OCAD Studio: Nōtan


All compositions are essentially an arrangement of simple abstract shapes. Nōtan is an ideal way to study the shapes and patterns that serve as the foundation of every composition. Nōtan is a Japanese word that means “light-dark balance.” Nōtan uses an extremely limited range of values: just black and white. This type of flat design notation is well suited to expressing a composition in its essential shape-terms.

The traditional way to produce a Nōtan image is by cutting out black shapes and laying them on white paper (or vice-versa). These images were typically abstract rather than representational. Today we will be looking at this traditional approach and how the theory can be adapted to representational works of art.

Making Traditional Nōtan Artworks

Cutout Example 1.jpgCutout Example 2.jpg

  • The aim of traditional Nōtan is to place positive and negative shapes next to each other, with edges touching. This creates a pattern – a shadow image and a blank image.
  • All you need is white paper, black paper, scissors and a pencil.
  • Begin by lightly drawing shapes on the pieces of paper, cut them out and then assemble them on the page.
  • You can keep adding and reducing from these shapes as much as you like, to play around with the light and dark shapes.
  • Take a look at the examples above for inspiration.
  • If you like you can also begin to make more representational shapes – such as trees, people and animals – and see how shifting them around the page affects the composition.

Using Nōtan in Representational Artworks

It is useful to see the underlying shapes that make up a composition because when looking at a scene we are presented with lots of information; many different elements with differing shapes and sizes, infinite gradations of tone and colour and enormous detail.

So much information can make starting an artwork overwhelming. The power of Nōtan is that when a design is expressed in simpler terms, compositional dynamics such as general movement, weight and balance become much easier to see. You can think of it as a variation on the gesture drawing lessons in the course; this time using massed shapes as the basis for the composition.

Working with Nōtan will allow you to see the abstract composition that lies below the representational surface of your artwork.

Nōtan is not the same as a traditional value study, as a value study tries to determine the primary value relationships in an image. Nōtan, which is just black and white, cannot do this. What it can do very well, is make the basic shapes and patterns that are at the basis of the composition, more clear.


Repin Portrait.jpgThis is a portrait painting by Russian 19th C. artist Ilya Repin.

  • The piece relies on carefully modulated tones and a clear contrast between light and dark.
  • This sort of painting will have a pattern of light and shadow that closely matches the pattern of white and black expressed by the Nōtan. However there are still sections of halftone that have to be grouped with either the light or dark shapes.
  • Deciding whether these halftones will be grouped with the white shapes or black shapes is the most important aspect of the Nōtan process. Observing the patterns of light and shadow, and arranging these patterns in a way that emphasises simplicity, balance, cohesion, and movement is what you’re trying to do.
  • In this example, the Nōtan demonstrates the strong triangular shapes that form the core of the composition. The head and beard make up a central diagonal triangle with several smaller triangular shapes intersecting below.
  • I recommend making Nōtan studies of paintings and drawings that you like, in order to explore how the artist has designed the image. You can also use this method when planning your own work. I made this study on Photoshop on the computer but you can make them in any monochrome medium – pencil, charcoal, ink, pen, paint etc.
  • Working with simplified shapes and reduced values can help to refine the patterns that underlie the image. Impressive use of colour, bold brushstrokes or detail will never rescue a weak design. That’s why Nōtan is such a helpful concept to bear in mind when planning and producing both abstract and representational paintings.

Venice Painting.jpg

Another Nōtan from ‘A Church in Foggia’ by Edward Seago.

Here are the original versions of the Nōtan studies I made in the video above. They are both oil paintings by John Singer Sargent.


12 thoughts on “OCAD Studio: Nōtan

  1. Laronda Chumley Reply

    With thanks! Valuable information!

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    With thanks! Valuable information!

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    With thanks! Valuable information!

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    With thanks! Valuable information!

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    With thanks! Valuable information!

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