Notan: Harmonizing Darks and Lights

I’ve been taking some art classes this week.  While studying composition, I came across the Japanese term, “notan” which literally means “dark-light.”  It’s a fascinating design concept centered around the idea of creating harmony in a drawing through value contrast.  When darks and lights are dynamically balanced, the result is a more pleasing work of art.

More specifically, dark shapes are placed against light shapes and light shapes are placed against dark shapes.  Relationships are formed through this interaction of dark and light.  Neither white nor black dominates.  Consider a portrait drawing done in grayscale.  Notice how the effect of the drawing improves when a dark background surrounds the lit part of the face and a light background surrounds the shadowed part of the face.

According to Dorr Bothwell’s book, Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design, the way that positive and negative space interact has meaning.  Both shape and background have equal importance.

This design principle can be used for all types of artwork including painting, pottery, and photography.  One of the simplest and most well-known representations of the concept of notan is the yin-yang symbol, which depicts the dual nature of the world and literally means, “dark-bright.”

Imagine your life in terms of notan.  How might you see the world differently?  Notice how the stars stand out in the night sky or how your shadow stands out on the wall.  The beauty of dark and light is all around us.  As artists, we must have the courage to draw it.  And in life, we must be willing to see it.

“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”   — Anne Frank


To learn more about the Japanese concept of white space, termed “yohaku,” see my post here.


Inspiration Underground

I had the opportunity to go to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky over the holidays.  What an experience!  I’d never been in a real cave before, let alone one underground.  Did you know caves stay the same temperature all year round?  All I knew was that I was looking forward to seeing stalactites and stalagmites 😉  And boy did I!  It was quite magical being so close to the mysteries of the earth like that.  Some animals literally lose their sight because of how dark it is.  We weren’t allowed to use any flash photography.  We were also told not to touch anything to help preserve the environment.  We even had to clean our shoes after to keep from spreading a virus to bats in the area.  But again, it was worth it.  I always feel inspired seeing natural wonders, but this one was unique in that we were actually invited inside the wonder itself.  It gives new meaning to the story of journeying to the center of the earth.  I had a whole new appreciation for the dark and the light.  Sometimes, you have to go out of your natural surroundings so that you can come back and see your own situation with  fresh eyes.  I think this is especially important for artists and writers.

Now lets skip ahead to the week of the blizzard and cold temperatures.  It’s no fun being snowed in like that, but it does make you realize how much clutter you have around the house.  My husband and I decided to tackle the basement.  And I’m so glad we did.  I found some additional wonders down there!  Specifically, I found several old notebooks I’d kept as a child and young adult.  What a treasure to discover what I had been thinking in second grade and then again at age 17!  Most importantly, I realized I’d been writing stories all my life.  Many of them were unfinished, but the intention was there.  I realize now that just by finishing a novel I’ve completed an amazing feat.  If only I could assure my younger self that 😉

If you can’t get underground, I encourage each of you to find a way into the dark.  Sit in the closet or simply turn out the lights.  Be still and notice where your mind wanders.  The point is to really go inside YOURSELF.  I think you’ll be surprised at what you find.  I know I found courage to continue on my creative journey.  What inspiration will you find when you have the courage to look inside yourself?

Note: This is the 100th post on this blog!  Another amazing feat 😉