Light and Dark Harmony

It turns out that you’re never too old to learn! Five months ago an artist buddy introduced me to the art principle of Notan, which is a Japanese word meaning light and dark harmony. Had I gone to art school, I would already have known about this way of looking at composition.

How pleasing is the arrangement of parts in a piece? That’s what I ask myself when I hear the word composition. Strong composition involves color and repetition of shape. But, in my opinion, values (lights and darks) are the driving forces in the success of a composition.

One way to see Notan is to look at an image on your desktop as a little bitty thumbnail. (You may have already noticed this. Some photos look great, and some muddy.) Another way is to squint like crazy! Try it out on these three strong examples. Each photo has a full range of values – white, pale grey, middle grey, dark grey and black.

Part of the Notan idea is to reduce the image to just two values, white and black. How extreme! With that in mind, I have a third tool that I’ve been using to see artwork in a new way. With adjustments of both color and contrast (computer wizard apps) one can force the extremes into focus. Here are four pairs of examples of what I mean.

Pretty cool. Right? Are you an artist reading this blog? If you are, I encourage viewing an image as a thumbnail. Notan strengths or weaknesses will be obvious.

I have always included values as part of any critique I give. I will always notice if the darkest darks or the lightest lights are missing. Good composition is influenced by having a full range of values, but also about arrangement and proportion of lights and darks and middle values. How pleasing is the arrangement of parts?

This month’s recipe is really a friendly suggestion. Pizza Toast is fast, and sometimes that matters. Start by toasting bread. (I am using gluten free bread that Felix makes) Drizzle 1 tsp. of olive oil on each slice, Sprinkle with garlic powder and basil, and top with cheese (I use jack or cheddar). Broil OR Microwave 20 – 30 seconds until cheese has melted. (Transfer to a dry plate, because the bottom of pizza toast will be damp) This is the version that grandchildren love. Adults might appreciate toppings beyond cheese!

3 Responses to Light and Dark Harmony

Nan Hildebrand

Hi Joan, Your lesson was very interesting and eye opening. I have a question about “forcing the extremes into focus”….does that mean the elimination of other colors so that the difference between light and dark is more revealed?


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