Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Georgia O'Keeffe Month: Learning about Notan #1

Cactus #2
12" x 8", coloured pencil on black Arches cover paper
copyright Katherine Tyrrell
Notan is a Japanese concept involving the placement of lights and darks next to the other to read as flat shapes on the two-dimensional surface. This use of lights and darks differs dramatically from the means by which artists had traditionally manipulated these elements to create seemingly three-dimensional forms on the picture plane.
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum: Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts & Crafts
I'm trying to get to grips with Notan - using "Composition" the book by Arthur Wesley Dow, first published in 1899, which was Georgia O'Keeffe's bible when she went through the same process.

This is the summary of what the book is about
First published in 1899, Arthur Wesley Dow's Composition has probably influenced more Americans than any other text to think of visual form and composition in relation to artistic modernity. While Dow is known as the mentor of Georgia O'Keeffe and Max Weber, his legacy as a proponent of modern art has suffered undeserved neglect by recent artists and art historians.

In Composition Dow develops a system for teaching students to create freely constructed images on the basis of harmonic relations between lines, colors, and dark and light patterns. Greatly influenced by Japanese art, he expounds a theory of "flat" formal equilibrium as an essential component of telling pictorial creation. Generations of teachers and their public school pupils learned from Dow's orientalism and adopted basic postimpressionist principles without even knowing the term. The reappearance of Dow's practical, well-illustrated guide, enhanced by Joseph Masheck's discussion of its historical ramifications, is an important event for all concerned with the visual arts and the intellectual antecedents of American modernism. (summary on Amazon)
Quite some claims - my next thought was how many of my American readers have never heard of this book! I've also included some links below on Notan for those who'd like to read more about it.

I think I need to approach Notan in stages because, at the moment, it feels a bit like removing one's western perspective on art and adopting an oriental one. Just a bit of a culture change! However it's really interesting that virtually all the artists studied so far (Singer Sargent, Van Gogh, Whistler) were influenced by Japanese prints in the late nineteenth century and how oriental artists designed their art. So if they think it's a good idea.........

So what is Notan? Notan is a word used to mean 'dark and light' as an element of design or composition of harmonic relationships. The other elements are light and colour.
"The realistic standard always tends to the decay of art"
Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition
It's NOT the same as 'light and shade' which is about the accurate rendering or imitation of a real object (as per Cactus #2 above). 'Chiaroscuro' has a similar but more limited meaning. (the SGFA's annual exhibition (open submission) this year has 'chiaroscuro' as its theme).

The aim of understanding more about Notan is to know more about how harmony can be created within a composition and how every line and shape (positive and negative) can contribute to the perfection of the whole .

For me at the moment it feels like it provides a definite rationale to underpin my development of three value thumbnail sketches prior to commencing a major piece of work.

Tomorrow [Update - this is difficult! This post will now be later this week] I'll focus on what he has to say about Flower Compositions and Two Values and I will include the three value sketch of Two White Irises (and three buds) which I did prior to developing the work. He also has more to say about the use of three values and more than three values.

Cactus #2 at the top is not a Notan Image. It's a simplified form using light and shade and a limited palette. However I did think quite carefully about how the crop might work best to get a balance between positive and negative shapes. The black Arches cover paper (the reverse of the paper covering my Arches block of HP) is really nice to work on - but I'm not sure I can source any in this country.

Help please: Does anybody know what this cactus is? I was thinking agave or aloe families but it doesn't have a serrated edge. I have got to start taking photos of the names as well as the cacti when I visit the glasshouses!



  1. Absolutely beautiful. What a series this could be. The colours and texture are beautiful and the composition very pleasing. I'm not at all fond of cacti in the garden for some reason but they make wonderful paintings.

  2. I've become absolutely riveted by cacti - and I used to think they were really boring. Mind you I do like big ones!

    Rose has an interesting theory that they appeal to those who like number and pattern - which makes complete sense to me.

  3. Thank you for the Notan info. Never heard of it, but it makes perfect sense of much in modern art. I will definitely be seeking out the Dow book.
    Yucca? We have one.

  4. The current theory is that it's something to do with tequila! In which case it's going to get a much more interesting title! I think I might just have to take a trip back to Kew to locate it and its name badge.

    I'll be posting more about Notan.

  5. You Georgia O'Keefe drawings are absolutely gorgeous! Am speechless, they are truly beautiful.

  6. Katherine - I want to see your notan sketches of flowers as well!

    This isn't flattery but rather more like curiousity, seeing how you use coloured pencils. I'm wondering if the challenge of two or three-tone notans will 'destroy' the way you draw with threads of colour, rather than solid flat blocks. ie with lots of very subtle gradients & fine shifts of tone...'Optical blending' I think you call it, of which your flower drawing 'The White Tulip' is a fine & enchanting example.

    Bonne chance - and all else fails, you can always use the samurai sword for sharpening the pencils!


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