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 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.
On Wednesday, Jan 22, I did a demonstration for the Calgary Community Painters Society. This is the first time I had met this group and they were delightful, very enthusiastic and interested. The type of audience that you enjoy painting for.
This picture is a view from Inglewood, looking at the Bow Building. I think that the Bow Building like the Calgary Tower are icons of Calgary and this view from Inglewood shows the Bow to good advantage.
The process I used for this painting is what I call the 3 wash method. The first wash is basically the sky colours spread over the entire painting except for a few highlights in the centre of interest. Wash #2 involves all the mid tones (nearly the entire painting) Wash #3 is the final details, highlights and little bits and pieces.
I like to do paintings like this quickly, just capturing my impression of the scene so I try for large, clean washes. In order to keep the washes fresh I choose not to cut around too many shapes and instead add Chinese White or white gouache at the end to create highlights. I always include figures which I feel help to create a story. One member asked why they would be wandering all over the street in the middle of the traffic. The answer is that they wouldn’t be there (at least not for long). However, as well as adding that story element they also add a certain tension to the painting with helps make it entertaining.
It was a very enjoyable evening. I finished the painting up at home and I estimate it took about 2-1/2 hours in total.
I find the colours and shapes of the school buses very attractive. When I saw them against the autumn colours of the trees I thought this is something to paint. Both studies were done on location.
The interesting challenge was how to capture the sense of the bright yellow trees without actually painting millions of yellow leaves. The beauty of plein air painting is that you need to figure out how to handle these challenges and you need to do it quickly.
It reminds me of a saying I made up when I was teaching grade 4’s. “What do you do when you don’t know what to do – do something.” In this case I think it worked out.
I did a demonstration at the Leighton Centre on Saturday June 1 for their annual Clothesline Sale. It is always a very enjoyable event. Lots of people, lots going on, and a chance to catch up with friends and fellow artists. After the rain yesterday, today was beautiful. Sunny all day. Unfortunately, as you can see I forgot to take a hat and I don’t do well in the full sun so I’m paying for it tonight. But it was a great day. I enjoyed the day and I’m very pleased with the painting. It’s of the Barley Mill at Eau Claire.
As I heard someone say recently, the real subject of a painting like this is not the objects, the people etc but it’s the light and this painting I think has a very strong sense of that wonderful yellow light.
I also enjoyed having nearly all the figures work as lights against a darker background. Lately I had fallen into a bit of a trap of always trying to make the figures very dark. However when you have a dark figure against a dark background there is no contrast and it’s boring or muddy. So I like the fact that the figures are all lighter than the background. The lightness of the figures in this painting was achieved by mixing in a little white gouache with cobalt or ultramarine blue.
The Day The Twins Came To Visit watercolour, 14 x 7
I’ve always been a big proponent of the benefits of playing with paint. It’s often surprising how much you can learn from it. This painting is an example.
I’ve always found this building very interesting. It is right beside the Lougheed House. The other day I wanted to do a little painting but wasn’t interested in doing a detailed drawing and all the other ‘stuff’ that goes into a formal painting. I had a long and narrow piece of paper at hand and just for fun I thought I would try to paint this house. Because I had to fit the house into this unusual format I couldn’t worry about being accurate and I painted that way. With very little pre-thought I just began throwing paint around. It was half an hour of pure fun. When doing something like this there is absolutely no pressure. It’s all about just playing. I was just reacting to what the paint was doing on the paper. Also because I didn’t really care if it worked out or not as soon as I got an idea I just did it. For example the house, because it was a very light value and there weren’t a lot of shadows didn’t really stand out as much as I wanted so I thought ‘let’s see what it looks like if I exaggerate the darks on both sides’. From the photo you can see that there was actually a very dark house beside it which helped.
That feeling of being in the moment and not worrying at all whether it would be successful freed me up to just have fun. From all this playing I realized how much I want to have the same feeling of fun in my ‘serious’ painting.
The title came from the 2 figures on the left. I put my usual blob of orange for the faces but the background was wet so the paint spread out and it began to look like a couple of wild afro-type hair styles. So those 2 blobs evolved into the twins.
I think the spontaneity of the process shows in the final painting.
I have been doing many on-location studies of scenes in Calgary over the winter and spring. It has been a wonderful learning experience. The main lessons I have learned from this process are:
Before I begin painting I need to plan the entire painting process including getting the composition, the colour family, value pattern and what story do I want to tell.
Using a viewfinder really helps to simplify the composition. So much needs to be left out. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Choose an overall colour scheme before I start don’t try to recreate the actual colours.
Decide on the value pattern that helps tell the story.
Decide on what story I want to tell.
Even though this takes a bit of time, the painting always goes more quickly and effectively if I do all of this.
This process is all very new for me. I normally just do a quick sketch and then start throwing paint.
The interesting thing about all these paintings is that the actual scene in each case (with the possible exception of the Dog Park and Tivoli) is not particularly attractive and each one except the dog walk was done on an overcast day. Also the figures were all from my imagination.