Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design

Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design

by Dorr Bothwell, Marlys Mayfield

Paperback(Revised ed.)

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As a guiding principle of Eastern art and design, Notan (a Japanese word meaning dark-light) focuses on the interaction between positive and negative space, a relationship embodied in the ancient symbolism of the Yang and the Yin. In composition, it recognizes the separate but equally important identity of both a shape and its background.
Since their introduction in the West, the intriguing exercises associated with Notan have produced striking results in every branch of Western art and design. This book, by two American artists and teachers who made an intensive study of Notan, was the first basic book on the subject in the West, and it remains one of the definitive texts. Through a series of simple exercises, it places the extraordinary creative resources of Notan easily within the grasp of Western artists and designers.
Clearly and concisely, the authors demonstrate Notan's practical applications in six problems of progressive difficulty — creative exercises that will fascinate artists and designers of every calling and level of expertise. Along with these exercises, the book includes many illustrations of the principle of Notan, among them images as diverse as a sculpture by David Smith, a Samoan tapa cloth, a Museum of Modern Art shopping bag, New England gravestone rubbings, Japanese wrapping paper, a painting by Robert Motherwell, a psychedelic poster, and a carved and dyed Nigerian calabash. Painters, sculptors, potters, jewelry, and textile designers, architects, and interior designers all will discover — or rediscover — in these pages an ancient principle of composition that can help them meet creative challenges with fresh new perspective.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486268569
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 09/19/1991
Series: Dover Art Instruction Series
Edition description: Revised ed.
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 684,979
Product dimensions: 8.37(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt




Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1968 Litton Educational Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13630-1



Notan appears in useful objects such as tools in both a primitive culture as well as in a modern technology. In the latter case, however, the Notan produced is more often a by- product of utility. Scissors (Fig. 79) for instance, have beautiful Notan because they must be designed with spaces to fit the fingers; keys must have holes for chains (Fig. 15), and razor blades must fit into the razor (Fig. 8). The negative space exists in these cases because of the requirements of utility, but is not necessarily an intrinsic element of the design.

Many of the examples of Notan illustrated in this book are taken from folk art. Indeed, the instinctive use of Notan in folk or "primitive" art is an almost invariable characteristic. The intuitive or folk artist, unlike the formally trained designer in modern society, does not have to be taught to remember the negative or to see it in balance with the positive. He has not been taught to seek to dominate nature or to conquer it; on the contrary, he feels himself a part of nature, and his work reflects that sense of balance.

The primitive and the modern artist also differ in their approach to decoration. In modern technology decoration is often only added as though it were an afterthought to attract the buyer's eye. It can often be an unessential feature and in no way united with the form. The Pueblo Indian craftsman, however, who decided to decorate the simple dish with a bird (Fig. 13) was very much concerned with the integration of form and decoration. Working within the confines of the shape of the plate, he succeeded in designing a bird that would become an inseparable part of the whole or a design in which the spaces around the bird would assume a form with an exchange of positive and negative. In good design like this, the only right solution is one which finds such a union of decoration and form. And when this is discovered, the negative space will no longer be "empty," but, instead, there will be Notan.

The primitive artist also differs from the sophisticated artist in his use of symbolic decoration. In the United States symbolic decoration has practically disappeared except in religious objects and in Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs. Yet the first impulse of the primitive artist is to use symbols. Because symbolism dictates further restrictions in both the decoration and the form of the object, the resulting design often involves a very good exchange of negative-positive.

An excellent example of this achievement may be seen in the Kwakiutl mechanical screen (Fig. 6). The "distortions" and the Notan here resulted from the creation of a design within the restrictions of the materials and the ritual use of the screen. It had to be made of wood sturdy enough to stand, and it had to incorporate a slot together with hinges so that it would open and fall when struck by the sword. Yet the triumph of the screen is that the "distortions" or modifications not only brought about the stark dramatic contrasts of the Notan, but also the accomplishment of the artist's main purpose: the creation of a work of great dramatic and ritualistic power.

The problems imposed by the limitations or restrictions of materials also serve to distinguish the trained modern artist from the primitive one; and again this endeavor relates to the development of Notan. The folk or primitive artist finds himself bound by a narrow range of materials and has little choice but to work within the limitations of his medium. However, since his attitude is such that he does not feel impelled to conquer nature, he is able to work with nature; indeed, he employs the restrictions of his materials to discover his design.

The African decorator of the calabash (Fig. 5) made a simple design that is definitely integrated with the oval shape of the calabash. Nothing is hidden—the rim of the wood is exposed; it is easy to see the basic material. The same may be said of the Pueblo plate; the decoration was not intended to camouflage the plate.

In America before the technical revolution, the designer's major concern was that of overcoming the deficiencies of his materials. There was the design problem, for instance, of the "cooling" shelf on the cast-iron stoves so popular in the nineteenth century. Since the cooking was done in a cast-iron kettle on a wood or coal stove where the fire could not be reduced rapidly, it was necessary to move the kettle to a cooling shelf that permitted the circulation of air; the holes designed for this purpose led to the creation of Notan in a design made as beautiful as possible in the style of an age of fanciful decor. But the designer's purpose was to hold together the holes of the stove shelf.

A similar problem faced the designers of the Japanese sword guards of a much earlier period. Iron was used because of its ritual significance, but in order to preserve the balance of the sword, it was necessary to subtract weight from the material. This necessity was again met by cutting holes—but the Notan resulted from the search for symbolic designs. Between the requirements of ritual and the limitations of the material, Notan was created.

The designer in a technology faces few limitations in his choice of materials or tools; he has any number of choices to make and he often makes poor ones. His is the dilemma of freedom; it sometimes produces wonderful things, but also sometimes the grotesque. And because the skills of the modern designer are not as challenged as they would be by greater restrictions, he must more consciously seek to produce Notan.

In order to challenge and to discipline the skills of the modern design student, the problem-solving approach used in this text has set up restrictions that imitate the working situation of the primitive artist. These restrictions appear as limitations of materials (the use of only black and gray construction paper, a white format, scissors and glue) and in the design problems (i.e., "Within a given format, arrange five circular shapes having a sequence of size to produce asymmetrical balance ").

Because the solving of these problems involves discipline and results in a sense of achievement, the student should, at the conclusion of this course of work, approach his own future design problems with an entirely new method and spirit. Although all the problems presented here are two-dimensional, the implications for three-dimensional design should become apparent. Moreover, no matter what field of art the student enters, or is presently engaged in, he will, at the completion of this course of work, approach his problems first and last for Notan.

The artist working in photography, painting, or printmaking will no longer continue to see the background as mere support for his subject, but will realize that the background can be as dramatic as the subject. He will be forced to a new awareness of what before was considered to have no particular meaning or vitality. His idea of the relationships in his work will also be changed, and the result will be a new unity.

If he is a sculptor, he will become as interested in the shapes of open spaces as in those of solid areas; he will also seek their interaction in a unified statement. Many sculptors have utilized this knowledge in their work, the most prominent example being Henry Moore. (See Figs. 34 and 38.)

The weaver who studies Notan will begin to understand that he has been struggling with positive and negative relationships in his work all along. A closely woven tapestry can depict a two-dimensional design—abstract or figurative—which can be developed with a painter's understanding of Notan. Much traditional pattern weaving is based on the control of positive and negative reversals, stunning examples of which appear in Peruvian work. Structural weaving must also depend on an understanding and control of negative space. A stole, for instance, made in lino or gauze weave consists of twisted warp threads held together by the weft in sufficient tension to create negative diamond or lozenge spaces. In three-dimensional weaving also—from Indian baskets to modern woven sculptures—the forms are governed by their containment of the negative.

For the artist working in stitchery, appliqué, or quilting, a mastery of Notan is equally important. Many traditional American quilt patterns, as well as the bold Hawaiian ones, are based on positive and negative reversals. In the traditional patterns, Notan will appear through the contrasts in arrangements of the geometrical or figurative units. In the Hawaiian quilt the Notan is created from the contrast of two layers of cloth; one brightly colored cloth, almost the size of the quilt, is folded and cut away (paper-doll or snowflake style) to create a design in one piece, which, when appliquéd to the white quilt, will create an interacting design. The San Bias Indian appliqué employs this principle in an even more complex arrangement (see Fig. 12) in which many cloths of different colors are layered together. Here the design is created from the negative spaces or from the holes or slits cut through to bare the different layers of cloth beneath.

The jeweler should also become more conscious of the relationship of positive and negative space in creating his design. A ring or a bracelet must be sculptured to contain negative space. In decoration the jeweler might also consider employing Notan in metal openwork or in the contrasts of stone and metal.

For the interior decorator, the "traffic pattern" might be called the negative space which must be considered when designing furniture arrangements. The proportion and scale of the furniture, furthermore, must relate to all the remaining negative dimensions of the room, from the height of the ceiling to the views from the windows.

Finally, in mosaics or collages, an understanding of Notan will prevent the artist from becoming lost in the segments of shape and color of each piece of glass, pebble, or paper. Since he must remain physically close to the composition and compose constantly as he works, it is especially important that he learn to see his design as a whole and from afar. Notan will enable him to retain sufficient control to achieve a work whose negative and positive spaces will emerge or submerge at the will of his purpose.

An understanding of Notan traditionally has been and will be a requirement for mastery of any field of art. It enables the artist to compose a work in which all the parts relate to create a unity of visual organization, impression, or pattern. Notan enables the artist to achieve a Gestalt—or more simply, to create a design.



Our first objective in this problem is to achieve asymmetrical balance.

Balance is a universal property of all things. Many words are needed to explain balance as an abstract concept, but it is actually based on a feeling that we all understand and acquire—even before we speak. Indeed, we cannot stand or walk until we learn to feel balance.

In nature there are two kinds of balance: the symmetrical and the asymmetrical. Symmetrical balance always proceeds from a central point and is based on the principle of scales or the seesaw. Forms symmetrically arranged work on the vertical, horizontal, or diagonal axis, all extending from this central point of balance. The emphasis or weight is repeated equally and appears fixed or static to the eye, giving a feeling of stability and certainty. It is a design that can be easily seen and understood as well as rationally or mathematically devised (Figs. 16 and 18). The Polish cutout (Fig. 10) is a symmetrical design arranged in balance along the vertical axis.

Symmetrical balance may be bilateral or radial. One of the many examples of bilateral symmetrical balance is the butterfly: an identical pattern is repeated on either side of two halves of a median line (Fig. 17). The human body is also bilaterally symmetrical. Radial symmetry is exemplified by the snowflake (Fig. 16) where there is an exact repetition of any number of parts radiating from a fixed center. Among the innumerable examples of radial symmetry in nature are the starfish and the daisy.

Asymmetrical balance is not always logical nor easy to perceive (Fig. 19). The perception and creation of this kind of balance are based on feeling rather than reason; to be right, it must "feel" right. We feel it in our own movements—particu—larly in the shifting of our weight that occurs in dance. It is dynamic and more free than symmetrical balance because it is based on movement and continuous shifting of weights or accents. In all the arts asymmetrical balance is a great basic principle. In painting it involves complex balances and contrasts of hues and textures; however, in this book we will only be concerned with a balance of black and white.


In this problem you will be working with the arrangement of five shapes cut from black construction paper. In devising your shapes to achieve asymmetrical balance, think of forms that have no noticeable direction or movement but that convey a sense of weight. The sense of weight in shape can be added or subtracted through our associations; the difference in weight does not lie in the forms themselves. In Figures 20 and 21 the weight is added or subtracted through the use of slight modifications that transform abstract shapes into representational symbols. The addition of a stem and leaf gives us the solidity of an apple. The wiggly line, on the other hand, suggests the weightlessness of a drifting balloon.


1. A shape that pinches (Fig. 22).

2. A shape too busy because of fast contours.

3. Triangles which create directional movement (Fig. 23).

4. Rectangles whose direction repeats or opposes the format (Fig. 24). (Shapes that parallel the format make tracks and lock the viewer's eyes into a corner.)

5. Static diagonal arrangement of forms whose weight we cannot grasp. Here the shapes balance asymmetrically, but they have too much movement. (Fig. 25)


What shapes then are suitable? The best way to discover this is to begin with the shapes of the things you love. For instance, you might be one of those people who come back from walks with pockets full of pebbles—water- smoothed brook or beach pebbles. Concentrate on these shapes when cutting your forms. Other forms might be suggested by fruit: the shape of a pear, a peach, or a plum. Not all pears are as obvious in shape as a Bartlett pear; you might think of the subtle silhouette of the D'Anjou pear. After you have a sensation of the bulk of the form, look at the edge of the shape. Follow the edge with your eye, don't just give it a rapid glance. You will see that some curves seem to move very fast, turn a sharp corner, then slow and straighten out. Pick up some water- eroded pebbles and study their curves. Become conscious of the movement suggested by the edge or contour of the form.

Do not hurry with this exercise. Like plants and trees, we create at the same rate that we grow—very slowly. Though we are always trying to force ourselves to rush at the rate of machines, our pace in this work cannot be rushed. Also, do not strive for originality; your originality comes from being truly yourself. If you consciously try to be different, you will be someone else and no longer original. Just be yourself and trust your intuition.

Complete the composition in Part I before going on to the next section.


Excerpted from NOTAN by DORR BOTHWELL, MARLYS MAYFIELD. Copyright © 1968 Litton Educational Publishing, 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I Problem Using Rectangles
Part II Tool Theme and Variations

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