In this quick review I want to talk about a book that I bet few people knew existed. This is an older title but it is still being printed as far as I know. It is titled “NOTAN – the dark-light principle of design”. It was first published in 1968 and the author is Dorr Bothwell (and Marlys Mayfield). It is another Dover unabridged republication (as was the one in my previous review, the Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art).

If you were ever interested in the philosophy of ancient China you are most probably familiar with the works of Lao Tzu. It is indeed he who is quoted in the foreword of the book written by Marlys Mayfield. And this is an interesting fact as it does actually set the tone for the book.

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the utility of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the utility of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
But it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the utility of the house depends.
Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the utility of what is not.
Lao Tzu

Marlys Mayfield goes on to say that “this poem, attributed to Lao Tse, was written about two thousand years ago in China. It is a poem about Notan, the basis of all design. Before Notan or the meaning of this poem can be understood, it must be experienced. And the experience of Notan is what this book is all about.”

Basically, Notan is the relationship, and more importantly, the interaction of positive and negative shapes. Granted, this is an extreme simplification of a complex problem but I think it sufficient enough if you are not familiar with the concept of Notan at all. Notan is the principle that is not widely discussed. At least in the west it is not. Yet it is a vital principle on which all art is dependent. Few instructors stress the importance of positive and negative shapes. We tend to focus on the positive and omit the negative. In life and in painting. Our western mind associates terms like “bad”, “wrong” or “depressing” with the word “negative” and so we close our eyes to a whole world of ideas only because of how we are used to think.

Now don’t get me wrong, this is not a philosophical book. Nor a book that is based around religious ideas. It would be very misleading to make you think so. Except the introduction there is no mention of eastern philosophy. But I thought it beneficial to bring to your attention this particular aspect of the book because it is vital in understanding the point of view of the author.

The book provides a balanced mix of theory and practice. Each chapter deals with some concept or idea and soon goes on to a practical exercise.The book builds knowledge and understanding gradually, chapter upon chapter. I liked the way the contents of the book were laid down. There are 8 chapters:

  1. Notan in everyday life
  2. Symmetrical and asymmetrical balance
  3. Negative shapes with positive reversals
  4. Control of positive and negative space
  5. Value and the constructive use of tension
  6. The elements of design
  7. A compartmented design
  8. Notan and the innocent eye

I found a few topics exceptionally interesting and I think these are worth mentioning, namely “Value and the constructive use of tension” and “The elements of design” but probably most of all I enjoyed the talk on “Representation in art” which really well explained the problem of seeing, in the sense that we focus on the “thing” that we try to paint and think it more important than the rest of the painting, more important than the negative spaces, and the painting itself as a whole. This is then followed by an exercise in distortion in which the student is asked to draw a very utilitarian object and distort it so the function of the object is corrupted. I enjoyed this exercise the most. And if you are not used to designing your paintings with the negative in mind, I’m sure you’ll find each chapter and each exercise truly illuminating, almost revolutionary.

Book Review: Dorr Bothwell's NOTAN
Book Review: Dorr Bothwell’s NOTAN

All in all, I really liked this book. It does approach design yet from another perspective, one that is not often seen in western literature. It is clearly drawing the principles from eastern art theories. I really recommend this book to any serious artist, whatever his level of experience. Give it a shot, it may just show you something you didn’t know was there.

Keep your mind open,
-Daniel

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