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.

 

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Yohaku

brush and ink

Yohaku is the concept of white space. I first heard this term at a library conference in 2006. Legendary author E. L. Konigsburg, who wrote From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, gave a speech about appreciating both the half empty and half full glass.  She read us her elegant, intellectual speech and all eyes were on her.  It is a reminder that it is okay to prepare your words ahead of time and still be heard from the heart.

So what was she trying to tell us that was so important?  First of all, we need both the positive and the negative.  Everything has a duality.  You can call it masculine and feminine, black and white, yin and yang, north and south pole, good and evil, but it is all the same.  We exist because of it and we can transcend whatever side of the pole we find ourselves on in any given aspect of our lives in any moment.

She pointed out that only in our society would we refer to this beautiful white space as “negative” space.  Why?  We seem to have a need to fill up every corner of every painting, every closet, every space in our lives with stuff.  If we don’t, it is seen as a negative.  But how does black exist fully without the white space behind it, between it, around it, pushing it forward?  The reverse, of course, is also true, but we usually start with a white piece of paper.  And doesn’t that scare us to death?

When I asked my husband, who is Japanese, about the term “yohaku,” he immediately referred to the term as white space.  When I called it “negative” space, he said, “Oh no, it isn’t negative.  It’s a positive thing.”  I had to explain where the negative reference came from.

So how does this relate to my latest sumi-e painting?  It is my first attempt at something abstract with ink.  It is supposed to represent the concept of the “black hole.”  A little research taught me that black holes exist throughout the universe and balance the stars (light) that exists.  Black holes suck up matter (including light), which is a scary thought.  But they also spit out particles that make up all living things, including us.  We in essence would not exist without them.  The earth may in fact be a byproduct of one of them.

Looking at the painting, where is your eye drawn?  To the black in the center or the white throughout?  Could either exist fully without the other?  Which is more important?  More beautiful?

Konigsburg told us she gave herself time to write even as a young mother.  She found the space for her words.  We must find the space for ours.

My secondhand childhood copy signed and dated by the author 🙂

Check out these other posts that highlight yohaku as well as the concept of creative space:

The Four Noble Ones

Letting Go