Project 3 Colour : Using Notan to look at Tone (Value)


Tone, or value as I prefer to think of it as, is how light or dark a colour is. Depending on the colour sometimes this can be very difficult to work out so taking a photo and turning it black and white can help to work out relative values.

A few days ago I attended a workshop with a local artist called Vicki Norman looking at a Japanese design concept called Notan, I felt this would be very useful for looking further in to the use of light and dark within my work. Notan literally means a balance of light and dark in a picture and it is worked very quickly on a small scale, mine were about 1.5 inches by 2 inches, and took a couple of minutes each – although the aim is to try and take only 30 seconds! The photo’s I show here that I worked from were all taken by Vicki Norman, some of my pictures are based on the entire image, but many based on small areas of the image.

Notan’s usually use only 2 or 3 colours, black and white, or black, white and grey to create an interesting, but simple, pattern of light and dark out of an image. It isn’t concerned about whats in the image – people, walls, background, they all become one, flattened in to an abstract 2D image of light and dark shapes. This image should still be interesting no matter which way up it is. Sometimes gradients from light to dark are also used in more complicated images and to create further interest. Artists tend to use these tiny images, reworking them over and over again very quickly, to plan out a piece of work and see if its worth working on further. It’s a way of ensuring an image is interesting to look at but not overwhelming, that the light draws your eye to the focal point in the painting, and that composition is correct.

From the workshop I learnt that to create good, and therefore useful, Notan’s its important to:

  • Paint solid masses with no outlines.
  • Paint clean, flat shapes that are uniform in colour (not streaky) and neat at the edges.
  • Identify relative values accurately – its either lighter, darker or the same!
  • Exaggerate the values if necessary to create contrast between shapes.
  • Keep it simple!

I worked my images in acrylic paint, but it also works well in ink – marker pens are good for speed and taking out and about, and paper cut – but that would take much longer!

Notan’s can also be very useful when deciding on the layout of a piece of work, to me they feel like the under-painting of an image, that if you stripped away all the identifiable people, objects and fiddly bits in a picture then this is what would be left underneath – creating the areas of light and dark irrespective of the colours used over the top. To help with compostion I was taught 3 important points, that can often be found in famous artists work.

  1. Dominant Value – Over 50% of a picture must be one single value, with non-symmetrical areas of the other values as its this imbalence that creates interest.
  2. Limit areas of Value to 7 – The best works contain big areas of one value with a small cluster of light and dark to proide interest. You should be able to count no more than 7 distinct areas of value or it will be too busy.
  3. Linking lights – Areas of the same value should be linked togtehr and overlapped where possible to create unity within the image, or touching the edge of the image to anchor it (otherwise you can end up with random areas of light or dark just floating around which can feel jarring to look at).

I found this a very interesting workshop to attend, and I can see how it would be very useful in textiles as well as traditional drawing and painting. We spent time in the class looking at work by Ansel Adams an American Photographer born in 1902 who worked in black and white, which is absolutely spectacular to look at and has a ‘wow’ factor I would love to be able to capture myself.


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