A quick guide to mass notan

Mass notan is used to determine shape, pattern and to explore the arrangement of negative space prior to beginning a painting. It is a quick way to resolve compositional issues before committing to your final work. Mass notan uses two to three colors to assist the artist in finding pattern, shape and rhythm.

I wanted to try using notan studies to develop a composition for my landscape painting. Keep in mind, the principles of notan apply equally well to still life, portraiture and abstract work. Notan is a fundamental principle of art and is useful to all artists.

The purpose of a mass notan is to help the artist edit and arrange the elements of the scene they wish to paint. So how do artists edit a scene? Here are some things to consider: Determine a pattern of light or dark shapes. Assigning  values to those shapes so that the masses hold together. Another edit is determining what element will dominate in the scene and subordinating all other elements or even eliminating some elements.  Notan offers the artist a new lens for viewing  a scene in order to edit the reference material to make a strong statement.

Painting from life offers thousands of visual cues that the artist simply cannot replicate on a two dimensional surface with a limited number of colors. The information must be condensed into what we are capable of producing with paint and canvas. In short, our scene must be deconstructed and rebuilt according to the principles of art. It can be deceiving to the untrained eye to look at representational art and not realize the amount of artistic decision making that has taken place simply because the scene has familiar elements, all the elements found in Nature. But simplifying and editing the scene is key to producing not only interesting work, but work that is unique.  If that’s the case, why do you need notan studies to produce abstract art, which is not representational. Using notan will help establish a balanced and interesting work by establishing pattern, shape and rhythm.

Brittany Boats Edgar Payne
Brittany Boats by Edgar Payne

So, let’s look at how I incorporated mass notan into my process for creating a painting.

First, take a look at the reference photograph and I’ll explain my concept for the finished work. Here we have a photograph of dramatic skies with farm buildings and trees, as well as, road signs and power lines. My initial idea was to describe the grandeur of nature by making the clouds dominate and the man made structures subordinate.

photo of dramatic skies and farm

My first thought was to look for patterns.  I drew several mass notan studies watching shapes and exploring negative space. Initially dark shapes dominated and noticing this I decided to change that and see what happened when light shapes dominated the study.

While I was drawing, I really began to understand how to consider the negative shapes. The exercise helped me think more abstractly about my scene.

Mass notan studies

My eye kept going back to the notan with the asterisk and I decided to explore it with a 3 color notan to understand how to integrate a third shape into the pattern.

Light and dark dominate notan studies
3 color mass notan study

In this notan study I have worked out the shapes I want to use in my painting. Now I will do a study for the final painting.

It’s instructive to look at notan studies other artists have done to discover how they resolved shape and pattern. But I encourage you to do notan studies yourself from your own reference material. Here’s why. When studying other artists’ work we see the end result of the decisions they made. Doing your own notan forces you to make decisions about what you see and how you want to present it. This first hand experience is invaluable and leads to multiple new ideas to explore in your work.

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