Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color

Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color

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by Arthur Wesley Dow

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At the turn of the twentieth century, Arthur Wesley Dow literally "wrote the book" on composition—and this is it! Dow's Composition exercised an enormous influence on emerging modern artists of a century ago. A thought-provoking examination of the nature of visual representation, it remains ever-relevant to all the visual arts.
A well-known…  See more details below


At the turn of the twentieth century, Arthur Wesley Dow literally "wrote the book" on composition—and this is it! Dow's Composition exercised an enormous influence on emerging modern artists of a century ago. A thought-provoking examination of the nature of visual representation, it remains ever-relevant to all the visual arts.
A well-known painter and printmaker, Dow taught for many years at Columbia University and acted as a mentor to countless young artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe. His text, presented in a workbook format, offers teachers and students a systematic approach to composition. It explores the creation of freely constructed images based on harmonic relations between lines, colors, and dark and light patterns. The author draws upon the traditions of Japanese art to discuss a theory of "flat" formal equilibrium as an essential component of pictorial creation. Practical and well-illustrated, this classic guide offers valuable insights into modern design.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Art Instruction Series
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8.10(w) x 10.80(h) x 0.50(d)

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Understanding Line, Notan and Color

By Arthur Wesley Dow

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13364-5




ARCHITECTURE, Sculpture, Painting, Music and Poetry are the principal fine arts. Of these the first three are called Space arts, and take the various forms of arranging, building, constructing, designing, modelling and picture-painting.

In the space arts there are three structural elements with which harmonies may be built up:

1. LINE. The chief element of beauty in architecture, sculpture, metal work, etching, line design and line drawings. Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, 23, 38.

2. NOTAN. The chief element in illustration, charcoal drawing, mezzotint, Oriental ink painting and architectural light and shade. Nos. 5, 59, 60, 61.

3. COLOR. The chief element in painting, Japanese prints, textile design, stained glass, embroidery, enamelling and pottery decoration. Nos. 8, 9, and Chap. XIV.

The term LINE refers to boundaries of shapes and the interrelations of lines and spaces. Line-beauty means harmony of combined lines or the peculiar quality imparted by special treatment.

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.

Careful distinction should be made between NOTAN, an element of universal beauty, and LIGHT AND SHADOW, a single fact of external nature.

The term COLOR refers to quality of light.

These three structural elements are intimately related. Good color is dependent upon good notan, and that in turn is dependent upon good spacing. It seems reasonable then that a study of art should begin with line. One should learn to think in terms of line, and be somewhat familiar with simple spacing before attempting notan or color. There is danger, however, of losing interest by dwelling upon one subject too long. Dark-and-light massing will reveal the mistakes in spacing and stimulate to renewed effort. Color will reveal the weakness of dark- and-light. Very young pupils should begin with color but the instructor will take pains to include spacing and notan in each lesson. In general, however, the best plan is to take up exercises in each element in turn; then go back to them separately and make more detailed studies; then combine them, proceeding toward advanced compositions. Whatever be the choice of progression, there must be a thorough grounding in the elementary relations of space cutting and simple massings of dark-and-light. This is essential to successful work in designing, drawing, modelling, painting, architecture and the crafts.




JAPANESE brushes, ink and paper are to be preferred for exercises in line drawing, tracing, notan massing and washes in grays.

Long brushes are best for long continuous lines, short brushes for sharp corners and broken lines. For lettering, clip the point of a long line-brush. (see p. 55)

Japanese paper for artists' use is made of the bark of the mulberry tree, and is prepared with a sizing of glue and alum. Unprinted wall paper (lining paper) is serviceable for practice work. "Bogus" paper and cover papers can also be used for line or mass.

Japanese ink must be ground upon the ink-stone, a slab of slate. Intense blackness can be secured immediately by using only a few drops of water.

Dry the ink stick, and wrap in paper; never leave it soaking. Ink of good quality, and a clean stone are essential.

Tools perfected by ages of practice in line drawing and brush work, afford the best training for hand and eye. Painting with the Japanese brush leads directly to oil painting. If

Japanese materials are not to be obtained or are not desired, the exercises can be carried on with pencil, charcoal, water colors, crayons, and even oil paint.

For line drawing the brush is held in a perpendicular position, that it may move freely in all directions, much like the etcher's needle. The brush should be well charged with ink, then pressed firmly down upon the paper till it spreads to the width desired for the line.

Draw with the whole hand and arm in one sweep, not with the fingers. Steady the hand if necessary by resting the wrist or end of the little finger on the paper. Draw very slowly. Expressive line is not made by mere momentum, but by force of will controlling the hand. By drawing slowly the line can be watched and guided as it grows under the brush point. Slight waverings are not objectionable; in fact they often give character to the line.


Begin with straight lines, remembering that straightness of direction is the essential thing, not mere geometric straightness. After some practice with straight lines, try curves; then irregular lines. Copy brush drawings from Japanese books, for a study of control of the hand and quality of touch, No. 11, p. 19.

This practice work can be done upon ordinary paper. The aim of such an exercise is to put the hand under control of the will, but too much time should not be given to mere practice, apart from design. Quality and power of line are illustrated in the drawings of masters, No. 10 and p. 18. These may be copied later on, for a study of advanced drawing.




FINE art, by its very name, implies fine relations. Art study is the attempt to perceive and to create fine relations of line, mass and color. This is done by original effort stimulated by the influence of good examples.

As fine relations (that is, harmony, beauty) can be understood only through the appreciations, the whole fabric of art education should be based upon a training in appreciation. This power cannot be imparted like information. Artistic skill cannot be given by dictation or acquired by reading. It does not come by merely learning to draw, by imitating nature, or by any process of storing the mind with facts.

The power is within—the question is how to reach it and use it.

Increase of power always comes with exercise. If one uses a little of his appreciative faculty in simple ways, proceeding on gradually to the more difficult problems, he is in the line of natural growth. To put together a few straight lines, creating a harmony of movement and spacing, calls for exercise of good judgment and appreciation. Even in this seemingly limited field great things are possible; the proportions of the Parthenon and Giotto's Tower can be reduced to a few straight lines finely related and spaced.

Effective progress in composition depends upon working with an organized and definite series of exercises, building one experience upon another, calling for cultivated judgment to discern and decide upon finer and finer relations. Little can be expressed until lines are arranged in a Space. Spacing is the very groundwork of Design. Ways of arranging and spacing I shall call


In my experience these five have been sufficient:






These names are given to five ways of creating harmony, all being dependent upon a great general principle, PROPORTION or GOOD SPACING.

1. OPPOSITION. Two lines meeting form a simple and severe harmony.

Examples will be found in Greek doorways, Egyptian temples and early Renaissance architecture; in plaid design ; also in landscape where vertical lines cut the horizon (see pp. 21, 45, 46.) This principle is used in the straight line work in squares and rectangles, pp. 32, 33, 39, and in combination with other principles, pp. 25, 29.

2. TRANSITION. The arrangement thus designated involves a step beyond Opposition. Two straight lines meeting in opposing directions give an impression of abruptness, severity, or even violence ; the difference of movement being emphasized. If a third line is added, as in the sketches below, the opposition is softened and an effect of unity and completeness produced.

This combination typifies beauty itself which has been defined as consisting of elements of difference harmonized by elements of unity.

A very common example of Transition is the bracket, No. 15. The straight line is modified into curves and may be elaborated with great complexity of modelling.

Instead of a drawn line of transition there may be only a suggestion of one, but the effect is the same; a softening of the corner angle, No. 14 and pp. 58, 60. In pictorial art the vignette, in architecture the capital, are examples of the transition principle. In design an effect of Transition may be produced by radiation. (Illustrations below.)

Accidental transitions occur in nature in the branching of old trees, where the rhythmic lines are thus unified.

For convenience the suggestions for class work are grouped together in the following


Opposition. Copy the sketches and illustrations, enlarged. Design straight-line arrangements of mouldings, plaids and rectangular panellings, Nos. 13, 18, 24. Find examples in nature, and draw in line, with brush, pen or pencil without a border.

Transition. Copy the sketches, as before. Draw a bracket in straight line, modifying into curved. Design corner ornaments for panels and book covers; metal work for cabinet. No. 18.

Find examples in nature and draw in line. No. 18.

It is important in all such work to make a number of sketches from which the best may be chosen.

3. SUBORDINATION. Neither of the foregoing principles is often found alone as the basis of a single work. Transition in particular, usually serves to harmonize the parts of a composition. The principle Subordination is a great constructive idea not only in the space arts but in all the fine arts :

To form a complete group the parts are attached or related to a single dominating element which determines the character of the whole.

A tree trunk with its branches is a good type of this kind of harmony; unity secured through the relation of principal and subordinate, even down to the vein-ings of leaves—a multitude of parts organized into a simple whole. This way of creating beauty is conspicuous in the perfect spacing and line-rhythm of Salisbury cathedral, St. Ma-clou of Rouen and the Taj Mahal; in Piero della Francesca's "Resurrection" and Millet's "Goose-girl" ; in some Byzantine design and Persian rugs (see pp. 58, 65, 98.)

It governs the distribution of masses in Dark-and-Light composition, and of hues in Color schemes.

It appears in poetry (the Odyssey for example) in the subordination of all parts to the main idea of the subject. It is used constructively in musical composition. Whenever unity is to be evolved from complexity, confusion reduced to order, power felt— through concentration, organization, leadership—then will be applied the creative principle called here Subordination.

In Line Composition the arrangement by principal and subordinate may be made in three ways, No. 16:

i. By grouping about an axis, as leaf relates to stem, branches to trunk.

2. By radiation, as in flowers, the rosette, vault ribs, the anthemion.

3. By size, as in a group of mountain peaks, a cathedral with its spire and pinnacles, tree clusters, or Oriental rug with centre and border; p. 65.

Art-interest in any of these lies in the fineness of relation. A throwing together of large and small; mere geometric radiation ; or conventional branching can never be other than commonplace. A work of fine art constructed upon the principle of Subordination has all its parts related by delicate adjustments and balance of proportions, tone and color. A change in one member changes the whole. No.22.

To discover the meaning and the possibility of expression in this form of composition the student may work out a series of problems as suggested in this


The instructor draws flower or fruit with stem and leaves. The pupil arranges this motif in various rectangular spaces (page 25), combining the 1st and 3rd forms of subordination, and using his critical judgment in a way that is of great value to the beginner in composition. The pupil now draws the same or similar subjects from nature, acquainting himself with their form and character; then composes them in decorative or pictorial panels—an art-use of representative drawing as well as exercise in appreciation.

Copy the examples of the 2nd kind of Subordination, and design original rosettes, anthemions, palmettes, thinking chiefly of the spacing and rhythm. Find examples in nature ; chimneys and roofs, boats with masts and sails, or tree groups. Draw and arrange in spaces. Nos. 16, 18, 26, 28, 37, 61.

After choosing the best out of many trial sketches, draw in line with the Japanese brush. Then, for further improvement in arrangement, and refinement of line-quality, trace with brush and ink upon thin Japanese paper.

4. REPETITION. This name is given to the opposite of Subordination—the production of beauty by repeating the same lines in rhythmical order. The intervals may be equal, as in pattern, or unequal, as in landscape, see below and No. 20.

Of all ways of creating harmony this is the most common, being probably the oldest form of design. It seems almost instinctive, perhaps derived from the rhythms of breathing and walking, or the movement of ripples and rolling waves. Marching is but orderly walking, and the dance, in its primitive form, is a development of marching. Children make rows and patterns of sticks or bits of colored paper, thinking of them as in animated motion. In early forms of art the figures march or dance around the vases, pots and baskets.

This principle of Repetition is the basis of all music and poetry. The sacred dance of the savage is associated with the drum and other primitive instruments for marking rhythm; with the chant and mystic song. From such rude beginnings, from the tomtoms, trumpets and Pan-pipes of old, music has developed to the masterpieces of modern times through the building of harmony upon harmony,—composition.

From the crude rhythm of the savage, like the Australian song " Eat; eat ; eat," from the battle cries and folk poems of barbaric peoples, there has been refinement upon refinement of word-music ever moving towards the supreme. This gave the world the verse of Sappho which Swinburne thought the most beautiful sounds ever produced in language. From the rude patterns marked with sticks on Indian bowls and pots, or painted in earth colors on wigwam and belt, or woven on blanket, this form of space art has grown, through the complexities of Egyptian and Peruvian textile design to the splendor of Byzantine mosaic, the jewel patterns of the Moguls, and Gothic sculpture; from rock-cut pillars of cave temples to the colonnade of the Parthenon. (For examples of primitive design see the works of William H. Holmes.)

Repetition, be it remembered, is only a way of putting lines and spaces together, and does not in itself produce beauty. A mere row of things has no art-value. Railroads, fences, blocks of buildings, and all bad patterns, are, like doggerel rhyme, examples of repetition without art.

Repetition in fine spacing, with the intention of creating a harmony, becomes a builder of art fabric.


1. Borders. Divide a long space by vertical or oblique lines at regular intervals. By connecting the ends of these with straight lines, develope many series of meanders, frets and zigzags. Waves and scrolls are evolved from these by changing straight to curved line, No. 20a, and p. 56.

2. Surface pattern. Subdivide a space (freehand) into squares, diamonds or triangles, determining the size of the unit desired. This will give a general plan for the distribution of figures. In one of these spaces compose a simple group in straight lines, line and dot, or straight and curved, if only geometric pattern be desired; or a floral form for a sprig pattern. In the composition of this unit the principle of Subordination will be remembered.

As soon as the unit is repeated a new set of relations will be created, dependent upon the spacing. A secondary pattern forms itself out of the background spaces. Hence the designer must decide whether the unit is to fill the skeleton square completely, have a wide margin, or overrun the square. Repeating the figure in these various ways will determine the best size. The main effort should be given to producing a fine relation between one unit and its neighbors and between pattern and background. All the best work in Repetition has this refined harmony of spacing. No. 20b below and pp. 13, 65, 66, 85.

Copy the illustrations of Repetition in this book, and make original variations of them. Copy, in line, the units of early Italian textiles, Oriental rugs or any of the best examples to be found in museums or in illustrated art-books. See "Egg and Dart" from the Parthenon, p. 30, also pp. 67, 121.

For anatomy and planning of pattern, see the works of Lewis F. Day.


Excerpted from Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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