Maryland Pastel Society events




The Ying-Yang symbol, a Classic Notan

The Value of Value Studies and "What is a Notan, Anyway?"

At our recent January Member's Meeting we focused on Notan sketches and the Value of Value Studies in composing a successful painting.  This month we are presenting you with a BIG CHALLENGE as we review some of the topics covered at the meeting.

This is a three-part challenge:

1. Create a Notan Sketch, (black/white).
2. Create a Value Sketch, (three or four values).
3. Create a painting using the Notan, Value Sketch and Photo Reference.

In past challenges you've been asked to work from life or "en plein air", however for this challenge if you would like, you may work from your own photo reference. Of course, if you prefer to work from direct observation, please do so.

For the first part of this challenge you will create a Notan sketch of your composition. Notan, is a Japanese term used to describe the underlying "literal" black and white design of your composition.  The classic example of this type of design approach is the symbol for the "Ying-Yang".
The Notan you create will most likely take on an abstract quality so don't be concerned if it doesn't look like a representational drawing of your subject!

Part 1. How to create a Notan:

Your Notan sketch should be small, thumbnail size, (longest dimension about 4"). You'll be combining all of the mid-light to white values of your subject into an overall white value, (this will be the white of the paper).  All of the mid-dark values moving toward black will be represented as black. Create the Notan on white paper using a black wide-nib marker for the best result! If you don't want to use a marker, a 6B graphite pencil will do. This Notan will require more thinking time than actual sketching time. A minute or two of drawing will reveal the underlying design.

Notan Example:
mps 704

What will this Notan exercise do for you:

  1. Force you to evaluate your value shapes simply and literally.
  2. Open your eyes to the insignificance of details in creating your composition.
  3. Identify the type of composition; diagonal, radiating, tunnel, etc. (Please Refer to the Resource Pages at the bottom of the screen for a variety of types of compositions listed in Edgar Payne's book entitled, "Composition of Outdoor Painting".

    Please do not focus on WHAT you are designing. In other words, don't think about the fact that it's a house on a hill or maybe a boat on a river. The subject is not the important element in this exercise. It's the value shape that creates the underlying design. In creating your Notan you should NOT be thinking about any details but instead solid masses of value only.

    After you create your first Notan, try a few more using a variety of formats: horizontal, square and vertical. Which do you like best?

    Once you have determined you are satisfied with the design it's time for the next part of the challenge developing this idea further by introducing a third and/or possibly a fourth value. The SUPER challenge is to try to complete the sketch using three values!! You can do it!!

    Part 2. How to create your final value sketch:

    Keeping your Notan design close at hand, create your three/four value sketch comparable to the size of your Notan. This value sketch is not meant to be a detailed drawing. Now, you must separate your values into groups of three or possibly four value shapes. The best way to begin is to determine which value is dominant: dark, light or middle. If the dark value is dominant, lay in all of your dark shapes. Proceed to the next largest value shape and so on. If you are having trouble in determining the value always compare one value shape next to another. For example, if you know that the sky is the lightest value then nothing else in your value sketch should be this light. Sometimes we mistake a bright color like red or yellow as being the lightest light but this is not always the case. Move your photo reference away from you and SQUINT DOWN on the image to assess the value shapes. Try to simplify these shapes as much as possible.

    The illustrations below address a common problem in laying out the value shapes. If you're value shapes are broken up into small shapes of value then the underlying design structure will NOT hold together so make sure you create SOLID value shapes.
    mps 704
    mps 704

    Now, you have completed the Notan and value sketch…great!! Below you'll find a checklist of questions to ask yourself before you move on to the final part of the challenge.

    1. Were you able to create an effective design with only 3 or 4 values?
    2. Are your shapes interesting and varied? (Click on the resource page listed below for information about the concept of dominant value").
    3. Have you massed the values to create a strong composition?
    4. Does one value dominate?
    5. Does your value study support a clear focal point?
    6. Is the focal point in a "sweet spot"?
    7. Does your value study suggest movement around and through the picture plane?
    8. Did you try adding, deleting, or rearranging elements to strengthen the composition?
    9. Did you try out different formats to change the mood?
    10. How will doing value studies like these improve your work in the future?

    How did you do? Do you need to make adjustments to your design before you proceed to the final step?

    There are many concepts to consider in creating these Notan and Value Study exercises however wouldn't you rather see the design potential at this stage rather than discover while you're half way through your painting that the design is not holding together? In practicing the Notan sketch you will eventually learn to see painting compositions in a way you never did before. All of a sudden when you are outside looking for something to paint or photograph you will begin to see the arrangement of value shapes and not THINGS!! Most of us are not necessarily attracted to a strong painting because of the THINGS we see but it's the arrangement of the shapes of values that draw us into the picture.

    Part 3. The Final Painting

    You have worked through designing your composition and now it's time to create your painting using your photograph, Notan and value sketch. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THESE WITHIN YOUR SIGHT AS YOU PAINT TO HELP YOU STAY TRUE TO YOUR FORMAT AND DESIGN. Within each of the value groups you will make subtle jumps in value and color temperature. This will add interest and color harmony to your painting. If you notice that your value shapes are not holding together and are getting kind of spotty you may have jumped too far up or down the value scale! STEP BACK from your painting and take a look. For example this can occur if you place too many highlights or sky holes in your trees. In reality there may be many, many sky holes in your trees but just a few added to your painting can get the point across without breaking up your value shape.

    mps 704

    Final Painting example based on the Notan Design

    We hope you will give this Notan challenge a try. If you would like to send your final Notan, Value Sketch and completed painting to, to be posted on the Exhibition Gallery of the MPS web site that would be great! You have until the end of February to complete this challenge.

    (A big thank you to our MPS President, Deborah Maklowski and Vice President, Linda Light for providing the inspiration for this challenge).