Planning a Painting with Notan

I finally had chance to break out the paints again today. Woohoo!


I thought it might be nice to  do a short series of posts showing the progress of a painting from initial planning through to completion.

And since I recently got back from San Francisco, it would be rude not to start with a bit of Golden Gate Bridge action!

Choosing a reference photo

The first thing I need to do is choose a photo to use as my reference. (I’d love to be able to paint the bridge from memory, but that just aint gonna happen any time soon!)

Here’s a photo I took on the trip, unedited:


Not a particularly awe-inspiring photo, but I like the angle of the bridge (this is taken from Vista Point, one of the most common places to go and look at the bridge).

I also like the lighting. It was pretty early in the morning not too long after sunrise, and I like the long shadows and the glow just over the land on the left of the image.

So I’m pretty happy to go with this photo as a reference image.

However, if I just painted this photo exactly as it is, it wouldn’t be very interesting. I need to zoom in a bit and capture the bridge as the focal point, cropping out anything that doesn’t add to the scene. As I mentioned the other day, don’t just paint what you see!

After playing around with the image for a bit, I decided that this is roughly the kind of composition I want to paint:


I’m going for a square composition, just because I feel like it. The bridge is now larger in relation to the overall scene, and is clearly the focal point, and I cropped out most of the foreground and the empty water on the left.

I’ve left in the interesting rocks (known as the Needles), and I really like the bits of coastline jutting out, that lead the viewers eye up to the bridge from the bottom left.

Notan Sketches

Now I need to plan the actual painting, and I find a great way to do this is with small thumbnail sketches called notan.

Notan is a Japanese design concept which translates shape and form into flat shapes on a two-dimensional surface.

For our purposes it is a small black and white sketch, used to plan the relationship of light and dark in a painting composition.

Here are three small notan sketches I did in a Moleskine notebook, using brush pens in three different values:


The idea is simply to sketch out the composition very quickly and get an idea of the overall placement of the major shapes. You also simplify the image into just a few values (levels of light/dark). I used 3 different pens, which gives 4 values (the white paper being the lightest value). Each sketch takes no more than a minute or two.

As you can see, in sketch #1 I made the bridge too dark. I thought a larger sketch may help, so I did sketch #2, which is better, but the value relationship wasn’t quite right.

I decided to go with sketch #3, in which I slightly raised the horizon line and extended the foreground down to the bottom left corner (more like the cropped photo above, which I cropped after deciding on this sketch.)

The next step is to paint a small value study in black and white. I’ll get onto that tomorrow!

Any questions? Leave a comment 🙂






  1. Sylvia Avatar

    While the art info is fine, the video clip of Leonardo is annoying in that it cannot be shut off!!! It uses resources as long as the email is on my computer, iPad and iPhone — no wonder my batteries are going dead fast.

    Into the trash…

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