What is Nōtan (濃淡)?

Christy Olsen

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 are inseparable and harmonious.

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).

Yin & Yang

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 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' versus 'hell,' or the 'Spy vs. Spy' comic.

Spy vs. Spy

Nōtan (濃淡) was not familiar with 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. These new images and ideas influenced many artists, especially the French Impressionists. While studying in Paris, American artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow 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 to design 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 the artist practices to prepare for a larger painting. It encompasses the intellectual aspects of the design and composition, which can be easily changed or readjusted by changing the values or simplifying the shapes further.

Various light-dark designs from Dow's Book

Tutorial with Examples

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 three distinct tones: light, gray, and black. Squint to help you force the shapes into the closest of the three values. I used a black and gray magic Tombow marker to 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 important? Because the underlying shapes and values that define the composition are not always 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 go against 'Notan' study.

Values define shape and form. Painters use value to distinguish one object or plane from another. Underneath every great painting is a contrast of lights and darks; without it, objects begin to blend together, making it hard 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), wikipedia.org.
Sponsored by the Art Verve Academy. Enroll in studio art classes for adults in Tucson, Arizona, at ArtVerveAcademy.com.

#buttons=(Ok, Go it!) #days=(20)

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. Check Now
Ok, Go it!