Sunday, November 1, 2020

App: The Notanizer

Thumbnail samples from my sketchbook

I'm standing in front of my painting workshop students, armed with vine charcoal and paper.  I'm about to show how helpful it can be to create a notan sketch prior to painting.  I carefully analyze the scene and begin to explore a variety of designs in charcoal.  “You can group a set of values that are adjacent on the value scale into a single value and—“

About this time, a student interrupts to tell me about a really nifty app on her phone that does all this at a touch.

“Let's see,” I say.  She pulls out her iPhone and demonstrates.  Alas, my phone runs on Android, so I won't be able to install the app.  But yes, I agree, it is nifty.  And then I continue the lecture with my Neolithic tools.

By now, the Japanese concept of the “notan” should be a familiar one to visual artists.  Briefly, imagine looking at the world in black and white—literally. That's what a notan sketch does.  It simplifies the world of a hundred values into just two.  For the artist, it makes the task of wrestling all that complexity into a pleasing design far easier.  Sometimes, the number of values can be expanded to three or four, but keep in mind that the more values, the harder the task.

One of the questions I've always had about any notan app is, Can you control how it groups values?  For example, can you tell it to group everything between 0% and 46% grey as the darkest value?  Or does the app apply a strict rule, grouping only between 0% and 25% as the darkest value?  With my stick of vine charcoal, I have total control over how values are grouped.  

I asked my student this question, but she wasn't sure.  Since then, I haven't had the opportunity to look into it but, alas, my phone is an Android phone....

But recently I learned that the Notanizer app, which once worked only on Apple devices, now works on Android devices.  So, I installed it from the Google Play store.

I was pleased to learn that it does let me control how the values are grouped, doing so through a set of sliders at the bottom of the screen.  Also, it lets me see an image in several ways:  as a traditional two-value (black and white) notan, or as a three-value or four-value notan.  There's also an option to view the image with up to ten values, but frankly, I don't find that as useful for design work. 

All in all, it's a nifty app indeed.  A Notanized image can be a quick reference when you're wrestling with values in your painting.

The only issue is, if I have elements that fall into widely-separated points on the value scale, and I think the design would be better if I made them the same value, I can't do that.  (Think of sunlit areas on a tree that is mostly dark, and you want to make it all one dark value shape.)  The sliders don't give me that ability.  So, for the time being, I'll continue to make my thumbnail sketches by hand.  

But there are two more reasons why I want to do it the old-fashioned way.  First, the creation of a notan manually gets your hand, eye and brain working together to better understand a scene's value structure.  Second, going through the motions with Neolithic tools of your choice is, in a way, a rehearsal for the actual painting, and you can do it as many times as needed to work out issues before setting brush to canvas.  You don't get any of this by tapping a button on an app.

Still, I'll keep playing with Notanizer.  It will certainly be great as a teaching tool—a set of training wheels, if you will—but I'm uncertain about its value for the experienced painter. 

By the way, if you'd like to learn more about notan, read Arthur Wesley Dow's excellent book, Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color.

Here are some screenshots of Notanizer:

Image shown in full color

Image shown in black-and-white
with full value range

Simple, two-value notan

Three-level notan with default value
distribution.  I don't like the way the sky is
broken up into two values, so I will move the sliders...

...until the sky is all one value. Better!
Plus, I also adjusted the cast shadows so I can see
the darkest areas more clearly.

Default four-value notan.
Same problem with the sky. So...

...I move the sliders to make the
sky a single value.

Here's the slider for up to 10 values.
Not very useful for the plein air painter,
since we have to be fast! Too many values,
too much time.


Bob Rhodes said...

Very usefull tool! Thanks much!!

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thanks, Bob! I think it'll be educational, for sure!