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 🙂

Learning My Art

0 Replies to “Planning a Painting with Notan”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *