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.


Applied Munsell

Frank Covino – Controlled Painting

Frank Covino Controlled Painting

Sometime ago I came across a reference to a book by Frank Covino called Controlled Painting. It was published by North Light Books back in 1982 and while it is showing its age here and there it is still an absolute gem for anyone interested in applying Munsell theory to realistic painting. At the time I was looking for a copy it was reasonably expensive (no doubt reflecting how valued it is) and was a bit beyond me – then I discovered I could create a “Want” on ABE books specifying a maximum price so I would get an email when a copy came up that matched. (You need to be signed on and then take a look on your members page – it’s right there on the sidebar menu.) It took a while but I have it. I’ve since discovered that a copied version is also available direct from Frank Covino.

Frank has been using and teaching a method of painting with a controlled palette based on Munsell values since the late 60’s – just goes to show that this Munsell thing isn’t some recent novelty!

I have to say I enjoyed reading this book just to gain an insight into the ideas and opinions of someone who has been painting for so long. And Frank is bold with his opinions – on everything from teaching methods to the use of photography as an artists tool. His explanations of the Golden Proportions and composition are as good as any I have read, and even though I know this stuff, I benefited from the refresher.

Another point of interest is that he doesn’t appear to require the user to have a Munsell book on hand. He explains how it works and then has the user work it out from grey values. It’s easy enough to follow and if you’re not trying to match paints to absolute accuracy for some outside purpose – just your own paintings – I don’t see anything wrong with the method. In fact it helped me lighten up a bit on my own use of the charts – realising that I don’t have to be perfect no one is going to manufacture 50 zillion cans of spray paint from my rendering of any given colour. What a relief.

Frank also gives pretty good guidance through making up a set of colour charts (which are used instead of the Munsell book) and a palette – either glass or acrylic with the grey values underneath – just as some of us have been making for ourselves. A little better than mine too – on his version the strips of values aren’t just a patch off to the side they are as big as the palette.

His notes on which colours to use to get close to particular hues and values are useful too – even though they’re a bit swayed to Liquidtex which aren’t readily available down here – there are enough suggestions of substitutes to be able to work it out. (And if all else fails – know which colour to mail order…) Also this shows how long Liquidtex have been making Munsell numbers available on their paints – very impressive.

All in all, I’m happy with this book (ignoring the chapter on SLR cameras..) and reckon it’ll be keeping me even busier for a bit. Even though I do have and use the Munsell Student Set I’m going to make up a set of colour charts following Frank’s guidelines. Hmmm, and a new underlay for my glass palette while I’m at it.


Colour theory unscrambled

I just finished leaving a comment over at All the Strange Hours (a blog that’s now disappeared) in response to a great article on Munsell and colour theory in general. Then realised I could actually say as much as I liked on the subject and even go off on a tangent now I have my own blog – old habits and all that. I’ve been fascinated with colour since I took a class in Colour Theory a couple of years ago. Prior to that I’d mostly dealt with colour as it applied to print not really thinking about it much – just using it to get the job done. Of course I knew the basics – like any kid who has ever had a box of watercolour, I knew that red and yellow make orange.

It became more interesting as an adult with the oil paints. No longer happy with just any shade of orange I wanted to mix the one I could see in the landscape before me – OK so I could just buy a tube of Australian Sienna – but really…

The colour class I took merely whetted the appetite. From there I picked up a book called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green by Michael Wilcox and read it from end to end. Pretty good. Unfortunately it didn’t help much until about six months later when faced with a college level paint class the desperation forced me to pick it up again and actually do the exercises. Yes, mix all 2500 colours. It was worth every little dollop of paint. I’ve had no colour mixing issues since. Yes, it did add up to a lot of paint. And rags. And lots of little MDF panels that I used for the task. Still it was worth it. I will save far more than paint in my coming years of painting – and a lot of frustration too.

Then I came across Munsell theory which Graydon Parrish has been working with and teaching as a practical painting tool. I sent away for the Munsell Student Set, read it first and then having learned my lesson previously immediately began working through the suggested exercises. That fixed any hue and chroma confusion…

Now, of course, I’m still painting grey cubes but that’s just continuing the experiment. The nature of the beast is well understood. Hey, I can mix the eight shades of grey between black and white on the Munsell Value Scale – pretty darn accurately in about 30 minutes… OK so I’ve had to mix and paint the scale quite a few times. I’m not that fast a learner. Making the cubes and then painting the still lives of them as Graydon suggested is one incredibly useful exercise. Just ask Paul.

Still asking questions, I’ve been reading about Wilhelm Ostwald’s theories and their practical application in book by Faber Birren called Creative Color. Ostwald, a Nobel scientist in chemistry, corresponded with Munsell but at some point took his study in a different direction. He identified what he called the “uniform chroma scale” – or shadow series – which he says is the secret behind the richness and luminosity of chiaroscuro. Instead of mixing black and white to a given colour to change the values – a touch of the original colour is added too so the proportion of hue content is kept constant. So yes, now I’m mixing chroma scales too. More paint. I like theory that has practical application and experiments so I can see for myself.

As I said, I’ve had practice working with cyan, yellow and magenta in the print industry. Then a few more years mixing oil paints on the basis of red, yellow and blue. My husband is an electronics engineer and has explained really well how the red, green blue of my monitor works. Three different systems – all of which work – differently. Grrr…

Always the kid wanting to know “why”, “just because” won’t do – I had to keep reading.

Recently I came across a thread at Wet Canvas written by WF Martin – that really made my head spin and essentially solved the problem for me. It does fit together! Not for any particularly practical purpose – I’m still playing with Munsell greys and Ostwald chroma scales – but it settled the whole issue in my head. So go read this man’s explanation (and do the exercises!) with an open mind. It’s an eye opener.


More cubes

I’ve returned to the three cubes because I have a brand new cloth. OK so it’s just an offcut from the end-of-roll box at the fabric shop but the colour is right – a nice N4 grey on the Munsell value scale. Hopefully it’ll make the exercises a bit more useful.
My photo of today’s setup is a bit dark but it shows what I’m working from.

Cubes set up on new grey fabric

Cubes set up on new grey fabric

The first painting is a standard effort, as measured, with one difference at the light end. It’s amazing what a day off can do for freshening up the eye – when I set this up and began measuring I could see that the light side wasn’t a flat tone as I had thought but was in fact light until most of the way up and then gradated down a tiny bit and then showed the lighter highlight along the edge.

This is painted that way. White paint at the bottom of the light side gradating to N9 at the top, then a white highlight along the edge. That way I get a white side and a white highlight without losing a step as I did on the earlier exercises. This isn’t the only way to paint this – I think the other mappings of the tones were just as valid – each version shows a different effect. This one looks like three cubes in somewhat dull light. The definition on the black cube is lost – but that is exactly what I was seeing.

Munsell study grey cubes

Cubes on grey 1

For this one I experimented with shifting the values a bit to try to make it look like it was under lighter lighting conditions. Playing with the new lighter cloth must have gone to my head – I’ve painted it too light and the effect of the cast shadows isn’t convincing. Obviously there’s more to it than just adjusting all the tones by one step.

Munsell study grey cubes

Cubes on grey 2


Adding cones and spheres

Today’s paintings are pretty much the same as yesterday with the addition of cones and spheres. I also left out the black cube so I could use the values I have to better effect on the grey one.
This first effort at painting a sphere was one of those penny-drop moments – the tones are the same as the cube, just blended a bit and a lighter patch to show the reflection from the grey cube. There was no reflection from the cloth of course because it’s too dark.

Cubes and spheres 1
Cubes and spheres 1

In this one I added the grey cone to make it just a bit more difficult. I also angled the white cube differently to make it a bit darker on the shadow side. I ended up with it measuring the same as the sphere – giving me a lost edge. I also experimented with softening the edges more – particularly on the sphere. I think I went a bit too far. The cone is probably the more successful.

Cubes and spheres 2
Cubes and spheres 2

Groups of cubes

More grey cubes, this time in groups of three. The last exercises showed that the problem areas are at the extremes of light and dark. These exercises, I think, show that the real power is in the middle values. The adjustments to compensate for the limitations of the white and black paint are the same in these grouped cubes as they were for the single cubes – except of course – that they’re all happening at once.

At the light end I have foregone the white highlight on the edge of the cube and used my white paint for the light side. The values from there down are as they are measured. At the black end I still had the problem of the shadow side of the cube being darker than my black. I painted it the same as the cast shadow. Even though I started as light as I could I still ran out of steps, it was even worse on the next painting as I will show.

Paul at Learning to See has suggested that changing the cloth for a lighter one would make these exercises more worthwhile because I’d have more steps to play with. I think he’s right (as always!).

Group of cubes 1
Group of cubes 1

This second example is slightly different. At the light end I chose to paint the lightest side with N9, preserving the white paint for the light highlight. This forces all the values for the white cube down a notch to compensate. The grey cube is as seen but again minus one value to be in step with the white cube.. At the black end I have run out of values and have no choice but to paint the top, the shadow side and the cast shadow all in the same black paint. The effect is still convincing. Three cubes on a dark cloth.

Group of cubes 2
Group of cubes 2

That’ll do for today. The others I painted were all variations on these, just moving the mid value up and down for different effects. Trying to keep the relationships so the form was convincing but under different conditions – soft light, bright light, chiaroscuro and Aussie sun…


First cube paintings

Finally, the first paintings of the cubes. This exercise was started with the cutting of the wood for the cubes on the 29th March… all I can say is that college, entries for three exhibitions, umpteen attendances at life drawing sessions and just plain life got in the way.
I’m on holidays again now. I have a month. I have plans…

The first painting is the mid grey (value 5 on the Munsell scale). I figured this would be the easiest and therefore number one. I just measured each tone against my Munsell chips and painted what was there. A slightly wonky cube but it is the first and these are exercises not masterpieces.

Grey cube

Grey cube

Next the black cube. A little more difficult because the dark cloth is making the cast shadow very dark. Cast shadows always depend on surface they are on NOT the object doing the casting.

The shadow side of the black cube is darker than the cast shadow – black in shadow vs dark grey in cast shadow – but when I measure with my Munsell chips the black chip is a good match for the cast shadow. Obviously I’m not going to be able to match the dark side of the cube. Problem? Not really, that’s what these exercises are about – measuring what’s there and then mapping that to the available paint. It’s the relationship between the tones not the tones themselves.

So I figure I have two ways to paint this – use the black for both the cast shadow and the shadow side of the cube since they’re so close – or use the black for the darker one and the next value up for the others to preserve the relationship.

I painted both versions. The one shown here is the first option: paint both black. I was dubious as to whether this would give a convincing cube on a dark grey cloth. I think it worked.

Black cube, oil on panel

Black cube

The next exercise was the white cube which had similar issues to the black one but at the other end of the scale. The light side of the cube looked lighter than my white chip. There was also a white highlight on the top edge of the light side that looked even lighter.

Two options again. My first version uses white for the light highlight on the edge and then my next lightest value – N9 in Munsell notation – for the light side. The other tones are as measured with the chips but painted one shade darker to compensate for the N9 on the light side. Amazingly it still looks like a white cube even though none of the sides are actually painted with white paint.

White cube

White cube 1

The second white cube is done differently. This time I have ignored the highlight and painted the lightest side with the white. The effect is still a white cube but it looks like it’s catching a brighter reflection. You can tell that’s Australian sun shining on that cube – definitely an effect I have a use for!

White cube 2

White cube 2

That’s it for today…

Munsell greys

I’ve started painting the still lives of the cubes. Just the cubes at this stage – the spheres and cones can wait until I better understand what I’m about. While I had some left over paint I also made these little chips to use for measuring.

Munsell Student book

It’s an improved version of an exercise suggested in the Munsell Student Set – theirs call for painted cardboard – these are MDF. I didn’t like the cardboard idea from the beginning – too easy to lose one.

I had made a chart on a small piece of masonite – it was a bit cumbersome to use. Paul at Learning to See made what he called dog tags – MDF with the hole for viewing – I have blatantly copied… (I’m really, really hoping that I can contribute something new to this experiment instead of just tagging along). His are still nicer than mine. I’m struggling to get the paint smooth.

Munsell chart with chips

Munsell chart with chips

Munsell madness

Munsell cubes

Munsell cubes, cones and spheres

My UK friend Paul Foxton is working through the tonal experiments too. Excep

t he’s doing a much better job of it than I am. If you want to know more about it you can check my archives to see what I’m doing. Or even better check out Paul’s blog.

Paul recently put up a post showing the cubes and spheres he made for the exercises. I couldn’t resist sending a photo of mine.

And being something of a pedantic fool I had decided that cubes and spheres alone wouldn’t make a balanced composition when it came time to paint the pictures. So, I found some styrofoam cones at a craft store and painted those in the Munsell greys too, just to round it out. Think about it… Since when should composition matter in an exercise in painting tonal values? I figured Paul would get the joke.

I think he did, ‘cos next thing I find he wants to put it on his website and share my lunacy with the world. Is that OK with me? Fine, but I’d better’ fess up here first… so here you have it: Munsell madness.

Those presky greys

The next step in my tonal exercises was to paint the cubes in the greys. I also needed to make a chart that I could hold up to the still life setup to measure the tonal values.

I was surprised at how difficult it was to match the greys on the grey scale. Mixing the paints took hours even then I wasn’t happy with them. I’ve left the cubes to dry – the oils are going to take a few days – they look like they’ll need a second coat anyway.

The chart wasn’t any easier. I mixed another set of greys and tried again. Still not happy. I kept going on this exercise until I felt competent. It has taken weeks.

The upside is that I can now mix those greys in about 45 minutes!

Grey scale

Another problem came up with the grey scale I was using. The more I worked with it the more I was convinced that it too geared to the light end – the differences between the lightest colours was too subtle compared to the mid tones.

I had been dithering for weeks about whether to send away for the Munsell Student Set. This issue did it. I knew the Student Set had a value scale, I also knew that the whole basis for the Munsell Theory was value steps that are spaced visually even. It’s scientifically done and tested. In short a scale I could trust. I sent away for it.

When the Munsell set arrived I started over. More charts. The one here is the latest. Not very elegant but the greys are good.

And I’ve finally put the second coat of paint on those cubes, sphere and cones.