What is Nōtan (濃淡)?

Yin & Yang
Nōtan (濃淡) is a Japanese word, meaning dark-light, there is no English language equivalent. It embodies an ancient Eastern concept, in which all things exist as inseparable and in perfect harmony.

The idea of Nōtan (濃淡) is embodied in the ancient Eastern symbol of Yin and Yang, it consists of two mirrored shapes, revolving around a point of equilibrium. One white (positive area) and one black (negative area) both are opposites and both are equal. Together these shapes create a unified whole with inseparable parts (Botherwell, 1968).

An idea similar to an ecosystem. If one component is removed the whole systems will be effected. Within black and white opposites, there is no conflict, the opposites ‘complement,’ each other. Neither seeks to negate or dominate over the other, they only to relate together in perfect balance because the are equal. The white shape has the same equal weight as the black and visa versa.

This concept of Nōtan (濃淡) evolved thousands of years ago in Chinese philosophy, dating from the third century BCE or even earlier (Wikipedia, 2018). A balanced interaction between opposites differs from the Western idea of opposing or competing opposites in which one competes with the other, for example, 'good' verses 'evil,' 'heaven' verses 'hell' or the 'Spy vs. Spy' comic.

Spy vs. Spay

Nōtan (濃淡) was not familiar in Western culture until the late 19th century, when Japan opened its ports to trade. As a result, Japanese art, especially Japanese woodblock prints gained popularity across Europe. Many artists, especially the French Impressionists were influenced by these new images and ideas. American artist and educator, Arthur Wesley Dow, who was studying in Paris at this time, wrote a series of books about the idea, which worked its way into art education. Dow wrote the books specifically for art teachers, which westernized the concept into a tool that is now used for the design of shapes.

Dow uses the dark-and-light concept to design a interplay between line and the contrasting values of shape in order to create balance and structure within the composition. It becomes an exercise that the artist practices in preparation for a larger painting. It encompasses the intellectual aspects of the  design and composition, which can be easily changed or readjusted in changing the values or simplifying the shapes further.

Various light-dark designs from Dow's Book

Artist's Example 

by Christy Olsen

Step 1: Work from a subject with a single light source so you have some light and dark tones.

Still Life with Single Lighting Source

Step 2: Simplify all of the values into 3 distinct tones of light, gray & black. Squint to help you force the shapes into the closest of three values. I used a black and gray magic tombow marker to help me simplify the values.

'Notan' in 3 tones

You can also simply the design even further into two values, which is extremely limiting. However it will expose any unbalanced aspect of your design. If both positive and negative spaces are of equal weight, they both become equally important, visually. If the positive and negative shapes are unequal, the dark shapes should be adjusted to balance the composition. You can also simplify the design by connecting darker shapes together which will create a stronger statement or you change value of an object to make a rhythm of alternating values.

'Notan' in 2 tones

Here is the final painting, I changed some of the values from my original notan design. The color of the purple pot within the mid tones was competing with the tangerines so I put the pot into the dark zone, which helped accentuate the lighter tone and color intensity of the tangerines. 

African Violets. oil on board. 9x12.

Why is a study that helps us identify distinct values and shapes so important? Because the underlying shapes and values which define the composition are not always so obvious.

Underneath every great painting is a contrast of lights & darks without it, objects begin to blend together which makes it hard for us to determine one shape from another.

Finished painting in black & white to against 'Notan' study.

Value defines shape & form, painters use value to determine one object from another or one plane from another. Underneath every great painting is a contrast of lights & darks without it, objects begin to blend together which makes it hard for us to determine one shape from another. Contrasting lights and darks in paintings define the subject for viewers far away.


Botherwell, D. (1968). Notan, The Dark-Light Principle of Design. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Wesley Dow, A. (1899). Composition Understanding, Line, Notan and Color. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Wikipedia. (2018), wikipedia.org.


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