A Reading Guide to Dow's "Composition", pt. 4- Deeper Into the Masters

vermeer notan combo.jpg

The Beauty of Intermingling Lights and Darks-

I wanted to come back to master-studies, and talk more about what we can get from making notans in this way. Yes, when we do this we duplicate dark and light patterns. But so what? What does that really teach us? The learning process goes deeper than that- otherwise, we could have a computer do it for us and we would just look at the results! The goal of making a master-study is to explore the work ourselves and to understand compositional decisions in reverse. To, as I often say in workshops, “read the tea leaves.” It requires decision-making on our part because we must ponder the decision-making of the artist, based on the breadcrumbs he or she has left for us in the image. This is how we can train ourselves to compose better. It’s part of how we develop “appreciation”.

How can we do this? What should folks be looking out for? What are the breadcrumbs? Why can’t a computer just do it for us? :P

First, as before, we must assess how to apply those tricksy mid-values to re-create the most compelling arrangement of black and white shapes. But second is what Dow calls “the beauty of intermingling dark and light shapes”, which I’ll be going in to more in this post. These two elements, combined, are powerful compositional tools. The notan seems almost uniquely built to help us explore them.

“The beauty of intermingling dark and light shapes”? Yep. We come back here to ye’ ol’ yin and yang again, which is not, after all, just two shapes swirling around each other. No, they are intertwined, each with a piece of the other within in. Balance. Opposition. Motion, and interest.

yin yang.jpg

We spend as much time staring at the two dots as we do at the swirls. Perhaps more. Therefore, each value not only defines the exterior of the other, but also "activates” the interior. A compelling notan should do the same.

I’ve provided a variety of master studies below, taken from a number of different sources. I’ve altered all of them in some way, to better represent my thinking and approach to notans. Some come from Mitch Albala’s blog, and some come from the Robinson video that I shared in the previous post, others thanks to Google search. Mitch’s blog, by the way, is superb. I can only imagine he must be an excellent teacher in person, as his thinking is already so clear on paper. Here is a introductory blog post he did on Notan, which is the original source for a number of photos I’m using today— https://blog.mitchalbala.com/the-wisdom-of-notan/ It’s worth a read too.

The point of making notan master-studies is to pay attention to compositional decisions that were made by the original painter- to train ourselves to better think and see, by looking through the eyes of another. Our notans should reflect this thinking. Hopefully, this approach will become clearer as we explore the examples below.

Example Studies-

Degas 1-

Degas notan combo.jpg

Here we have a Degas. Of course, the dances are pale, and the floor and background are dark. These are the big shapes that inter-relate, with the swirl of dancers on the right leading you to the head of the central figure. But also notice the important “intermingled” details that I’ve marked out with red arrows- the crook of both arms, the shadow of the hand, and the odd window and stage lights to the left. Particularly the window. The balance it provides to the head is important, and it would have been so easy to leave it out of the painting.

Note too how the head is almost completely surrounded by darks. Sometimes we find “secondary” objects on site (through providence) that do what we want, but really… we often have to introduce them, to create the contrasts we want, where we want them. I can’t imagine all those darks were just perfectly found there by accident, framing the dancer’s head. Degas placed them there to do a job, to highlight the face! Try removing some of them, and you’ll see how important they are.

Degas 2-

Notans can show us a lot about how an artist specifically placed things for certain effects. In this Degas below, look at the two sets of hands. Who knows where they were placed at first? They tell a story, yes, but they also break up the two deep, black areas. Speaking of which, the dark shape the two combined figures make is itself very interesting and sinuous- there is no separation between them! Instead, the two figures bond together, even with the shadows around them, to create a “river” for you to move through the painting on. The chair, of course, is like an arrow, breaking up the darkness and leading us back up to the faces and hands. The movement from dark to light to dark guides us through the image and creates points of interest. Try removing some of these intermingled lights, and you’ll see how valuable they are, providing points of interest in our viewing experience. Yin and Yang.

degas notan 2nd combo.jpg

The window panes behind the man help make a compelling notan too. They are busy and active, with many strong lines that make us pay attention to the reader’s head. A very important location!! Don’t forget that funny little bit of dark fireplace on the left either, clearly there to break up the pale expanse of the mantel. I can easily imagine that the white mantle was wider in real life, and Degas had to bring the dark shape into the picture plane for balance. Even the books and papers on the table (all placed or serendipitously found there) are relevant to the composition, as their jumble of shapes in the bottom of the picture plane creates a kind of “mirror image” notan to the heads up top, very much like a reflection in a river scene.

Turner’s Storm-

turner notan combo.jpg

Turner’s storm is swirling and guiding us in to the boat, but actually, it’s rather hard to make a notan out of it. Why? Because it’s almost entirely mid values, and all the edges are soft. The shapes aren’t obvious. But if you close one eye and let the other one go blurry, you can see them, as the middle values begin to separate from each other. Don’t forget- it’s the localized contrast that matters, not the lightest lights and darkest darks globally. Nothing else is as white as the sail, and almost nothing is as dark as the hull, but there is still a swirling notan in the rest of the composition, made up almost entirely of middle values and soft edges.


Here we have a Notan from Whistler. This is from Albala’s website. I’ve modified it slightly to reflect certain details I find important. Different notans of a subject ought to vary in some way, depending on the viewer and how you see the subject, and what contrasts you want to focus on. We’ll be talking about making multiple notan’s from a single subject in the next (and final) post in this series.

notan-whistler combo.jpg

Again, we have some very strong, big shapes with the white dress against the very dark back ground. However, certain small, localized shifts in value, such as the reflected face or the flowers in front of the fireplace (both of which I added to the notan), are also very important. They help the eye transition from dark to light, and back again, as the two basic shapes “break apart” and intermingle. Almost all of these small intermingled shapes are of a middle value… almost none of them are as white as the dress, but they’re all critical.

Note too the recessive rectangular shape to the left of the woman’s hair. This helps define the back of her head. This is very much like that block of darkness behind the head of the ballerina way back in the first Degas I shared. I added this bit of white into Albala’s notan too. Why? Because it’s an example of how we can benefit from making notans ourselves.

I can just imagine Whistler working on this image, frustrated because the woman’s hair was not separating enough from the background, with her head just dissolving into the corner. The answer? Introduce an alternate-valued shape to the left, even a middle-valued recessive one. The shift is subtle but important in the original piece. In the notan, if you remove it, the need becomes very clear. As students learning from these studies, we have to look at the final piece, and try and think in reverse.

Vermeer’s Milkmaid-

vermeer notan combo.jpg

Here again we have a notan that I’ve gently amended, but the truth is that this piece has a lovely strong composition, and a basic notan speaks to much of this- the big, bold swirling shapes of light versus dark (rather yin and yang, when seen as a notan), and the lovely jumble of shapes at the center of interest. Not how various elements point you there, from the arms of the milkmaid, to the fold in her gown, to the draping bits of table cloth, all of which become clear in the notan because of tonal contrasts. Just like with Degas’ readers, here we have a window with panes, active and busy, that draws the eye, but also note how it balances the composition and opens up the darker area, much like how the fireplace did in that same earlier Degas.

Finally, there are two odd bits of stuff that are worth pointing out- that quirky little box on the floor and the shiny kettle in the background. Why are they there? Is it part of a domestic narrative that most of us aren’t clued in to anymore? Perhaps... Most likely, even. But both also add to the composition, activating the floor and wall through contrast, so that that broad open, empty expanse of sunlit wall can remain open. So that it can feel open by comparison.

And that’s it for today. I hope these examples are of some use. That they direct you in your own notan-studies, and help make clear the little markers, contrasts, composition-choices you can be looking out for.

In the next post, I’ll be wrapping up the reading guide to Dow’s “Composition”, as we explore using notan “in real life.” I’ll be going through some examples of my own notans, breaking them down and comparing them to both color and black and white photos of different locations.

A Reading Guide to Dow's "Composition", pt. 3- Notan

notice how notan applies to many different artistic disciplines- textiles, sculpture, wood working, and, yes, painting too.

notice how notan applies to many different artistic disciplines- textiles, sculpture, wood working, and, yes, painting too.


In this post, I’ll be discussing why you should give a damn about Notan, how it grows out of line-composition, exercises from the book you might like to try, and how we can learn from the Masters by “notanizing” their compositions. In the next post, I’ll be sharing some examples of Notan-making “in the wild”, how you can arrive at different notans for the same subject, and how using notan well really requires that you engage and make decisions that reflect your personal perspective. Notan-making is not a robotic affair, whatever certain apps seem to suggest.

What is Notan?

Notan literally means “dark-light” in Japanese. I’m sure it has many other nuances I don’t understand, but we’re going to roll with that very basic definition for now. The intent is that all shapes are reduced to black and white, but even more important is the underlying presumption that there’s a balance of shapes. So although you may use Line to divide space, Notan is about mass. And it’s not a value sketch either, as there’s no grey. Again, all shapes must be reduced to their most basic value-relationships— Is it light or is it dark? Is it white or is it black?

Here’s a little video where a fellow goes in to it. I found it succinct and to the point. Please forget (or don’t, if that’s your preference) the advertising element of the video—

Of all the concepts that Dow posits in his book, Notan is the one that, in my opinion, is the best developed and most useful. When done right, it can be very revealing— you’ll often see why an image works, or (alternately) what is failing it, because contrast-relationships and composition become very clear. In many ways, it’s the fruition of a great deal of thinking from earlier portions of the book—whatever one has learned about the Principles of Composition, or Appreciation, or how Line-division can create compelling proportions, or the importance of the shape of the picture plane are all still relevant. In fact, they’re essential if you want to get the most out of Notan.

Notan and the Beauty of a Two-Dimensional Space—


Exploring Notan echoes and amplifies the concept that “painting is the art of two dimensions.” Dow calls Notan “tone-composition”, as well as “darks and lights in harmonic relations” and “the beauty of opposing and intermingling masses of black and white.” It’s about seeing painting as a space-art, not just a clever representation (or re-presentation) of three dimensional space based on jedi mind tricks. It uses shadow and light as a starting point, but honestly has very little to do with shadows or perspective or story.

The concept is that, totally separate from (the also important) representational elements of an image, “lines, tones, and colors may be simply beautiful in themselves” because “synthetically related masses of dark and light convey an impression of beauty entirely independent of meaning”. “Synthetically related” is the operative phrase here, meaning dynamically balanced by the human mind, meaning not necessarily a copy of nature (although perhaps inspired by it!). Black and white ink blots and geometric patterns (which are basically notans) can of course be beautiful in and of themselves, and the notan of a painting is no different. None of these examples rely on representation or story to be compelling. Rather, their beauty depends almost entirely on the “synthetic” arrangement of shapes.

Mass and emptiness. Proportion. Pattern. Balance and disorder.


How can we find something beautiful “entirely independent of meaning”? Phew! That’s a big question! I don’t know, but I’ll give it a go— Because the experience of patterns found and burnished makes us feel like we can communicate with and echo the natural world? In a beautiful painting there is a feeling that an artist is arranging patterns to generate a kind of active tension, a precarious balance of shapes, the arrangement of which synthetically creates a sense of “found” organic disorder. Honestly, it’s a kind of magic, because, of course, it is not totally random and disordered, but instead is made. When we see beauty in nature, it often feels like a wonderful accident—what is truly actually “found” feels as if it were properly, dynamically balanced. In many ways, we judge each experience by the other. As I’ve said before, "If beauty in nature is discovering patterns conjured by chance, then beauty in art is discovering chance conjured from patterns."

And how do we assess when an arrangement of shapes is beautiful? Appreciation. Ha! How do we develop our Appreciation? Yep, by developing our ability to judge, by “choosing and criticizing” one’s own work, and by reverse engineering the work of masters. The learning process is the same as with Line, only now we are taking the divisions of space, the proportions created with Line and we are adding mass to the equation.

Line Leads to Notan—

At one point, Dow says “a line scheme underlies every notan composition, and a notan scheme underlies every color composition.” This is really true! Just as multiple line-compositions can be developed from one subject (depending on how we select and frame the subject inside the picture plane), so too can we build multiple Notans from a single line-composition. Lines creates proportion, but the arrangements of mass within those divisions can vary dramatically. That’s really what Notan is— Line Proportion + Mass.

So the work studying and exploring Line and Proportion is of real use as we study Value and Mass. If you can’t divide space elegantly with Line, you’ll have a hard time doing it with Mass. Proportion is proportion. Spacing is spacing. Appreciation is still Appreciation.

Dow explores the idea of the “notanization” of line-compositions in the book, and provides some interesting examples (which I’ll touch on below). He very much likes the idea of starting with abstracts, where we can practice building interesting notans without being bound by representational concerns. It’s all just pure space composition and abstract divisions of space.


Exercise #1- pg. 61 Multiple Notans from a Single Line-Composition


In this example, the idea is to explore the various ways you can fill the spaces created with line. What gives dominance to the dark or light? How does focusing contrast in one version change the composition, versus another? Even within the examples he himself gives, one can see how different versions don’t just “fill it in” in different ways, but truly change where you focus and what becomes important. The notan is critical.

Exercise #2- pg. 67 Abstract Notans


Part of what’s so interesting about Dow’s approach to Notan is how he applies the concept to a host of different artistic fields. Anything that involves 2-tone patterns are of interest to him- textiles, sculpture, pottery, etc.

Exercise #3- pg 62- Notan from Flowers


This is very similar to earlier exercises in the book, where we were altering the picture plane of line-compositions, or “proportion-compositions”… because that’s all line drawings are, at base—divisions of space within the two-dimensional picture plane, which our minds then turn into representations of objects. We must choose the picture plane shape that we want, and divide it up with Good Spacing. The difference now? We’re choosing and altering the picture plane, just like before, except within its boundaries we’re making tone-compositions (which are based on line-compositions). Note how many notans you can make out of a single flower line-composition. Quite a few!

Exercise #4- pg 70, Multiple Notans from a Single Landscape Line-Composition


Just like exercise #1, except now we begin to deal with more and more representational shapes. For some folks, this is easier, because abstraction isn’t their forte, but remember—the goal is not just accurate representation. That is the trap, and why this exercise comes last!! The hardest thing of all, in my opinion, is to take an existing, real object or photo and think about it only as two-dimensional tone-shapes, and yet also to still have it look like a boat or a house or a hill or whatever, right? Yikes!!

In the end, we may want the painting to tell a story, and for that we may need representation… but we shouldn’t let “accurate representation” alone dictate our painting process. The true underlying goal of using Notan is to open our mind, so our eyes can actually see the shapes we are using.

Copying from Masters


Dow calls beauty “visual music”, an experience that occurs when the integration of shapes leads to “every part of a work of art (having) something to say.” The goal is to interpret subjects instead of imitating them. The beauty comes from injecting ourselves into the process, so that we are obliged “to select and reject, to keep only the essentials” so that “all the lines and areas (are) related one to another by connections and placings, so as to form a beautiful whole.” A tall order! The good news is that many wonderful artists have come before us, and studying their work critically can help us teach ourselves.

Superb works are good to learn from not because they are technically masterful (although they most likely are), but because they physically represent the result of all the thinking that has been done beforehand. Through the pathway of the painting we can gain access to another artist’s hard-won experience. This is where using Notan can help us learn, because it can allow us (atleast in part) to reverse engineer the work of painters we love. If I really wanted to assess what Sargent or Turner or Hopper or Rembrandt (or any contemporary artists I might love) understood about composition, I wouldn’t necessarily copy their paintings (although, yes, of course, that’s a good way to learn, too). What I’d really do is create notans of their works, to better understand the bones of the compositions.


Lets take a quick look at a couple of examples that Dow provides, and see what we can learn about the process.

This first one is Corot’s “The Boat Leaving From the Shore.” Note how the mid-values in the foreground get put into the “whites” just like the very pale sky, even though the foreground is about the same value as the top of the trees.

the color original

the color original

a black and white version

a black and white version

dow’s simplified 2-value notan version

dow’s simplified 2-value notan version

Mid-values can be hard to assess when you make a notan, because you personally have to decide if you want to assign them to black or white. What’s most important to recognize is that Notans, as I understand and apply them, are here to help us identify and develop compelling contrast-patterns, not just so we paint with “lights and darks”. We’ll unpack this more in the next post, but the important part is to understand that the foreground in this image is a highlight in its own localized area of the painting, and so we make it white in the notan. Whether it’s a value is a 5 or an 7 on a scale of 10 doesn’t matter as much as what it’s placed next to. Notan is not about absolute value, but rather comparative value and contrast.

This next one is Millet’s “Sheep Shearers”. Once again, note how the dark background area behind the shadowed figure is made to be white, even though it is easily darker than many parts of the barrel in the original, which is made to be black in the notan. Note too how the distant horizon is made to be more interesting through the creation of contrast. Those little mid-value shapes (aka far away trees) also become black in the notan. The goal is to pay attention to localized contrast.

millett sheep shearers.jpg
millett sheep shearers b&w.jpg
millett sheep shearers notan.jpg

In the next post, we’ll step farther into "copying the masters”, as well as look into making notans from scratch. It definitely can do is show us problems with a potential composition— something we’re not getting with these copies. There are definitely things to pay attention to, to make it the most useful tool it can be.

A Reading Guide to Dow's "Composition", pt. 2- Principles of Composition and Good Spacing



Art= 5 Principles + Good Spacing

Good Spacing= Appreciation

Appreciation= Comparison + Practice

This simple sequence of mental equations will guide us through this post. Again and again Dow notes that art comes from applying the 5 Principles of Composition with Good Spacing (both concepts we’ll go over below). Knowing what Good Spacing is comes from developing Appreciation. Appreciation is developed by studying and copying masters and teachers, and by doing progressively more complex exercises that help us develop our critical ability to compare and assess. That’s the gist anyways.

This is a big, dense post, but we’ll gobble it up just the same. In the words of Peter Pan, “Here we… goooo!”

Dow’s Five Principles of Composition-

This is the guts of Dow’s mental approach. These are the building blocks with which we divide space. For one to get the most out of the sections on Line and Notan, we need atleast a basic grasp of this. There are some clear limitations to it, but it’s important just the same to wrap our minds around it. Let’s dig in.

Dow proposes 5 principles regarding how shapes and lines divide space—

1) Opposition—Two lines meeting for a simple and severe harmony (i.e. a cross or a square or a boat on a horizon, etc)


2) Transition—a tool by which you connect and soften opposing lines and shapes (i.e. filigree in the corners of a cross)


3) Subordination—the principle that a single dominating element, line, or shape will determine the character and arrangement of others (i.e. the branching of a tree leading to the trunk, or the flowers of a petal)


4) Repetition—the opposite of Subordination, where the production of beauty is created by repeating the same lines in rhythmic order (i.e. pillars in an edifice)

5) Symmetry—the placing of two equal lines or shapes in exact balance (i.e. two halves of a split apple)

Combining different elements creates tension between opposing forces, and that’s what makes for compelling visuals- dark versus light, big versus small, vertical versus horizontal, red versus green, patterns versus singularity. Order and chaos. The most compelling and useful of the set is easily Subordination versus Repetition, or as I see it “hierarchy versus equality”. This is a duo Dow brings up quite a few times as he tries to illuminate what it means to create the dynamic sense of disorder that we find in nature, that sense of a balanced yet asymmetrical arrangement that somehow feels found even as we order it ourselves.

Still, in and of themselves they’re just vocabulary for interesting ideas. Even Dow recognizes this— “Principles of Composition,” he says, “are only ways of arranging lines and shapes… They are by no means recipes for art, and their names are of little consequence… It is possible to use all the principles here discussed, and to complete all the exercises, without gaining much, if any, art experience.” Thus, it’s not using the principles themselves that is important (for we all use them when painting even “bad” paintings), but how we do so that matters.

“Good Spacing” and Learning Through Comparison-


“Fine art implies fine relations” is how Dow begins his section on the Principles of Composition, and indeed… when we’re creating a composition, we’re creating a web of relationships spatially, tonally, in terms of color... All the different parts of the painting are talking and communicating with each other, whether we are in control of them or not. So instead of saying “I find this Composition really interesting!” we could just as easily say, “I find these relationships interesting!”

How do we know if those are relationships are compelling? “Good Spacing”, as Dow calls it. To Dow, “art is not produced by (the Principles of Composition) unless they are used in combination with… Good Spacing.” Good Spacing is the Five Principles in action, where our sense of proportion and the relative location of shapes and lines is compelling. So how do we know if something is spaced well? How do we develop our ability to see and create compelling compositions? Ah! Therein lies the rub.

This skill is acquired “by original effort (aka practice) stimulated by the influence of good examples. (And) as fine relations can be understood only through appreciations, the whole fabric of art education should be based upon a training in appreciation.”

At first, I really thought Dow was full of crap here, that it was just a cop out. “Good examples”, “fine relations”, “appreciations”! Come on man, just show me the good stuff!! My book is full of notes on it. Sometimes, he’s very clear, and at others he can be so ambiguous. It’s infuriating! It was like a magic trick he could do, but only if he didn’t show us the mechanics. He could only point at it happening, but couldn’t describe it.

Well, it only took me two years of teaching to change my mind. :P Watching students struggle, I now really believe you have to do the basic hard work yourself. Even when guided by a good teacher (which is sometimes essential!), you have to go on your own journey and decide for yourself what you think. No one can “develop your eye” but yourself. Even if Dow had it all down to an equation he could impart, it wouldn’t matter. Would you really believe him if you didn’t figure it out on your own? I sure wouldn’t! I’m too damn stubborn and opinionated. However, a good place to start is studying those works you love best, and trying to figure out why they work. Iterating your own work and developing the skill of “choosing” is another.

The key here is to essentially improve our ability to assess quality on an individual case-by-case basis by first exercising and developing our ability to assess quality comparatively. Here’s Dow talking on the point of “original effort” some more- “The main thing is the striving for the best, the most harmonious, result that can be obtained. One way to accomplish this is to compare and choose continually— making many designs under one subject and selecting the best.” It is sometimes quite difficult to know how we can improve a painting viewed on its own. But it’s much easier to assess why we like one better than another. This is part of why I go on and on and on about iteration in our own work. It’s not the only reason I suggest it, but it’s part of it. Self-assessment is a huge part of growing artistically, and when we iterate an image we shrink the sand box. Fewer variables to control helps focus and clarify our comparisons. Iteration helps us learn to choose.

So, rather than pointing us in the right direction within the book itself and telling us how far apart to place things within the picture plane depending on its ratio, and at what kind of frequency, and at what kind of comparative size, etc. etc. Dow instead chooses to show us a path outside the confines of the book. We need teachers to help us, and we also have to try to suss things out on our own as we learn by either a) doing the exercises he provides in the book, or b) thoughtfully viewing and copying the masters (a bit more on that down below). Which, on a certain level, is true… How do you learn if not through practice and developing the ability to judge your own work against itself (and the masters you admire) critically? I say this sort of thing repeatedly to students in workshops.

And yet... One still hopes for a bit of guidance in the early stages of learning. What are some cues we look for when self-assessing, or what Dow calls “developing appreciation”? What artistic elements (like Subordination versus Repetition!) should we note, as we explore different relationships we can change and nudge around?

How do we get from this-


To this?


To this?


What are some pitfalls we can actively try to avoid? Fortunately, we have the thinking of Chien Chung Wei to help elucidate for us. Lead the way, Chien!

Chien Chung Wei’s “DNA of Beauty”-

On a curricular level, the most important thing Chien provided in his workshop was a sort of 10-point cheat sheet to begin tuning your eye to better judgment or “appreciation”. These points are not the “what” of composing. They are not the Five Principles. And they also don’t tell you about brush technique or color contrast or tonal contrast. Instead, they suggest how to apply those contrasts in compelling ways spatially.

Only some of them apply to Dow’s approach, so I’m focusing on those 5 here, but if you’d like to read the whole post (it’s a list of 10 concepts in the original post), I think it’s absolutely very much worth one’s time. I can’t sing the praises of that workshop enough. His “DNA of Beauty” spoke very clearly to me. Chien’s approach is based a lot on pattern recognition and how to use it as you construct your own compositions. The goal, as I see it, is to mimic (through the use of man-made patterns and that ever elusive “good spacing” Dow speaks of) the randomly generated “active balance” we sometimes see in nature.

Here’s the maxim I created to express the idea— "If beauty in nature is discovering patterns conjured by chance, then beauty in art is discovering chance conjured from patterns." So, as I see it, that’s what we’re aiming for.

Big, middle, small-

Look at how even the arrangement of windows and lights echo the “big, Little, Small” Mantra.

Look at how even the arrangement of windows and lights echo the “big, Little, Small” Mantra.

This seems very simple, but is probably the most basic, consistent compositional element in his paintings. Just like DNA, it starts with his smallest gestures (literally his brushstrokes), but the principle builds upwards and he uses it to construct his largest shapes as well. Always, he’s thinking about his brush strokes and his shapes. He makes a big stroke, then uses some dots and a dash to tidy things up. Small shapes are accompanied by others. Big planes relate to smaller planes. Nothing is painted alone. “If you're painting has a,b, c, d,” he said, “you cannot just paint a. You paint a, but watch b, c, and d. They have to relate to each other.” Remember, Composition is Relation.

Major, minor, jumper or Kings and Princes-

look at the arrangement of yellows and how important the figure in yellow and the little light on the far right is for a sense of balance. Major, Minor, Jumper.

look at the arrangement of yellows and how important the figure in yellow and the little light on the far right is for a sense of balance. Major, Minor, Jumper.


"Major, minor, jumper” is all about spacing things out and creating a sense of “active balance” by distributing points of interest in different parts of the picture plane. This has everything to do with the ever-critical Spacing that Dow brings up. What’s important, of course, is how the major, minor, and jumper relate to each other.

First, of course the “major” is the focal point of your image. The minor is a strong secondary point of interest. If the major and minor are too far apart, you need to add a "jumper", to bridge the distance- a third point of interest to help the eye move from point to point and circulate through the image. This, along with “Big, middle, small” and “Diagonal”, was one of the most repeated concepts over the course of the workshop. Over and over, simple and consistent.

Chien sometimes referred to them as the “king and the princes” as well. The goal was to create a sense of dynamic balance. Nothing too static or centered. This keeps the image engaging and lets your eye travel. If there is a jumper, it is always the smallest of the "big, middle, small". It connects the farthest prince (or minor) to the king.

"The prince that is furthest way is the most important, because it is for balance. Those closest princes bow to the king, the farthest create tension."

"When you paint plein air or take a picture, you always need to find the major first. But the minor and the jumper are (almost always) of your own design."

Gather, disperse, extend-

"You can't have a kingdom with just a king. You need others to control him."

This is Spacing and Hierarchy, applied. It’s all about taking elements similar to your focal point and placing them in different parts of the picture at different levels of intensity.

For example, if you have a powerful red sky or object, you need a bit of red elsewhere to control it. Use less and less as you go outwards, like ripples. If something is too strong, you just extend and soften it, to more fully integrate it with the whole image. It can be a color, a value, etc.

No wholeness-

Nothing too exact. Nothing too strong or geometric. Break your shapes and lines. Remember- even when you break up an object, use big, middle, small. Often, when he would paint an edge, he would “break it” and deliberately not let it be too clean. No complete squares and whatnot. They just take over everything. They’re too strong. Instead, he would imply the shape with a great deal of skill.

If you want your shapes to relate to each other with Good Spacing, you need to integrate the shapes- buildings have windows and trees and awnings in front of them. Skies have telephone poles and trees and the masts of boats breaking them up. Fields have posts and paths and bushes. Always, you should be thinking about relating shapes to each other, creating different proportions and such. If you think of Chien’s “Big, Little, Small”, huge whole shapes are all big and no small.

No sameness-

note the arrange of the pylons, how they’re gathered, and the spaces between them.  No sameness.  Look inside the big dark portal too- no wholeness.  The window that lets us see through into the distance is very important for making the portal compelling.

note the arrange of the pylons, how they’re gathered, and the spaces between them. No sameness. Look inside the big dark portal too- no wholeness. The window that lets us see through into the distance is very important for making the portal compelling.

Change the distance between things, the height of things, the shape of things. Give the eye something to hold on to. Don't use the same frequency or size. You’ll see, for example, when Chien paints things like windows, that he’ll do a few, but they’re all a bit different. Different values, different levels of detail, slightly different chroma. From there, he would let the rest be indicated.

Exercises to Explore in “Composition”-


Throughout the book Dow provides a variety of exercises to try out. What can I say? Some seem compelling and well thought out, and others seem almost incomplete, just an idea for a teacher to flesh out later. Here I note some of the ones I think most productive to explore.

4 Exercises— pg 54 (#1), 24-25 (#2), pg 45 (#3) & pg 48 (#4)

Drawing lines, flowers, fruits and stems, and landscapes in different picture planes. The gist of this sequence is first to start with a composition using the most basic division of space (lines of varying thickness and spacing), and to tackle more and more complex subjects with each exercise. Each exercise is based on a set of subject matter that we then have to alter and shift as needed to best relate to altered picture planes- square, portrait, landscape, extra vertical, etc. This is good stuff!

The image can’t stay the same, and you can’t just crop the composition. You have to explore and alter it to best push against the new boundaries. Dow moves us through a variety of subjects that get progressively more complex, but the truth is the muscle we’re developing is always the same— assessing the picture plane, dividing the space within its unique boundaries with lines, and creating interesting proportions by arranging combinations of line-shapes. Yes, they’re trees and flowers and other things, but at root they are all the same as what I’ve labeled as the first exercise— lines arranged in a flat plane. We’ll deal with blocks of mass in the next post, when we talk about Notan.

Here’s Dow talking about the idea— “The designer and picture-painter start in the same way. Each has before him a blank space on which he sketches out the main lines of his composition. This may be called his Line-idea, and on it hinges the excellence of the whole, for no delicacy of tone, or harmony of color can remedy a bad proportion. A picture, then, may be said to be in its beginning actually a patter of lines.”


#5- pg 39

Learn through osmosis; study the art-structure of a great creative work. This isn’t actually an exercise, but it should be. Dow says, “The most important fact about a great creative work is that it is beautiful; and the best way to see this is to study the art-structure of it, —the way it is built up as Line, Notan, Color,— the principle of composition which it exemplifies. See what a master has done with the very problem you are trying to work out.” It was when I read this that I came to presume Chien was inspired directly by Dow as a teacher.

In Chien’s workshop, he had us try to make an abstract for an existing painting. Here’s a link. It’s worth the read. This was a fantastically illustrative (and difficult) exercise, and should be done by others. Making Notans from paintings we love is also an exceptional way to understand the value-patterns of its composition. I remember Chien saying, “Study a master every day, make an abstract like this, learn how they made their paintings work, and in time you will know everything there is to know about composition.” We’ll actually be talking about this in the next post, when touch on the idea of studying what Dow calls the “spotting” of master-images.

Next week we’ll dig into Notan, and I’ll share some exercises and real world applications. Below’s a quote from Dow that I loved. We can close on this for today-

“Mere accuracy has no art-value whatever… One uses the facts of nature to express an idea or emotion.” We should “value power in expression above success in drawing.”

A Reading Guide to Dow's "Composition", pt. 1

dows book cover.jpg

Arthur Wesley Dow was a painter, print maker, and teacher from the turn of the 19th century. He studied a wide array of different artistic traditions- Middle Eastern tile work, European painters, Greek pottery, European sculpture and architecture, and (most importantly) Japanese brush paintings. In a very Modernist fashion, Dow felt there was a deep compositional synergy between these different artistic traditions (a synergy that bypassed cultural and historical divisions), and that we too could understand and apply the methods by which these various masters divided and used space if we only paid close enough attention to their examples. His book, “Composition: Understanding Line, Notan, and Color” outlines his approach, providing many compelling ideas, examples, and explanations.

I picked up Dow’s “Composition” two years ago, and although written in a floral, 100-year old prose, it's worth one’s time. I’ve read it over 3 or 4 times myself. And I’ve spent the last year trying to write a review for it. “Why so long?” you ask. Because, despite the fact that Dow seems to have been a compelling thinker, he has, at times, clear deficiencies as a writer. The text is dense as hell, has sections that aren’t useful (IMO) to painters, and has some holes in its applied approach. And yet… And yet. It’s one of the few books I’ve read for leisure with a pencil and highlighter in hand, making notes in the borders to noodle out some extra clarity. That example, in and of itself, is probably a good demonstration of the book’s value and shortcomings. At times, it’s a hassle to read and make sense of, and yet, having done so, I’m glad I did.

Here's a hot link to the edition I recommend. Why buy one, when you can read it online for free at the Project Gutenberg site? One, I'm an old fashioned fellow at times, and I like the experience of reading books with physical paper pages- if you're the type to write notes or use a highlighter, this is only reinforced. Two, the book has a lot of prints- both black and white and color- and they're important to the reading experience. Perhaps if you have a large format tablet, like the big iPad Pro, you'd get the same visual experience, but for 20$, I thought the print version was just fine.

What’s the Big Idea?


Ok. So, according to Dow there's a method to playing dark against light, to balancing and dividing space, and whether it's the cast shadow of a sculptural motif falling across a building, the abstract patterns painted on pottery, or the arrangement of trees in a landscape painting they are all built using similar tools of composition. This applies to value-shapes and color-shapes, and lines-shapes too- all three of them are seen as tools to divide the picture plane abstractly, even while they simultaneously represent objects. That’s what’s so compelling about Dow’s approach. Everything is seen as a space-divider, and it’s the kinetic balance and to-and-fro decisions we make that create and drive the energy of a piece.

Dow's probably most well-known for introducing Western audiences to the idea of Notan. Notan is a bit of a nebulous concept. It’s about value, but it’s not a value-sketch (which can also be very useful!). In Japanese it literally means “Dark-Light”, but it’s much more than that.


It’s really about the balance and distribution of dark forms against light forms. Yes, ye ol’ yin-and-yang. We can experience it by reducing an image entirely to black and white. Not even grey. Only positive shapes against negative shapes, silhouettes, heaven and earth. When you reduce an image to a Notan this way, you begin to see the underlying composition, and (with a bit of instruction and practice) more easily assess its strengths and weaknesses. Much of the best of the book is dedicated to exploring Notan, and, if for nothing else, I would have you check out the book for this concept alone.

From this perspective, Dow developed an approach to art making (and art teaching) that focuses very strongly on understanding elements of design and balance first, instead of putting such a strong initial emphasis on technique, drawing skills, or copying nature. “Mere accuracy alone,” notes Dow, “has no art-value.” A landscape painter’s goal “is not …to represent so much topography, but to express an emotion, and this he must do by art.” And what exactly does he think Art-with-a-capital-A is? “Art study,” he says later, “is the attempt to perceive and to create fine relationships of line, mass, and color.” Therefore, as I see it, if the goal of art making is to express emotion, and art study is the attempt to create fine relationships (composition), the thought follows that creating fine spatial relationships expresses emotion. Or so Dow suggests.

Can you express emotion through the arrangement of lines, shapes, and color in a picture plane? I don’t know. Maybe? Still, there’s no denying that contrast and spatial arrangement can create a dynamic kind of energy. How else to describe that “thing” which holds our attention? Georgia O’Keefe, who studied and applied Dow’s approach, has this great quote that expresses the guts of the idea- “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way- things I had no words for.” It’s definitely an “approach to art through Structure” that is “absolutely opposed to the time-honored approach through Imitation”.

So… in caveman terms- Composition line-mass-color = emotion= good. Only technique= bad. How do? Book read. Examples copy. Sweat work. Lightbulb=beauty. Keep painting. Grave. :P

Of course, there’s also the value of Story, that essential emotional human thing that makes us give a damn about a beautifully painted or composed image. Dow absolutely does not talk about this at all. We can debate that too, but the book focuses only on the tool of composition. So I take it with a grain of salt, and leave behind what’s not of use to me. I would say, however, that the impact of a great story badly told is much diminished. Similarly, a well told story that doesn’t have much to say is always just a trifle. So, the two elements go hand in hand.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Besides introducing Notan and arguing the importance of composition over technical accuracy, the additional key strength of Dow’s book is that it provides a framework for independent exploration and research. “Composition” is ordered sequentially, first focusing on learning Line, then moving to Notan (more on that later), finally leading to (a rather puny section on) Color.


It’s useful and flexibly applicable to many “spatial-art” disciplines. It offers a basic vocabulary for discussing spatial layout (Dow’s five “Principles of Composition”… more on that later too), and provides many excellent historical examples that demonstrate the terms in use. It suggests exercises you can try out, which, I’m sure, bear more or less fruit depending on your approach and whether you have a teacher to guide you or not. All of which is excellent as a starting point for self-education or as a curricular tool for teachers.

So what’s the problem? What the book doesn’t do is provide easy answers. In fact, it seems to almost deliberately (perversely?) provide no answers at all. Are all compositions created equal? Absolutely not. And yet, how can one tell if a composition is good or not? If one does a series of experimental compositions to explore a concept, such as Dow often suggests, how does one judge them one against the other? They all use the same basic building blocks (which Dow discusses at length), but, of course, the layout of some images are more compelling than others. But I’ll be damned if Dow spends any time teaching us how to tell the difference.

What you will see is a lot of thought provoking, if sometimes vague, almost pseudo-religious talk about Harmony. This makes the book both highly interesting and rather frustrating. Composition, says Dow, is “the building up of harmony”, what he sees as a fundamental process of all the fine arts. Painting is “essentially a rhythmic harmony of colored spaces”. Notan “is the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light spaces.” One gets the idea. The question, of course, is how do we get there? It’s an elusive subject. It’s easy to point at (see how this painting here works? Or how this light-dark pattern is interesting?), but it’s much more difficult to describe for the purposes of guiding a student.

Instead, what he focuses on is giving us the tools and approach to learn through a kind of artistic osmosis. One must learn how to apply things, as Dow puts it, through “appreciation” of the masters and the development of taste. If we can just get exposed to good art (what does that even mean?), and unspool the images of those masters we most admire, we can begin to walk down that same long path ourselves, as we blaze our own trails and develop our own sense of spatial relationships and composition.

That’s the basic idea.

So if you’re looking for a useful set of rules to guide you, you’re out of luck. In an era under siege from self-help books, this tome written 100 years ago completely bypasses all of that more marketable verbiage in favor of a less palatable, but perhaps more honest (and definitely more obnoxious) truth— that learning to make art requires you to learn through doing. And a lot of it on your own.

Having said all that, my hope is that this review, in tandem with my follow up posts, will provide a sort of “study guide” and path of entrance into the book. I think the best of “Composition” is that important and useful. I myself will be providing multiple supplemental posts opening up and exploring the use of Notan. Additionally, my perspective is that the input of those people who have taught me (people like Zbukvic and Chien Chung-Wei, in particular) can guide us some as we learn to judge what a “compelling composition” is. For what also becomes clear with reading the book is how essential it is to have a good teacher to get you up and on your way. No one wants to have to reinvent the wheel.

The “Good Parts” Version—


As a lover of “The Princess Bride”, I offer this Good Parts version of “Composition”! A good way to dip your toe into the book and assess if it’s the right thing for you.

Structurally, the book starts off by exploring composition through line work, and then later moves into Notan and eventually into color, but it’s the section on Notan that’s the strongest and most widely applicable. Elsewhere in the book are a variety of bits and pieces, with varying levels of interest. As before, I’ve read it all 3 or 4 times… so all of it has interesting things to say, but here are the essentials as I see it—

Pg 3-14 “Beginnings” and “The Three Elements”. This is the intro. Well worth reading. All the big ideas are here.

Pg 21-28 “Principles of Composition.” Ways of creating Harmony. Opposition, Transition, Subordination, Repetition, Symmetry. Developing better judgment through “appreciation”. I have supplemental content I’ll be offering for this portion.

Pg 44-48 “Landscape Composition.” This is part of the section on Line. Really interesting to see examples from fabric design, cabinetry, and pottery compared to designs in landscape paintings.

Pg 53-74 Notan. The Heart of the book. Overview, Tasks and Exercises. Excellent examples. I’ve got a couple of upcoming posts on this.

After these pages comes a supplemental section on 3-value Notans (rather than the basic 2-value Notan). It’s interesting, but not as well constructed as the earlier section. Then there’s a section on color and another on composition, but these two really feel like afterthoughts to me, and aren’t as fully developed as (nor as fully connected to) the earlier sections.

In my next post I’m going to talk about the “Principles of Composition” section of the book. This portion is full of interesting ideas regarding what the “building blocks” of Composition are, but is unfortunately totally opaque on how to apply them for maximum impact. Fortunately, we have the lessons of Chien Chung Wei to lead the way in. We’ll put them all together and see what we get.