Notan book

I already knew of notan or rather I thought I did, when I picked up this book. If asked I would have said that notan was used in Japanese art and that it’s about creating balance between dark and light.

Having now read Dorr Bothwell and Marlys Mayfield’s book Notan, the Dark-Light Principle of Design I realise that my explanation, while correct, was rather short of the mark. Notan is in fact far more interesting and more powerful.

Bothwell and Mayfield’s book was originally published in 1968, and has seen a number of editions since, none of which are particularly expensive. Even better, for the modern art student of insatiable curiosity, struggling under a limited book budget, this classic has been republished by the ever affordable Dover, making it is easy to find and in my opinion well worth the effort.

The first surprise for me was that it’s more of a workbook than a reader since each chapter finishes with an exercise in cutting and gluing. I was also surprised at it’s stature – after ploughing through some hefty books on colour theory I was expecting something bigger and more boring. This one however packs an impressive mind shift into a small format, running to just 79 pages, which makes it an easy weekend project at a leisurely pace. Don’t rush it mind, this is one to play with. Be warned too that you’ll be needing a few sheets each of black paper, white paper and then toward the end a couple of mid grey. I wasn’t unaware and was caught out, an hour from a likely store and had to manage with blue and brown and… thankfully it still worked.

Each chapter builds on the previous and as with many such books it’s real worth is in the doing rather than the reading. It looks simple and the principles are simple, to be sure, but understanding comes from doing the exercises not just reading and thinking “yeah, I got that”. It’s about stretching the imagination just a little. It’s fun too!

(That point about doing the exercises reminds me of an episode in class one time. Michael Wilcox’s book Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green was mentioned and someone said that it was good book but it didn’t help her much. I was surprised and curious. I asked if she had done the exercises. Her answer: “Oh, no.” with a note of surprise implying that something like that would be far too much work. Right then. One more time, just for Shirley, it’s all in the doing! One doesn’t get fit looking at the pictures of the push-ups in the book.)

Ok, back to nitty gritty on notan. First up are some interesting exercises on symmetrical and asymmetrical balance, which are then combined with a look at positive and negative spaces and how they might be used together. The first exercise was to design a simple symmetrical image based on a square. The only method involved cutting shapes and flipping them to create mirrored positive and negative shapes. Below is one of mine. Very simple design. (The examples in the book are more complex than this but you get the idea?)

Simple notan

Notan image – symmetric

Taking the same process further we then try an asymmetric design. I know – it would look more punchy in black on white. but blue was on hand. (I’ll fix the rest of the images in Photoshop!)

Complex notan

Notan image – asymmetric design

Next came the exciting part which is creating a sense of movement and tension.Have you noticed that some images have an uncanny ability to be two pictures in one – a sense of flipping from the positive to the negative depending on how you look the picture.

I’ll use one of mine as an example (I had fun with this and did a few…). If you focus first on the white (ok it looks grey here… but the paper was white) the image appears to be a series of wiggly white bands on a black background. If you then focus on the black instead, the image becomes a black square with wiggly cut-outs. Then you can go backwards and forwards flipping the image by focusing on one colour or the other – thereby creating said tension and movement.

When a design has a balance of dark and light that achieves this effect of movement, then it has notan. Cool, yes?

Notan with 1 colour


Next is a slightly more difficult example using an extra colour. In this instance the aim is to design in such away that the grey bands always stay with the black as the image focus is flipped back and forth from the black to the white. Not so easy – the balance really needs to be right to get what Bothwell and Mayfield refer to as “predominance and subordination”.

Here’s mine: focus first on the grey/black shapes and then on the white, making each come forward in turn to create a different image.

Notan multi colour

Notan image – 3col

That is pretty much the end of the notan exercises and the book then covers some design principles (with a few more opportunities to play with the scissors and glue) then a bunch of examples from different art styles.

I have found since working through this project that I look at things differently. The variations on these themes are endless and the application to many types of art limited only by the imagination of the artist. The question would be how to apply these principles to colour… worth pondering.


Bargue and sight-size

Over the past couple of months (holidays, yay!) I’ve been tackling the Bargue-Gerome Drawing Course using the sight-size method of drawing. The drawing course, to quote, “is a complete reprint of a famous, late nineteenth century drawing course. It contains a set of almost two hundred masterful lithographs of subjects for copying by drawing students before they attempt drawing from life or nature.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve done quite a bit of “drawing from life or nature” but sheesh! it’s never too late to learn how…

The plates are a great exercise in understanding classical taste and are conveniently graded from easy starting ones through to arrgghhhh…

The impact though has come from using the sight-size method – my drawing has improved remarkably in many facets: patience, accuracy and the ability to spot mistakes – all of which transfers very well to all kind of drawing.

Sight-size drawing is done from a position about six feet or so back from the easel continuously looking from the object to the drawing, side-by-side, comparing point to point. A measuring devise is used – traditionally a piece of thread held between the thumb and fore-finger of each hand. Other implements that work are a knitting needle, skewer or dividers. I prefer the dividers. Measuring the object, then the drawing, always comparing. Walking forward to make a mark. Back to check, then foward to fix. Back and forward, back and forward – always to the same spot – marked with a piece of tape on the floor.

The whole point of sight-size is nit-picking accuracy. It trains the eye like no other practice. It also drives one stark raving mad! It can take upward of ten hours to copy one of the simple plates from the Bargue book. And the end drawing – is so ruined with erasing and correcting – it’s not worth squat! However, if you stick with it and can see it through the results will never leave you. Quite simply, one learns to see.

I have many, many plates to go and doubt that it’s necessary to do them all but when I decide I’m done: I’ll never, ever do another sight-size drawing again. Well, not for a while anyway…


A Still Life

Dredging up another piece of work from a while back – I promise I’ll get back to current stuff soon… and not even a painting but another stop motion animation – currently brought to by You-Tube.

I set up a simple still life (fruit, veges and some flowers) on our dining room table with some lights and a digital camera set to snap a photo every hour. My thinking was it would take a few weeks to disappear to nothing. Not…

Two and a half months later I stopped the experiment in a fit of annoyance. I wanted my table back. I couldn’t stand the smell a minute longer and worse the creepy crawlies were coming from miles around to join the party. Yuk.

Reviewing the photos I discovered that several of our cats (we have six…) had been visiting the setup. Sniffing the flowers, staring into the camera, eating the fruit. Double yuk.

Many hours of editing later one naughty kitty became the star of the show. No photos were changed. None were run out of order. I simply discarded some, played with the timing, added a few graphics and set it to music.

The “olde silent movie” graphics and music were chosen to suit the occasional shake that appears from removing the camera to download the photos – yes, every few days… Despite tape and texta marks for the positioning you can see the moves. Beaut. If life hands you a lemon… I had my theme.

And *that* is it for today, I really must stop procrastinating and get on with the next Bargue drawing. Isn’t it amazing how many little one can get done while trying to avoid doing something difficult?

A little fun with animation

Some time ago I began making stop motion animation using a webcam.

I thought I’d give a little background for anyone interested. I made the puppet with wire, cushion foam and latex. Sewed her clothes and painted her with acrylics. After many hours of movie stardom (ie being moved and photographed thousands of times her paint is a little worse for wear. (Nothing that couldn’t be fixed should she perform again some day.)

Hang on, here’s a pic…




Anatomy for artists

I’ve talked before about my ongoing interest in anatomy study. A quest pursued through books and life drawing. In general, I’m comfortable with self directed study – actually more than comfortable – it’s probably my preferred way to learn. I can go as fast or as slow as need be and work through as many different books as I feel I need to until whatever-it-is clicks. And I like books. A lot. Anatomy however has been something of a hurdle for me – sitting staring at the intricate pictures in Stephen Peck’s Atlas of Human Anatomy simply made me feel overwhelmed. Even trying to draw them didn’t help much. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book – probably the best book on the topic for artists. However it’s a *reference* book not a learning tool.

I also tried Bridgman, Loomis and Vanderpoel. I read them, copied the drawings and followed the suggested exercises. Sometimes several times. Until I thought I got it. My drawing improved a bit but I still didn’t feel I understood the nuts and bolts. I haven’t actually given up on any of these books, in fact, I’ll be returning to them as follow up exercises.

Follow up to what? I decided that what I needed was a course. College level, several semesters, intensive, directed study. Unfortunately I couldn’t find one in Perth… certainly not one I could get to or afford the time for – since I’m studying full time already.

I looked around the net. Read reviews. Asked friends. The result was a fairly even division of fans between two teachers – Hal Reed and Glenn Vilppu. Both have produced a series of videos – each about 14 or so – covering everything from the head to the feet. Now any set of 14 videos isn’t going to be cheap – so buying both was not an option. Certainly not all at once. (Thinking about it – they’re less than a course or workshop… and in my humble opinion better.)

The decision was made for me by finding I could borrow the Vilppu set from a friend and then buy the Hal Reed set myself – I get to return the favour too. Now, after the fact, I’m thinking that I’ll be saving up for the Vilppu set too because they are so different.

Glenn draws everything – fluidly and beautifully adding the muscles to action figures and naming them as he goes. He’s in demand for teaching animators – even Disney brings him in – but his background is as a painter too. He’s fun.

Hal on the other hand is more serious. More to learn. More muscles. More serious tips. He draws some, points at charts and points at casts. Over and over again. Forcing the names to sink in. And as I discovered on the second video he also has a gorgeous young body builder as a model! (Woo hoo. Hey – I’m married – not dead…)

I really couldn’t choose one over the other. Glenn has loosened up my drawings – Hal has given them muscle. Glenn first, then Hal. Maybe. Ultimately they both have a lot to offer and for me I really think it’s the repetition that is making it sink in. Anatomy is a complex subject – with a lot to learn and remember. The videos for me have made all the difference. And now the books make sense too.


Charcoal City – day 3

Charcoal City

Here are a few pics of the scene so far. Looking good and with just two days to go likely to finish on time too. Thank goodness.

The walls we’re covering here are over 3m (9ft) high…

The toughest part of a collaborative project is keeping one’s temper amongst a large group of tired and cranky artists crammed into a small space – day after day after day… That is what one really learns in a project like this: how to choose partners for future shows!!!

Charcoal City




More life drawing…

A sucker for punishment I am. Last week saw me tackling two life drawing sessions at different venues in the one day – and that after a drawing class in the morning. All up I drew for nine hours. Many drawings later, here are just a couple.

In charcoal…

Life drawings with charcoal on brown paper


And graphite…

 Life drawing with graphite on cartridge paper


And yes, I can see a difference. I’m more comfortable and the drawings are getting better. I can’t say whether it’s the persistent practice or the anatomy study that’s making it happen. Whatever. I’ll keep up with both.



This – ta dah – is Phi. Or rather a few parts of it… in the studio prior to the final coats of finish that gave it’s metallic sheen. I can’t show you much of a pic because it has yet to be displayed – as I would like it – in a place with good lighting. Soon…

Sculpture Phi 1


The media is plaster and the illusion of rusty cast iron the result of lots of layers of oil paint. Needless to say Phi was many months in the making. I was mighty chuffed at the opening night of the exhibition when I watched a visitor taking a glance around and then give it a little tap – obviously trying to find out what it was made of. I couln’t resist introducing myself and offering an explanation. It turned out that he was an exhibitor too – a metal piece – a real one – and he a qualified boiler maker. 🙂

The shape if it were fully assembled would be a rhombic triacontahedron. The rhombus is in the 5:8 or Golden Proportion – hence the name Phi.

Sculpture Phi 1 detail


Each of the rhombus was cast from a wooden mould which was laminated and carved – the tricky part being the 144° angles on the underside which when assembled form the triacontahedron. Accuracy was essential here – out by just a couple of degrees and Phi wouldn’t have worked.

Sculpture Phi 1 detail

Making plaster sculpture - cast piece


So why isn’t Phi fully assembled? The honest answer being that it simply became too heavy for me to lift and turn over after the first 16 pieces. I took a long coffee break and a good look before calling for assistance. I didn’t call. I decided that I liked Phi better in pieces. Five in all. The one large one and then four other smaller groups. I could leave the viewer to decide whether this was a ruin or something had hatched or a kit in making…

Making plaster sculpture


The comment from the judges recognised that:

This work presents us with an industrial, weighty tessellated broken shell, providing a sense of consipicuous absence in the space it once contained. The allusions of its manufacture are hard to place – at once gothic and alien, organic or artificial, an article of aggression or protection? A resonant work, well done.

I really can’t wish for more than that. It’s a huge encouragement to continue making work that I really love. And it seems to find viewers who either love it too or think it odd. My work is like that – it seems to evoke a response – rarely a middle ground blah. In a perfect world Phi would find a home other than mine at the end of this exhibition – but that I expect is asking too much. Weighing in at around 40kg in total and I think (I didn’t measure him yet) around half a metre across he doesn’t exactly fit on the average mantlepiece…