Notan is a word taken from Japanese art. It refers to seeing a subject in terms of flat shapes of black and white. It sometimes uses just 2 values: black and white. More practically we can use 3 values: white, black and mid grey. You can of course use more values but I find the real benefit is to translate a subject into 3 values. It’s a fabulous discipline.
The point is if the 3 value study works then you can be pretty confident that the painting will work. If your pattern of lights and darks doesn’t work it will show up in these quick little sketches. Notan is a skill that has to be practiced to master it. It’s very easy to understand it but not so easy to do it.
One thing we learn is that there are so many decisions that go into simplifying a subject. I guess I would say that simplifying is not simple. Not simple but very worthwhile.
Practicing Notan enables us to analyze a subject or photo before we paint it. This is part of the journey of improving our art.
Examples of Notan
Like any new skill it takes time and practice to master Notan. However, the benefits are truly worth while. It’s a lens through which we see subjects differently. It simplifies and focuses the way we look at a subject. It gives us a tremendous advantage when we come to paint a subject. Finally it’s quick and a lot of fun.
One of the main benefits is that Notan forces us to simplify the subject. When we simplify we learn that a lot of the detail doesn’t actually add much to the painting.
Adding Notan to your arsenal of painting tools will, without doubt, take your painting to new levels. I really encourage you to give it a shot. It makes our painting process more intentional. It will lead inevitably to better paintings!
I participated in a wonderful art event the past weekend in Rosebud, Alberta. Rosebud is a little hamlet that is almost totally dedicated to the arts. We’ve visited Rosebud many times to go the theatre but this is the first time I have actually stayed there, if just for a weekend. It felt great to be a temporary resident of Rosebud. I even participated in the drum circle and got to perform a couple of songs. I camped there and the sense of peace and quiet especially at night was wonderful.
Anyway, this is one painting I did. It’s based on my plein air study. It’s a view from the top of the valley looking down on Rosebud. I been drawn to this view for a number of years but I was never sure how to paint it. This style is something completely new for me which makes this painting super exciting.
This next image is a view of the ‘downtown’. Again I’ve looked at this scene many times and it never really spoke to me. This time I had a bit of time to kill and I wanted to try something so I just started with a little pencil sketch and all of a sudden I thought there was some potential. This really showed me that anything can be turned into a good subject. It’s all about the eye of the beholder. So don’t keep looking for the perfect scene. Work with what you have and turn that into a great painting. This is a plein air study.
It was a great time and many thanks to all the organizers who made me and all the other participating artists feel so welcome.
I had the pleasure of offering my first in-person workshop in 16 months. It was for the Gibsons School of the Arts. They do a fabulous job of presenting quality art workshops every summer. They are a very vibrant and friendly group.
The participants in the workshop were also an especially great group to work with.
The Paintings Piazza del Popolo
The first demo was of the Piazza del Popolo. It’s a great subject that teaches so many useful watercolour skills. We took a lot of time learning how to create a mass of background figures.
I’m including a detail of these figures. They tend to look unfinished when you look at them up close but from a distance they magically become figures.
Another thing that I use frequently in urban landscape painting is what I call ‘ghost figures’. They are figures in the foreground that are there to draw you in to the painting. I particularly like the way that their lower half sort of disappears.
The participants’ examples.
The last demo we did was a scene from Granville St in Vancouver. We didn’t have time to finish it but you can see that everyone is well on their way.
Boats At Gibsons
We also did a painting of boats at Gibsons. This was a challenging painting but as you can see from our Wall Of Fame it was also well done.
The workshops are now being held in the High Beam Dreams which I believe was originally a church. A great space.
Here are the paintings I did. I finished them off at home.
I just love teaching art so it was a wonderful experience being in Gibsons. Many thanks to everyone who participated for making it such a great experience. Thanks also to Dee for being my excellent assistant!
Plein Air Painting
After the workshop Susan and I spent a week meandering to the end of the Coastal Highway (about 150 km). I did a few plein air paintings which I super enjoyed. I remember so much more of a location when I paint it then I ever do from a photograph. It’s the greatest way to visit new locations.
After a year of isolation my first in-person workshop will be happening April 17 – 18 at Swinton’s Art Supply, Calgary. For information visit Swinton’s website. You can also call the store 403-258-3500.
I’m very excited about this workshop for 2 reasons. Firstly I want to emphasize ‘how’ I approach almost any urban Landscape subject. In other words I want to show the process I use. It’s a fun and easy way to paint but the main benefit is that it gives you a consistent plan to follow when doing an urban landscape painting but in truth it will also work for many other subjects. The second reason is that I decided that I wanted to do something completely different on the second day. So for the first time I’m going to do something I’ve been working on for a long time – namely a portrait. I imagine many people will be very surprised but I intend to show that even a subject like this that might seem daunting can be done fairly easily with the right process which is what I’m going to show.
On Thursday, Nov 19, 2020 I did my first zoom demonstration for the Calgary Sketch Club. It was a fairly stressful process simply because I got a new, powerful piece of hardware that I hoped would make the experience better for the viewers. I worked beautifully.
Here is the painting as it was when I finished the demo (1 1/2 hours).
I spent about another hour in the studio and this is the final version.
I’m really happy with the painting and I’m over the moon with the process. I think I can use this technology to continue my teaching in this most challenging of times.
I try to make sure that I include play as an important part of my painting process. This is where I just try things to see what they look like. I find I learn a lot in these ‘fun’ times. This painting is a beautiful case in point.
This is a painting of the Empire Building in Edmonton. This painting just uses the basic shape of the buildings as they actually are. I wanted to see if I could completely change the lighting to go with this extreme sunrise theme. I also wanted to see if the building were interesting enough shapes. The painting turned out absolutely fine, but nothing special.
I thought both the sunrise theme and the shapes of the buildings were fine but then why isn’t it very interesting. The thing that jumped out was that the buildings in the background are as detailed as the closer buildings. This gets the eye wandering down to the background too much. I asked myself what is my story? Where do I want your eye to go? For me the story is the life on the street in the front so in this painting there are too many distractions.
So I redid it with the clear intention to push the background buildings further back and keep the detail only in the closest buildings.
In this version your eye is definitely drawn more to the foreground. It’s a more focused and comfortable visual experience.
For the past 10 years I have focused on urban landscape. Over that time the figures in the paintings became more and more important. So this interest in portraits is a natural outcome of that process.
I’m trying to develop a process that is fairly quick, a little impressionistic and that captures the character of the subject. Like anything if one keeps practicing one will eventually get there. These are 2 studies.
I find that when I do portraits I really do feel a personal connection with the subject. I love this process.