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?)
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!)
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?
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 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.