Yeah I know you hate to do Notans, but they work!

This past weekend I taught a class to the Baltimore Urban Sketchers on Composition in Harve De Grace, MD. One topic we covered was values and how they help you to paint the story that you see. Making a small thumbnail or sketch in black and a mid tone grey on white paper  (three values), or even just using black and the white of the paper, (two), will make painting 95% easier. These sketches are called “Notans”. Notan is a Japanese term which literally means “light dark harmony”. It’s basically a small ( 3×4 pr smaller) where you draw with only a black marker and a 50% marker; I find the brush style the best.  It can be done in pencil but it takes longer. Create your Notan shapes using the side of the brush. Just block in the shapes.  By establishing where your darks and lights will be before you paint, you set up a road map to follow. You can then spend your time thinking more about the colors that match your grey values when you are painting, and less about the composition ( cause you have just set that up!).

Notans can be as complicated or difficult as you want to make them. Below are two examples

Forest HIlls Inn, Forest Hills, NY

If you squint at the Value sketch, and look back at the color sketch, it will become clear to you how I used those values to create the spine of my painting, making sure the darks got dark and the lights remained the white of the paper.

Below, the Guggenheim Museum which I attempted in just black on white. It took a great deal of concentration to decide where to put the blacks, but I think it worked out well.

After the class @toddpop1 and @sunamisue and I painted on the dock opposing the Concord Point Lighthouse. You can see that I followed my notan fairly accurately, although I did lighten the water significantly, and It made for a much easier paint. perhaps we painted for an hour and a half.

Concord Point Lighthouse, Harve de Grace, MD

Sadly I lost my Craig Young palette paint. It lays somewhere in the brackish water at the bottom of the Susquehanna River. Special thanks to Craig Young as he had an extra one on hand. ( should be here in two weeks. sigh) So you see as much as none of us want to do it. Those pre paint value sketches or Notans are truly a wonderful assist in getting both your colors, and your composition on the right track. Give it a try, after you do one I am betting you will start to do them all the time- and let me know!

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NYC Watertowers

The haze of the city still permeates the air as the summer comes to a close. From Union Square Park I looked uptown through the trees and spied these rooftop water towers. So quintesentially NYC.

The trick was to capture that hazy summer sky and the deep shadows that were falling fast on everything.

Of course I did a notan to freeze the shadows and have reference for them. Then I made sure to use lots of analogous colors and their complementary colors for the shadows. I can remember how beautiful it all looked and I hope that it gets translated in the picture for my viewers.

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Onions and Boku-Undo E-Sumi Watercolor Paint

I brought some onions down to the studio about a month ago for my students to paint. I keep moving them from the desk to the bookshelf, making room for other projects and bringing them back when needed. Tonight while waiting for my computer to right itself, I took a few stabs at them.

My first efforts involved testing out and using a new set of watercolors I recently ordered. (They are pictured below). There are 6 colors, all in shades of black, ie: yellow black, blue black etc. Above you see the red black in the right onion and the yellow and green blacks in the left one. They are quite moody looking veggies! I felt the sketch was in a good place but somehow looked a little sterile. I decided to go off the deep end and throw caution to the wind by adding the formidable, Chinese black ink.

I actually think these are both more successful and more interesting. I used a fairly large flat dry brush and let it do it’s thing. I find late at night, (for some, its very early in the morning), I am more willing to take chances on something. Be my better, little looser self perhaps.

The paints are Japanese and move a little slower and a bit more opaquely then European/American watercolors do. They are quite dark looking. I think their best use might be tonal studies. That will be my next effort with them. I bought them online, and they were not an expensive aquisition.

Boku Undo Paints


I’d love to here from anyone what their experiences have been with the Boku Undo Paints, and how long have you kept a pair of onions in your studio?

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