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Japanese Notan: Artists, History & Designs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

How do artists decide where to place elements in an artwork. How do they use light and dark tones for effect? In this lesson, explore a Japanese art concept called notan and learn how artists use it in their works.

What Is Notan?

Artists use many ideas in their work. When they create images, they often think about composition, or where to place elements on their canvas. Some artists might be inspired by an idea from Japanese art focused on elements of light and dark. It's a concept called notan.

Notan is a term that refers to the Japanese idea of balanced light and dark areas in a composition. One of the most familiar symbols illustrating this concept is the circular yin and yang form from Eastern philosophy. Perhaps you've seen it before, the round image with interconnected teardrop-like shapes, one white and one black.

The yin and yang symbol illustrates the idea of notan
Yin and yang symbol

Notan is the idea that the elements of dark and light are equally important and need each other to exist. You can't have negative space without positive space, and vice versa.

History and Examples of Notan

Notan is an idea that's been integral to Japanese art for centuries. You can find examples of pleasing compositions using the idea of notan in the works of many famous Japanese artists. This includes painters like Kano Sansetsu, who created an image across several large screens, called Old Plum, completed in 1646. Look carefully at the dark shapes of land and wizened tree, and you'll see how they balance with the negative space (or the light areas) around them. Sansetsu placed dark and light elements to create a pleasing harmonious composition.

Old Plum by Kano Sansetsu
Old Plum

In another example from the early 1800s, Japanese artist Takaku Aigai painted an image of a tiger in bamboo. The curving, contrasting dark and light elements balance and complement each other.

Image of tiger in bamboo by Takaku Aigai
tiger and bamboo image

And in one more example, Japanese artist Yamanaka Seiitsu demonstrated elements of notan in a painting of a landscape on a vertical silk screen, done around 1887. Again, in Seiitsu's painting, the dark areas of mountains and land interact with the light areas to create a balanced composition.

Landscape by Yamanaka Seiitsu
Seiitsu landscape

Additionally, Japanese calligraphy, or the art of beautiful writing, echoes the idea of notan. Japanese calligraphy was at first often done in monochromatic ink washes and brushstrokes, lending to an emphasis on dark and light.

Later Uses of Notan

The idea of notan wasn't familiar in the Western world until Japan opened its ports to Western trade, beginning in the 1850s. As a result, Japanese goods became popular in Europe. With its striking design qualities, Japanese art, especially woodblock prints, became very influential to Western artists.

The idea worked its way into art education following a book written by American artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow in 1899. Dow discussed the concept of notan and used examples to demonstrate training strategies for art teachers. He included exercises that explored creating compositions using the idea of notan, spreading the concept in the process.

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