Materials · Productivity · Reference Photos · Sketch · Step-by-step · Technique

Notan and Electronics

I learned some cool stuff yesterday at the Mid-Atlantic Pastel Society Meeting. We had a program about the importance of making notans as part of the preparation needed to create successful paintings (in any media). And our instructor, Robin Caspari, gave us some really neat tricks to use on our electronic devises.

I’ve known about notans since high school. But I never really put two and three together to get to five. I just found it, as many students, to be more of an annoying exercise we had to do to earn grade points before we could get to the “real” work of painting.

The program yesterday made me curious to know more about notans and where and when the use of them developed. Strictly speaking, a notan is a distillation of a multi-value image down to just two values. In our case, we took our images down to three values in most cases.


According to one dictionary a notan is defined as: “The combination of lights and darks especially used in Japanese art: the design or pattern of a work of art as seen in flat areas of dark and light values only.

“Notan” is also a Spanish word for “Note.”

I’ve been saddened by most of my plein air paintings because the compositions just haven’t come out the way I wanted. Either the directional lines wandered off the focal point, or the values were just somehow “wrong”. What I learned yesterday, is that all of that is manipulatable. And it’s really easy to manipulate it if you can snap a photo on your phone or iPad and then scribble right over it setting up your values and working out the compositional issues.

So Robin had us haul out our phones and tablets.

So I started with my photos in Dropbox. I had to transfer the reference photo I wanted to work with into my iPad gallery of photos. To do that, in Dropbox, go to the top of the photo and find the “…”. This will bring up a dropdown menu. Find the Export and under that a box with a downward arrow in it called Save Image Close Dropbox and open your Photos gallery. Mine show up arranged by date the photo is taken, so it helps to know that, if you have a lot of photos saved. Once you find it, click on the photo and bring it up.

Click on Edit. At the bottom of the screen you will again see “…” but this time in a circle. Click and select Markup.

You will see two markers and a pencil and an eraser. There is some sort of lasso thing I haven’t played with yet and then the following circles: White, Black, Blue, Green, Yellow, Red and a rainbow. Select a pen. I recommend the fat marker as it will cover a larger area faster. Then click on either the black dot or the white dot. If you are making a true Notan, you will use only these two.

Now, using a stylus or your finger, color over your darkest darks in black and your light areas in white. Ta-da! You now have a Notan. Do you like the arrangement? Does it make a pleasing composition (you may want to study up a little on classical compositions if this is very new to you).  If not, change some things. In the end, when you want to save it. Click “Done”.

In my case, I would probably print it as a reference. If I REALLY want to internalize it, I would copy it into my sketchbook by hand. Finally, I can more easily transfer this very simplified shape to my canvas with simple lines and get the big shapes in place before I include any further detail.

So, for an example, here is a photo I took of a beautiful woman at the Folk Festival in Richmond this summer. Her dignity just drew me in.  I had already done a bit of simplification, cropping and editing in Photoshop to get rid of distractions in the background which included other people. But I needed to make sure the composition itself would work as a painting. So down to just the darks and the lights.


Kind of cool, huh? If I don’t like it, or it’s not quite where I want it, I can go back and use the eraser and push some shapes around. I can also go into the rainbow circle and find some mid-tones, which, in this case, would probably be her face and chest. But since her face is the focal point, I might try to push the background to a mid-tone and keep her face as the lightest point. Using the electronic devises, it’s really easy and fast.  Like this:img_2293

Then, since we are artists and are not forced to go strictly by the photo, we can incorporate the compositional changes from the start instead of trying (like I too often do) try to make compositional changes on the fly ON a painting as a I go along which honestly just doesn’t work very well and wastes time, paint and sometimes whole canvases.

In summary, you can use an iPhone pretty much the same way. And an Android based phone in a similar way although you may have to actually TAKE the photo with your phone to get it in your phone gallery. I’m sure there is a way with my knock off Android phone to transfer photos around, but I’ll need to play with it some more to figure it out.

So, give this a shot. Post a couple of your examples in the comment section or post them in your own blog and post the link to your blog in the comments. I’d love to see what you’ve learned.


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