• Seana Mallen

NOTAN, a bit of philosophy and some fun with scissors

Notan is a Japanese word referring to the balance of Dark and Light , and is the essence of strong composition.

The principle of Notan is the interaction between positive (light) and negative (dark), embodied in the ancient Chinese symbol of Yin and Yang, the mirror images of a black shape and a white shape revolving around a centre point. The positive and negative areas make a whole through unity of opposites that are equal and inseparable. Like Male and Female, Night and Day, Sun and Moon, and so many dualities that balance in the universe, opposites complement and do not conflict.

Lao-Tse wrote a poem that to me captures the essence of Notan:


"...a pot is formed from clay,

but the empty space within it is the essence of the pot.

Walls with windows form the house,

but the empty space within them form the essence of the house"


As artists interpreting the world we see, the concept of notan is extremely useful in simplifying and distilling our vision, and essential in pleasing composition.


Here are a few artists who use NOTAN brilliantly.


Felix Vallotton was a French/Swiss painter and printmaker associated with the Nabis, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. He is a master of the woodcut, and I love this commentary on social morés. The titles of these are Money, The Lie, The Violin, Laziness, and the Assassin.

What I LOVE is the balance of black and white, and how much is said with so little.



A local friend and Brighton artist, Janet Brooke is also a brilliant printmaker, and here is an example of some of the "brighton Boozers" from a wonderful series of linocuts of Brighton pubs.


Notice the balance of the black and white spaces and shapes, and again, how little detail we need to "get it."


In my own work, though I LOVE colour, I really like to return to the challenge of pure black and white composition sometimes, like in this monoprint of the south downs



To experiment with positive and negative shapes, try this simple notan exercise.

Take a square black sheet of paper, maybe a 4" square.

Draw shapes that start and finish on the same side.

Cut out these shapes, flip them over and glue them into their corresponding positions.

Like this... (These are mostly from my Bahraini design students. Thank you!)










Have fun with this. See if you can lose the shape of the square. Enjoy the strength and dynamism of the strong black/white contrast.

We'll talk about this a lot more, but this is a good beginning!


PS. and for a bit of nerdy potentially pedantic pedagogy, here's the real story...

(not a lot of people know this!)




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