art they produced and the spiritual aspects of Zen Buddhist philosophy. Historically, Notan artworks were produced using ink and paper, where ink was diluted to create lighter shades. The paper thus acted as the negative space, providing a light background to create balance. Notan artists generally consider the balance of their works when creating Notan artworks.



Examining Notan Studies in Art Practice

In art practice, Notan is used to experiment with the arrangements of light and dark elements in artwork by applying different Notan value studies. For example, in painting, artists may choose to portray the dark colors in black while the lighter colors are mapped out in white. This is known as a two-value Notan. There are other types of Notan values, which incorporate the use of gray as an intermediary value. These value studies are known as three or four-value studies. However, a Notan design containing more than four values is considered equivalent to a value study.

Notan PaintingsGirl with Flowers, Daughter of the Artist (1878) by Ilya Repin; Ilya Repin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, how does one use Notan in art? Notan is used to minimize color distractions and create a balanced and well-contrasted image. In painting, Notan designs may appear evident or a little unclear at times depending on the style in which the painting appears. Many paintings created in the Impressionist style are difficult to assess in terms of identifying their underlying Notan structure. Below, we will explore a few examples in painting that showcase how Notan has been used to enhance the composition of an artwork.


Old Plum (1636) by Kano Sansetsu

Artist Name Kano Sansetsu (1590 – 1651)
Mediumink, color, gold, and gold leaf on paper
Dimensions (cm)174.6 x 485.5
Where It Is HousedThe Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States

This stunning gold background painting by Kano Sansetsu was created in 1636 and represents the traditional use of Notan design in Sumi-e ink painting. The composition is a perfect display of the design principle, which showcases the balance between the negative and positive space through the occupation of black ink in contrast to the striking gold backdrop.

The painting was initially coated in white for the background to enable the gold to shine through effectively. The aged plum tree stands out against the gold and effectively highlights the use of Notan while displaying a sense of symmetry in the space between the contrasting colors.

The painting is also oriented horizontally, which makes the landscape appear more spacious and distant.

Old Plum is also an example of Sumi-e Japanese art, which was popular between the 13th and 18th centuries. The style of Sumi-e originated in China and was adopted by Japanese monks, who traveled to China for religious purposes. Sumi-e painting was thus integrated into Japanese art as a Buddhist practice, of which the artworks from Zen Buddhist artists showcased religious themes such as harmony, peace, and balance. In Old Plum, the black trunk of the plum tree was painted across four panels and was portrayed in full blossom to convey the atmospheric conditions of a chilly morning in the spring season. This was also symbolic of renewal and birth.

Notan ArtworkOld Plum (1646) by Kano Sansetsu; Kanō Sansetsu, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Etretat, Cliff Of D’Aval, Sunset (1885) by Claude Monet

Artist Name Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions (cm)60.5 x 81.8
Where It Is HousedNorth Carolina Museum of Art, North Carolina, United States

Etretat, Cliff Of D’Aval, Sunset is another prime example of Notan design in painting and Impressionism, which was created by Claude Monet in 1885. The painting showcases a landscape from Normandy, France, which was also the artist’s homeland.

In 1883, Monet spent some time in Normandy at a resort in Étretat, where he spent the next three weeks painting.

During this time, paint had also become much cheaper due to the chemical phase of the Industrial Revolution, which saw many artists embrace the use of bright colors. Monet skillfully portrayed these striking rock formations against the coastal sunset background using contrast and a two-value Notan study. One can always conclude if a painting has a strong value structure if its subject can be identified using a two-value Notan.

Notan ExamplesThe Cliff, Étretat, Sunset (1883) by Claude Monet; Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Morning Walk (1888) by John Singer Sargent

Artist Name John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions (cm)67 x 50
Where It Is HousedPrivate collection

Morning Walk by renowned American painter John Singer Sargent is another great example of Notan in painting that showcases how a three-value Notan is used in complex compositions. Morning Walk portrays a woman strolling in a natural landscape alongside a lake.

The light in the painting draws attention to many lighter areas in the work such as the sunlight on the woman’s face and its illumination of patches of grass and vegetation in the water.

A three-value Notan offers more information about the subject, however, it is much less noticeable since the third value, which is gray, captures the mid-tones of the artwork. Of the many Notan art examples, Whistler’s Mother (1871) is another famous example of Notan applied to painting and was created by James McNeill Whistler, who used a three-value Notan design to distinguish and highlight the background, his mother’s clothing, and her face.

What Is NotanMorning Walk (1888) by John Singer Sargent; John Singer Sargent, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Dark-and-Light Composition Illustrations (1905) by Arthur Wesley Dow

Artist Name Arthur Wesley Dow (1857 – 1922)
MediumBlack-and-white block prints
Dimensions (cm)Unavailable
Where It Is HousedInternet archive

20th-century art educator and artist Arthur Wesley Dow is credited with introducing the concept of Notan to the Western art sphere and wrote extensively about it in his 1899 publication Composition.

In this 1905 edition of Composition, Dow illustrates the basics of Notan design, which he learned from the art historian Ernest Fenellosa and the curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Dow’s illustrations demonstrated the ways that contrast with light and dark colors is portrayed to reduce the distraction of elements such as fine details, textures, and colors. Dow once declared that this encounter with Hokusai’s work gave him more insight into “composition and decorative effects” than the years spent studying images. His experience of studying the Ipswich River, Thatch Bank, and Labor in Vain Creek helped Dow to explore Notan and led him into mysticism.


In the Salt Marshes (1908) by Arthur Wesley Dow

Artist Name Arthur Wesley Dow (1857 – 1922)
MediumColor woodblock print
Dimensions (cm)Unavailable
Where It Is HousedUnavailable

Arthur Wesley Dow was also a pioneer in American Modern art, who used Notan in many of his prints and paintings. Dow’s approach was also inspired by Japanese woodblock printing, which traditionally incorporated Notan as a leading design principle to create striking compositions. Dow’s In the Salt Marshes was part of a series of woodblock prints created in 1908, which documented the Ipswich burial grounds.

Dow was also drawn to the colors of the slate gravestones in the area that seemed to harmonize with the natural colors of the landscape. 

While Dow’s illustrations and prints cover the basics of Notan value studies in art, one can also study the use of a four-value Notan approach, which breaks the composition palette down into tones of white and black, as well as light and dark gray to provide a more nuanced composition. A four-value Notan is used to explore subtle tonal variations, however, if your palette exceeds four values, then it is considered a complete value study.



How to Create a Notan Design: Steps for Beginners

By studying these Notan art examples, you can be sure to grasp the concept and its application. To help you learn how to create Notan, we will also dive into a few useful steps that describe how to create a Notan design using drawing.

Notan DesignsGirl with a Black Cat (1885) by Giovanni Boldini; Giovanni Boldini, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Step One: Gather Your Materials

To begin your basic Notan study, which can start as a two-value study, you need to gather materials such as a sheet of paper, a pencil, and a black marker. Alternatively, you can learn Notan design using a brush pen and ink, which would mimic traditional Notan design styles.

You can also keep a viewfinder on hand to help you with gaining clarity when observing your subject.


Step Two: Use a Single Light Source

Once you have gathered the materials, it is time to find a subject that is also illuminated with a single light source. You can manually set this up in your room using a lamp to shine light on an object. Your viewfinder can also help you if you are outdoors to focus on the area you want to draw. 

Notan HistoryIllustration from Trees in Nature, Myth, and Art (1907) by John Ernest Phythian; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons


Step Three: Select an Orientation and Create a Border

This step involves deciding whether you want to draw a vertical or horizontal image. If it is a landscape, artists commonly choose a horizontal format. You would then proceed to create a border for your Notan artwork.

Remember to start small so that you do not get overwhelmed.


Step Four: Outline Basic Shapes

In this step, you will identify the basic forms of the subject, including the objects in the frame, and create a quick pencil sketch of the basic outlines of the main elements in your composition. Remember that this step should not be overthought and needs to be kept simple.

Famous Notan PaintingsIllustration from Our Philadelphia (1914) by Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons


Step Five: Create the Notan

Once you have identified the portions in the objects’ and subjects’ forms that are the brightest and darkest, you can then fill in the darker sections or shaded areas with a black marker. The areas that do not receive light from the source should be shaded in black, such that your Notan design will reflect the areas in the composition that are light and dark. Remember to not leave any gaps between shapes that are alongside each other and which share the same value. Be patient with your progress and keep practicing, even if it feels awkward at first. Over time, you might not need a viewfinder and you will easily be able to assess the value of a scene. Additionally, you can also use an app to help you identify Notan values and create different Notan value studies. Apps such as Notanizer and See Value are incredibly useful to scout a scene and adjust the value levels.

Not all Notan apps are reliable, so it is recommended that you always use your discernment when removing distracting details from your design.



The Benefits of Notan Design

When reviewing the benefits of using Notan design, it is important to recognize the usefulness of Notan when it comes to preparing artwork or painting before heading straight to the canvas. Notan design can be paired with techniques such as chiaroscuro to create unique and striking artworks that provide a sense of three-dimensionality. Your use of Notan studies also depends on the diversity of the values present in your planned artwork, so most of the time, one would almost always rely on a two-value Notan design to produce an effective composition.

Famous Notan Art ExamplesWhistler’s Mother (1871) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler; James Abbott McNeill WhistlerPublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Strong value groups located together as opposed to a scattered design will also result in a stronger composition. One is also able to create interesting patterns by experimenting with the relationships between light and dark aspects. Since Notan designs are crucial structures to the overall impact of your artwork, it is also a great tool to explore abstract art since it also reduces your subjects to their essential forms and forces one to review the aesthetics of the artwork. Elements such as line, space, and shape become the focal points in Notan studies such that artists become more intentional about how color, shape, and tone occupy space. Artworks that were produced using Notan in their planning phase also display a greater sense of rhythm and unity, which truly evokes the yin-yang spirit of Notan.


For centuries, Notan design has influenced the creative processes of many artists, who recognize the importance of negative and positive space in composing artworks. By studying the various Notan art examples and applying the steps needed to create your first Notan study, you will certainly develop a new appreciation for the way that the Japanese concept can be used to create striking and impactful works.




Frequently Asked Questions


What Is a Notan?

Notan refers to a Japanese design principle, which is used to organize the light and dark elements in a composition, such that one can improve their spatial awareness skills and create a balanced artwork.


What Are Some Tips to Use When Creating a Notan Design?

When using Notan design in your creative process, it is advised that you first master the two-value Notan study by analyzing and recreating the Notan design of famous artwork. In addition to this, experts advise that you try practicing Notan in a variety of mediums to challenge yourself. To define the negative space in your Notan drawing, you can also use digital tools or filter the light to identify the crucial values of the Notan.


Why Is Notan Design Important in Art?

The design principle known as Notan is important to creating a harmonious and balanced artwork. The concept involves the analysis of the underlying values of a scene, such that when planning a painting, you can capture the essence of the moment and leverage the elements of light and darkness to your advantage. These abstract designs form the backbone of your painting by defining the essential shapes and forms in the composition.


Cite this Article

Liam, Davis, “Notan – The Art Principle That Emphasizes Balance.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source. September 4, 2023. URL:

Davis, L. (2023, 4 September). Notan – The Art Principle That Emphasizes Balance. artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source.

Davis, Liam. “Notan – The Art Principle That Emphasizes Balance.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source, September 4, 2023.

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