Saturday, June 25, 2016

Notan: The Dark and Light Principle of Design[1]
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

"Notan" is a Japanese word meaning dark-like. However, the word has far greater depth than its literal translation. Behind its literal translation the underlying principle of Notan can be thought as the interaction between positive (light) and negative (dark) spaces. The idea of this interaction is embodied in the ancient Eastern symbol of the Yin and the Yang, which consists of mirrored images, one white and one black revolving around the point of equilibrium.

Yin-Yang symbol of Ancient China.

Here the positive and negative areas make up the whole created through the unity of opposites that have equal and inseparable realities. In the Yang and the Yin symbol, as in Notan, opposites complement one another and so they are not in conflict with each other. Neither seeks to negate nor to dominate one another, only to relate to each other in harmony. It is this interplay between light and dark that is most essential.

The Western cultures terms of opposed dualities come with attached moral values such as "good" for the positive and "bad" for the negative side. On the other hand, Eastern cultures acknowledge that when opposites are united there is no moral attachment to either. For example, both female and male cells must unite in order to create life. The Yin and the Yang is therefore a process without moral judgement.

There is a wonderful book[1] that teaches the basic design principles that underlie Notan and so it is a "must" reference for your library. I have utilized this reference to produce this post.

Notan in Everyday Life[1]
Many of the examples of Notan in this post are taken from folk art. The intuitive folk artists, unlike the formally trained graphic designers in the modern era, do not have to be taught or to remember the negative is in balance with the positive. The primitive artists feel a part of nature and so often their designs reflected the sense of positive and negative design elements interacting to balance one another. For example, the Pueblo Indian craftsman who decorated a simple dish with a bird (see below) was very much concerned with integration of form and decoration.

Clay dish. Pueblo Indian work, Acoma, New Mexico.

The symmetry of the design is relieved by the turn of the bird's head. The distribution of the pattern is dictated by symbolic meaning. The inseparable parts of the design are the spaces around the bird, which underlies the exchange and balance of positive and negative spaces.

The African decorator of the calabash (see below) made a simple design that was 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 building material.

Carved and dyed calabash from Oyo, Western Nigeria.

Although the composition of the dish is symmetrical and fixed, the birds seem to be climbing because of the implicit feel of movement in the negative shapes between their feet and the tree.

Notan in primitive and modern cultures often appears in useful objects such as tools etc. For example, the old style razor blades when in a given arrangement may offer a Notan experience.

Razor blades.

Though the openings of these razor blades are utilitarian, when seen as Notan they become decorative units working with white and negative spaces to form an interesting pattern.

The holes of keys can form a visual rhythm because of the varied spaces in between the keys and the shapes of the keys themselves. This rhythmic interplay is the basis of Notan.

For the artist working in stitchery, appliqué or quilting, a mastery of Notan may become important. Many traditional American quilt patterns, as well as 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. The San Blas Indian appliqué has many cloths of different colors layered together. The design is created from negative spaces or from holes or slits cut through to bare the different layers of the cloth beneath.

Appliqué stitchery, San Blas Indian work - Panama.
A beautiful integration of birds, plants and the spaces surrounding them.

In the Hawaiian quilt the Notan is created from the contrast of two layers of cloth; one brighter 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 a white quilt, will create an interacting design.

Notan snowflakes quilt.

The weaver who studies Notan will begin to understand that underlying much of their work is struggling with positive and negative relationships. 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 which appear in Peruvian work.

Women at a weaving co-operative in Peru's Sacred Valley.

Structural weaving must also depend on an understanding and control of negative spaces. A stole, for instance, made in lino or gauze weave consists of twisted warp threads held together by 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 spaces.

American Indian basket.

[1] D. Bothwell and M. Mayfield, Notan, Dover Publication Inc., New York (1991).

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