'Notan' - Why would you want to know about it

by Editor Wicher Bos

Artur Wesley Dow (1857–1922) was an American artist and teacher. He wrote a book, titled "Composition" (focused on drawing and painting), published in 1899 and reprinted until today. He introduced three elements of good Composition: “Understanding - Line, Notan and Colour”.  With the introduction of Notan, he combined Japanese and Western artistic concepts, exploring the creation of images based on relations between lines, light patterns and colours.

Notan is part of Japanese art for centuries. Notan refers to the harmonious relationship between Light and Dark in an image. Notan can be abstract as well as representational.

A.W. Dow: “The term NOTAN, a Japanese word meaning ‘dark, light’, refers to the quantity of light reflected, or the massing of tones of different values. Notan-beauty means the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light...”

A famous and often referred to example of this Light-Dark balance is “The old Plum Tree” by Kano Sansetsu (1646). Observe how he placed some dark branches in the light golden space.

“The old plum tree”  by Kano Sansetu (public domain)

Notan, also lives as a piece of art by itself. Artists play with the notion of ‘positive and negative’ space, often in almost perfect symmetry. Great examples of this can be found in some logo’s and the work of Dorr Bothwell (1902-2000): Book: “Notan – the dark-light principle of design”.

I am on thin ice here to talk about  Notan in a photography blog, meaning, Dow’s book is more than 100 years old and art has moved on, – yet I think the Notan concept still can be a source of inspiration and provide guidance for some compositions. Furthermore, to link NOTAN and photography seems counter intuitive, because a Notan applies a very limited number of tonal values (two to four), where photography’s strength typically is the accurate rendering of subtle tonal values.

Let us explore what a Notan is.
Following black and white pictures from the 1x gallery show how an excellent and subtle variation in tones.  Please take some time to enjoy these photo’s.

 “Portrait of a Timber Wolf” by Jim Cumming


“V Space II” by Juan Pablo de Miguel


“Diagram” by Dmitry Skvortsov


“Black And White” by Harry Lieber

"Bamboo" by Hans-Wolfgang Hawerkamp

How perfect these monochrome pictures are, these are not Notan’s – why?
Well, Dow teaches his students to make studies in pure black and white, if need to 3 or 4 tones maximum.

I found only a few on 1x.com that come close…

“rice fields in Yuanyang” by Piet Flour


“nothing more to say” by Harry Lieber


“Branched” by Wicher Bos

Due to the restriction in tonal values Notan, in photography usually isn’t the end-product, but a way to get there.   At its heart, Notan means balancing masses and understanding how to apply tonal values in the image. In modern words: how to balance between figure and ground.

A.W Dow says: “Landscape is a good subject for Notan-composition, to be treated at first as a design, afterward as a picture. Notan in landscape, a harmony of tone-relations, must not be mistaken for light-and-shadow which is only one effect or accident. Like all other facts of external nature, light-and-shadow must be expressed in art-form”.

Of course, ’tonal value’ is key when composing an image, as our brain has a strong inclination to focus first on high contrast areas and irregularities in a pattern. The way Dow looked at Notan, resembles an x-ray of the image, to reveal its ‘bone-structure’. In this way, also photography may benefit from this idea, and that’s how it was used by early photographers:

Arthur Hammond (1920): “Notan determines the pictorial balance of a picture, not so much the mechanical steelyard balance of objects or accents, as balance in a larger aspect, the balance of design. For the pattern of a picture, to be agreeable, must be well balanced; it must not be top-heavy, or too large or too small for the space it fills.” - Source: 1920 Arthur Hammond “Pictorial composition in photography”

I have tried the technique, it’s absolutely not some ‘magic wand’ – on the other hand - it certainly does trigger new directions to go.

Before making the photo
Look at your subject and imaging just the light and darks. If you squeeze your eyes it will help to get just the rough shapes, no details. It all about seeing the masses of the elements in the frame. I still find it difficult to do. On my iPhone I have an app to help me, it’s called “See Value”.

“Mullerthal Autumn” by Wicher Bos

Photography may benefit during post-processing, check out the ‘bone structure’ of your image and you may find it needs some light–dark re-balancing. (Photoshop ‘Threshold- filter’ or a combination of Desaturation and ‘Posterize-filter’ 3 or 4 levels will do the trick).


Consider it an additional tool in your toolbox, waiting for a problem when it comes in handy. Check it out, as a source of inspiration. Perhaps this old technique releases some new creativity. Maybe, just maybe, it inspires you to make one Notan just for fun and share it on 1x.com… and feel free to use any two colors.

color example

Hope you enjoyed reading this, let me know how you feel about Notan. Looking forward to hearing it.
Wicher Bos

I asked permission to show a true NOTAN from Jaime Erin Johnson 

https://www.jaimejphotography.com/blog/ole-miss-student-work#  by Jaime Erin Johnson

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