Ebony and Ivory

Arthur Wesley Dow—“If a composition has a soul, then the notan is the doorway to that soul. The greatest gift the notan gives us is access to the underlying energies that drive a composition. Thus, learning about the notan teaches us to be better composers.”

Dow was a renowned art teacher at the Art Students League in New York where he taught the likes of Georgia O’Keefe and Max Weber, among others, including photographer Alfred Stieglitz. He was considered a most influential teacher who showed his students how to translate the poetry of nature into dynamic compositions

He wrote several books on art, understanding art and design. His most respected title was Composition:Understanding Line, Notan and Color (Dover Art Instruction)

The idea of notan comes from a Japanese word meaning light and dark harmonies. It can often be seen in the famous Japanese woodblock prints from the late 19th century. (http://www.aristidesatelier.com/system/files/styles/large/private/Tsunami_by_hokusai_19th_C-728779%5B1%5D.jpg?itok=JaCk5gUp ) The yin-yang, a Chinese symbol, is the simplest demonstration of notan and it’s very meaning, expressing the dualism of existence, is a clue to the meaning of notan. The light cannot exist without the dark and vice versa.

Lights and darks, darks and lights, lights and darks—could you hear anything more frequently when discussing your artwork? There’s a reason for that. Being able to simplify the complex combination of shapes that make up our environment (and your two-dimensional picture plane) affords greater composition mastery. The concept of notan reduces light and dark to its most basic form.  Every dark defines a light in a composition and every light defines a dark, giving image to form and shape.

We’ve done an exercise that was essentially notan, so this isn’t totally new. (I was unfamiliar with the term then, even though I was familiar with Dow.) Now we’ll revisit and combine. Recall the Beverly paintings. She painted many evocative shapes with luscious colors that were mostly mid-tones. If you can see the shapes in your mind’s eye and divide them into only black and white, can you imagine the image? Can you “move” the composition by switching the darks and lights?

We’re going to play with this concept a little with some video, etc. this week.  Then choose either to proceed with works  in progress, including any unsatisfactorily resolved  Beverly pieces. Or you can develop something new with notan—or both.

Notan-beauty means the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light spaces…whether in buildings, in pictures, or in nature. Arthur Wesley Dow. Here is a link to some small sketches by Dow.  These are master works he’s reduced to “notan”: http://rozwoundup.typepad.com/.a/6a01053560de5d970b010536160109970b-popup

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