April 28, 2018

What is Nōtan (濃淡)?

Yin & Yang

Nōtan (濃淡) is a Japanese word, meaning dark-light. There is no English language equivalent. It embodies an ancient Eastern concept, in which all things exist as inseparable and in perfect harmony.

The idea of Nōtan (濃淡) is embodied in the ancient Eastern symbol of Yin and Yang. It consists of two mirrored shapes revolving around a point of equilibrium. One white (positive area) and one black (negative area) are opposites, and both are equal. Together these shapes create a unified whole with inseparable parts (Botherwell, 1968).

An idea is similar to an ecosystem. If one component is removed, the whole system will be affected. Within black and white opposites, there is no conflict. The opposites' complement' each other. Neither seeks to negate or dominate over the other. They only relate together in perfect balance because they are equal. The white shape has a similar weight as the black and vice versa.

This concept of Nōtan (濃淡) evolved thousands of years ago in Chinese philosophy, dating from the third century BCE or earlier (Wikipedia, 2018). A balanced interaction between opposites differs from the Western idea of opposing or competing opposites. One competes with the other, for example, 'good' versus 'evil,' 'heaven' verses 'hell' or the 'Spy vs. Spy' comic.

Spy vs. Spay

Nōtan (濃淡) was not familiar in Western culture until the late 19th century, when Japan opened its ports to trade. As a result, Japanese art, especially Japanese woodblock prints, gained popularity across Europe. Many artists, especially the French Impressionists, were influenced by these new images and ideas. American artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow, studying in Paris, wrote a series of books about the concept, which worked its way into art education. Dow wrote the books specifically for art teachers, who westernized the idea into a tool now used for the design of shapes.

Dow uses the dark-and-light concept to design an interplay between lines and the contrasting values of shape to create balance and structure within the composition. It becomes an exercise that the artist practices in preparation for a larger painting. It encompasses the intellectual aspects of the design and composition, which can be easily changed or readjusted in changing the values or simplifying the shapes further.

Various light-dark designs from Dow's Book

Artist's Example

by Christy Olsen

Step 1: Work from a subject with a single light source, so you have some light and dark tones.

Still Life with Single Lighting Source

Step 2: Simplify all values into 3 distinct tones of light, gray & black. Squint to help you force the shapes into the closest of three values. I used a black and gray magic Tombow marker to help me simplify the values.

'Notan' in 3 tones

You can also simplify the design even further into two values, which is hugely limiting. However, it will expose any unbalanced aspect of your design. If both positive and negative spaces are of equal weight, they become visually equally important. If the positive and negative shapes are unequal, the dark shapes should be adjusted to balance the composition. You can also simplify the design by connecting darker shapes together, creating a more powerful statement, or changing the value of an object to make a rhythm of alternating values.

'Notan' in 2 tones

Here is the final painting. I changed some of the values from my original notan design. The color of the purple pot within the mid-tones was competing with the tangerines, so I put the pot into the dark zone, which helped accentuate the lighter tone and color intensity of the tangerines.

African Violets. oil on board. 9x12.

Why is a study that helps us identify distinct values and shapes so important? Because the underlying shapes and values which define the composition are not always so obvious.

Underneath every great painting is a contrast of lights & darks without it, objects begin to blend together which makes it hard for us to determine one shape from another.

Finished painting in black & white to against 'Notan' study.

The value defines shape & form. Painters use value to determine one object from another or one plane from another. Underneath every great painting is a contrast of lights & darks; without it, objects begin to blend together, making it hard for us to determine one shape from another. Contrasting lights and darks in paintings define the subject for viewers far away.


  1. Botherwell, D. (1968). Notan, The Dark-Light Principle of Design. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
  2. Wesley Dow, A. (1899). Composition Understanding, Line, Notan, and Color. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
  3. Wikipedia. (2018),

April 3, 2018

The Color of Light

Color of Light

When it comes to 'hue' or color, lighting is everything. Without some form of light, we cannot see color. When lighting conditions are low, we only see 'value,' the lightness or darkness of an object, not the 'hue' or color.

Whether it's yellow sunlight, blue light reflected from the sky, or orange candlelight, painters are always concerned with the 'hue' or color of the light.

Temperature of Light

Light temperature or 'chromaticity describes the 'hue' or color of the light (or as viewed on a neutral surface illuminated by the light) whether it's warm, cool or something in between.

Light temperature is rated in Kelvin degrees, one of the seven base units in the International System of Units (SI), assigned the symbol 'K.' It can also be defined by using "XY" coordinates against a standard chromaticity scale determined by the International Commission on Illumination (CIE). Since 2012 all light bulb boxes are now required to tell consumers where the bulbs fall on the color spectrum, so selecting the bulb color/temperature is much easier.

Measuring the Color of Light

Not all white light is the same. The lower the Kelvin number, the 'warmer' or more yellow the light. The higher the Kelvin number is, the 'cooler' or bluer the light will be. White light bulbs are usually in the middle of the scale, measuring 3500K to 4100K. It's counter-intuitive, regardless of the light source, because photons themselves have no heat. Not what you would expect if you measured a boiling pot of water or the temperature outside.

Not all white light is the same.

Daylight Throughout the Day

Daylight experiences color shifts throughout the day. Direct sunlight at noontime is an almost perfectly balanced light source—it contains all colors in nearly equal quantities. The color appearance of objects changes dramatically in the early morning or shade.

The morning sun is a cool yellow; the noontime sun is a warmer yellow; the afternoon sun becomes reddish; the setting sun is orange and casts an orange glow on everything it illuminates.

Natural Light Changes Throughout the Day

Natural Light in the Studio

There's no substitute for natural light, and artists love to have it in the studio. North-facing windows are the preferred natural light source because these lighting conditions are the most consistent throughout the day. It allows them to get more work done using this natural lighting condition. If windows are east or west-facing, the light changes dramatically from morning until night. East-facing windows see the rising sun (cooler). West-facing windows see the sunset (warmer).

Too much light may be overwhelming and strain the eyes, especially if it is blasting on the white paper or canvas you are working on. You may need some blinds or curtains to control the amount of light coming in.

Quality of Light

CRI, or color rendering index, is a numerical scale (0 to 100) used in lighting to indicate how a light source will make the color of an object appear to the human eye. RI measures the quality of light and is independent of color hue/temperature.

The morning sun is a cool yellow; the noontime sun is a warmer yellow; the afternoon sun becomes reddish; the setting sun is orange and casts an orange glow on everything it illuminates.

CRI measures the quality of light

If you are looking to purchase lights to work with indoors, you need to determine your end goal before choosing which type of bulb. In many cases, this difference is not essential. However, for specific applications such as illuminating art or comparing fabric in retail clothing stores, CRI can make all the difference. If you have gallery representation, use the same light bulbs that your representatives can see your work in the same lighting conditions.

The higher the CRI number, the better the color rendering ability which reduces glare and will equate to sharper, crisper, and more natural colored objects. Light sources with a CRI of 85 to 90 are considered good at color rendering. Light sources with a CRI of 90 or higher are excellent at color rendering and should be used for tasks requiring the most accurate color discrimination.