In January 2019 I came across the term Notan in an article on 1X.com written by the Dutch photographer Wicher Bos (Bos, 2019) called ‘Notan – Why would you want to know about it’.
Bos cites the book ‘Composition’ first published in 1899 by the American painter, photographer and teacher Arthur Wesley Dow (Dow, 2007). In it, Dow rejects the prevailing art teaching, which encouraged ‘imitative drawing’, in favour of compositional considerations. Dow describes the ‘space arts’ (architecture, sculpture and painting) as having three structural elements; line, Notan and colour used to build harmony.
The term Notan, a Japanese word meaning “dark, light”, refers to the quantity of light reflected, or the massing of tones of different values. Notan-beauty means the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light spaces – whether colored or not – whether in buildings, in pictures or in nature.(Dow, 2007)
A two-value Notan is simply black and white. A three-value Notan being black, white and one grey tone. A four-value Notan being black white and two grey tones. And so on.
Interest in Notan
My interest in Notan was excited for two reasons; the possible influence that Dow may have had on subsequent generations of photographers and the realisation that this is a type of art that I have an attraction to. Firstly the possible influence that Dow may have had.
Dow was an influential arts educator. His 30-year teaching career included spells at Teachers College at Columbia University, the Arts Students League, Pratt Institute and Ipswich Summer School of Art. One of his most notable pupils was the artist Georgia O’Keefe who studied with him in 1912 and 1916. O’Keefe says of Dow:
… I had a technique for handling oil and watercolor easily; Dow gave me something to do with it.(O’Keefe, n.d.)
In her own right, O’Keefe remains a highly significant American artist but in the context of photography, it is perhaps more interesting that she was the wife of Alfred Steiglitz.
Writing in the New York Times the art critic Grace Glueck said of Dow:
Today it’s clear that Dow’s Modernist ideas had an influence on the Photo-Secessionists, the photographers associated with Alfred Stieglitz who flourished in the early 1900’s.(Glueck, 2002)
My own interest in Notan
The only piece of art I previously produced was a simple painting (below) of the Polish Physicist Jacob Bronowski (I didn’t physically produce the work but I commissioned and directed it). Produced 20 years ago and inspired by the book ‘The Ascent of Man’ (Bronowski, 1973) it depicts Bronowski lifting the ashes of Jews exterminated in the Auschwitz concentration camps. I hadn’t previously appreciated my interest in depicting images in a Notan fashion.
Here is the relevant part of the powerful BBC series that accompanied the book:
Having learned a little about Notan and realised I obviously have a long-standing attraction to this style, I have decided to complete all further assignments and exercises for the CAN Unit using 2 value Notan.
Dow describes even the best 2 value Notan work as having a ‘harshness’ so it will interesting to see how I can handle this style.
Bronowski, J. (1973). The ascent of man. 1st ed. London: Book Club Associates/BBC, p.374.
Dow, A. (2007). Composition. 9th ed. New York: Dover Publications, pp.3,7, 53-96.
Glueck, G. (2002). ‘The Photographs of Arthur Wesley Dow’. The New York Times. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/15/arts/art-in-review-the-photographs-of-arthur-wesley-dow.html [Accessed 11 Nov. 2019].
O’Keefe, G. (n.d.). Georgia O’Keeffe: Line, Color, Composition – Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. [online] Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Available at: https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/installation/georgia-okeeffe-line-color-composition/ [Accessed 11 Nov. 2019].