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.

This idea similar to an ecosystem. If one component is removed the whole systems is effected. Even with contradictory opposites, there is no conflict, opposites ‘complement,’ each other. Neither seeks to negate or dominate over the other, only to relate together in perfect balance.

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).

This concept 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' or 'heaven' verses 'hell.'

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 studying in Paris at this time, wrote a series of books and the idea and worked its way into art education. He wrote the books specifically for art teachers and westernized the concept into a tool for design.

He used the dark-and-light idea to design the interplay between line and the contrasting values of shape to create balance and structure in preparation for a painting, encompassing the intellectual aspects of the work not just technique. The composition could then be changed by simplifying the shapes or changing the values of the shapes.

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. You will find shapes that could go into either of the three categories. It's up to you to decide which to make the best tonal plan. I used a black and gray magic tombow marker and chose based on alternating values.

'Notan' in 3 tones
Two values are extremely limiting in design. If both positive and negative space are equal, they both become visually equally important in the overall composition. However, if the positive and negative shapes are not equal, the dark shapes must be adjusted to balance the composition. 

'Notan' in 2 tones
Here is the final painting, I did change some of the values from the 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, this 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.
Notan in 2 tones of the final painting.
Value defines shape & form, painters use it to determine one object from another. In painting or works viewed from far away, contrasting lights and darks define the subject. 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.


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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