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Friday, November 20, 2015

How to Use a Notan in an Unexpected Way

'Magic in the Air'             9x12           pastel         ©Karen Margulis
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It's a powerful tool that we all should embrace. Thumbnail sketches done before painting is one of the easiest things we can do to improve our work. Thumbnails help us simplify our subject. They help us create a stronger design. They help us establish a framework of values. The details should come later. We need to frame up the house before we can put up the walls and decorate!

Usually I like doing simple four value thumbnails for my landscape paintings. The 4 value thumbnail is based on the idea that most landscapes can be simplified into four values ...light, dark and two middle values. (John Carlson... Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting)

Notans are even more simplified. A Notan is a thumbnail or study containing only two values. Dark  and Light. Black and white. It is a simplified massing of shapes and value. To create a notan we have to decide whether the shapes in our scene are mostly dark or mostly light. The middle values are shifted to either black or white. Deborah Paris has written a wonderful article about Notan. Read it here. 

I decided to try doing some notans . A black Sharpie marker would be the perfect tool.  I chose the Magnum Sharpie which has a big chiseled tip to help me create big simple black shapes.

my notan created with sharpie black markers

The Magnum Sharpie worked great for my little notan thumbnail. I used a 4x6 index card for the notan. I used a regular sharpie to draw in a few of the thinner tree shapes. I liked doing the notan. It made it easy to see the shapes. I could see if I had interesting shapes and arrangement of dark and light. It was also quick to thumbnail excuses!

But then I put in my "what if" hat.  What if I used the Sharpie and created the notan right on my pastel paper? I have not had the pleasure of watching Tony Allain paint but friends have told me he will sometimes use sharpie markers to start a painting. What a great idea! I could use the sharpie to mass in my big dark shapes. I was curious to see how it would work as an underpainting for a landscape.

I selected a piece of gray Canson Mi-Teinte paper for my painting. The sharpie marker worked well on the paper and I was able to block in the dark shapes of the trees and the dark shape leading through the meadow. I also used the thin sharpie to draw some of the tree branches.  I now had a nice value map to follow.

It was simple to reinforce the dark areas with pastels that were close in value to the black shapes. I could easily see if a pastel was too light when placed on top of the black marker shapes. It helped me keep my dark shapes strong which was important in order to create the illusion of the glow of the setting sun.

Sometimes it seems like we have too many choices when starting a painting. Using a notan and then actually recreating the same notan with marker as an underpainting is an unexpected but simple way to give a painting a strong start!

Can you help?  I am putting together a new program this year and need your questions about underpaintings. If you have any questions about anything to do with underpaintings send them to me at I appreciate your input!


robertsloan2art said...

Oh this is gorgeous! The first thing that hit me was that blaze of orange sun in the distance, your focal point is finite perfection. The light is incredible. Great idea using a Sharpie for the notan underpainting.

One thing I'm going to try once I get back to Arkansas and my stash of Colourfix Primers, is doing a notan painting or grisaille underpainting with the white and black AS Multimedia Colourfix primer on watercolor paper. Actually with all the colors could do a colorful underpainting with the colored grit primers too. It just means mapping it in simple shapes and priming those areas separately with a brush instead of smooth strokes all over. Might use a flat brush to give extra textures with brush strokes along with the grit.

I'll have to see how that works!

Arnold Lowrey uses a felt tip marker for his sketches on Mi-Tientes under all his pastels and it worked well, the paintings covered the lines completely. So the Sharpie technique makes sense the same way!

Primers work better on watercolor paper than Mi Tientes though. Tried it and the Mi-Tientes cockled even though it was a small area with taped borders and large borders around them.

Peggy wilson said...

It's 7:15am in Kaansas City and this is SOLD already! Darn I guess I need to get up earlier! This marker under painting is working! Love this painting.