Middle School Studio Lesson
Notan is the term used by the Japanese to express the
principle of “dark-light” as an element of design. This
concept illustrates the interaction of positive and negative space, emphasizing
that one can not exist without the other.
A common symbol that illustrates this concept of
“dark-light” is the yin-yang symbol,
But the principle of Notan can be found in art from around the world;
the graphic designs of Pueblo pottery in New Mexico, molas (appliqué fabric
collages) from Chile and Peru, and paper cutouts from Poland and China
are but a few examples. We can also see this principle at
work in the everyday objects we use in our classroom. For example, scissors
are designed with spaces to fit our fingers, using negative space for
utility. It is this union of opposites, where negative space is not seen as
empty, but essential, that defines the principle of Notan.
Student Notan Studies
I adapted an exercise from Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design by
Dorr Bothwell and Marlys Mayfield, for use in the classroom using blackand-
white construction paper to illustrate
the principles of negative and positive space.
Students start with a 6" square
sheet of black construction paper and a larger square
of white paper at least 14" square. Using X-Acto knives or scissors, students
cut into the center of the paper using simple shapes. Once the shape
is cut out and space to mirror
the negative space. They continue to cut out all the shapes before gluing
these on the white paper to complete the composition.
6" (15 cm) square black construction
14" (35.5 cm) or larger square of
white drawing paper
X-Acto knife or scissors
Creating a Notan Composition
1. Place black construction paper square in center of white square page. Do not glue.
2. Draw organic or geometric shapes on the black construction paper prior to cutting the design. I recommend not cutting designs on the corners; only cut along the straight edge for ease.
3. Once the design has been drawn, cut out the shapes using the X-Acto knife or scissors.
4. After the entire design has been cut out, center and glue the large black square in the center of the white
5. Continue by gluing the cut-out black shapes onto the white paper, flipping the designs so they mirror the negative cut-out space. Make sure to have the “flipped” images align with the edge of the larger black square.
6. Continue until all cut-out shapes are glued on to the white drawing paper.