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Notan: Japanese Principle of Dark and Light

Introduction

Notan is the Japanese design principle of light and dark. The eastern symbol of the Yin and Yang, the most recognizable example of Notan, illustrates this visual duality succinctly--black and white occupy equal space in this image and each contains a trace amount of the other to demonstrate their inner dependence. Without white, black has no context and vice versa. Notan creates balance and eliminates hierarchy.

Effective Notan design is similar to the Western design concept of positive and negative space, in which a composition or pattern contains positive figures and anything that is not considered a figure is referred to as a negative shape or ground. However, in a successful Notan design light and dark shapes have equity and what is figure and what is ground alternates as the eye moves around the composition or pattern. 
 
Notan is most often demonstrated through pen and ink and cut paper drawings, however examples can be found in a variety of mediums including printmaking, ceramic tile design, architecture and very often in quilts. The common denominator amongst these mediums is the module, or a single design element that is repeated to achieve a pattern. The design of this module and the visual effect that is created when the module is set in repeat are tools for Notan. In this gallery you will see examples of quiltmakers who have used light and dark to enhance shape, placement and repetition to make their quilts both dynamic and harmonious.

The Quilts

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Orange Peel
Baptist Church ladies of Washington, New Jersey
Washington, New Jersey
c1940
Private Collection

This much-loved pattern, Orange Peel, employs the simplest of Notan techniques --a four patch design with an abstracted leaf or petal shape is mirrored both vertically and horizontally across the axis of the four patch, changing from light to dark on either side of each axis. The effect is highly dynamic and contains much variety--the grid of squares is still recognizable and a new element is formed, a conceptual circle formed by the four arcs of the outside of the leaf shapes. Another shape appears--a four pointed star--created by the inner arcs of the leaf shapes. A feast for the eyes--achieving the ultimate visual success--keeping the viewers’ eyes moving around the quilt again and again. The proportion of the shapes and the simple divvying up of the black and white make it successful Notan design--well-balanced, half dark and half light.

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Oak Leaf
Maker unknown
c1910
Private Collection

In this Oak Leaf quilt, the Notan effect is achieved through the use of shape and line. Notice how the thin curves of the dark cotton flower stems create the outline of a leaf or petal in the white area in the center--all rotating around the center rectilinear shape. The dark shapes appear to be both figure and ground and so do the white petal shapes--Notan at work.

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Broken Square
Maker unknown
Hamilton County, Tennessee
c1935
Private Collection

In this variation of Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, the four patch grid of alternating dark and light squares sits solidly in the background while the diagonal lines created by the negative and positive petal/leaf shapes connected by tiny four patch squares practically zip up and down the quilt from corner to corner, side to side.

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Drunkard’s Path
Laura Bell Arnold Pence and Cinthia Arnold
Demotte, Indiana
c1885
Collection of the Winedale Museum acc.#TMM2542-2

This Drunkard’s Path quilt (another variation of Robbing Peter to Pay Paul), seen as a whole, is almost dizzying and aptly named. The full view shows how the dark shapes connect to create a regular but nontraditional grid resembling a network of DNA strands. The detail view of this quilt shows how the white shapes appear to be more in the foreground and portions of the black shapes take on new shapes like the pinwheel in a square that alternates with a truncated white cross.

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Anvil
Maker unknown
Hunterdon County, New Jersey
c1900
Private Collection

This quilt is a great example of Notan created when the shape of an individual module repeated against a contrasting ground reveals a second shape of equal visual interest.

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Delectable Mountain
First half of the 19th century
Private Collection

Notan achieved through an overall effect of pattern is successful not only when the light and dark is balanced, but also when new shapes are created from the conceptual boundaries created when shapes abut or align. In this quilt a strong white cross is created through overlapping rectangles defined by regular borders of triangles, alternating between light and dark. The multiple diagonals and the transition of shape size in this quilt create a balanced Notan design that moves the viewer’s eyes from the center to the border and back in a compelling loop.

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Title
Maker unknown
c1880
Collection of the Gunn Museum

This Log Cabin or Pineapple quilt also demonstrates the illusion of secondary shapes created by the placement of module shapes and a careful use of light and dark. The arrangement and the construction of the dark diamond shapes (pieced together with triangles so the edges of the diamond are softened) creates the illusion of overlapping circles defined by the light areas, which otherwise would appear as a background instead of a group of shapes.

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Garfield's Monument
Eunice Leona Taylor Hall
Buncombe County, North Carolina
1900-1930
Collection of the Mountain Heritage Center acc.#MHC98.02.070

This quilt, a simple red and white rendition of the Garfield’s Monument pattern, displays strong Notan throughout the surface, except for edges of the quilt on the left and right sides. Near the borders the red forms transform into background and the white shapes come to the surface as an object in the foreground. If you use a piece of paper to mask the left and right border of the quilt the Notan effect becomes much stronger--the red and white shapes then begin to switch back and forth, taking turns as figure and ground.

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Virginia Reel
Donna Ray Brown Landers
San Angelo, Texas
1976
Private Collection

This stunning red and white Virginia Reel quilt illustrates a simple harmonious reversal of interlocking elements, half dark and half light. The viewer is hard-pressed to choose a dominant shade because each has equal recognition in the design.

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Stained Glass Doll Quilt
c1854
Collection of the DAR Museum acc.#69.146.4

Another simple interlocking Notan design of light and dark elements. This elongated and angular ogee shape is an interesting alternative to the four patch repeat.

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Ka Nani o Haleakala​
Private Collection

Hawaiian quilts are unique examples of Notan, traditionally created using a method of cutting large shapes from folded fabric similar to the process of cutting a snowflake shape from paper. In this Hawaiian beauty the dark ground fabric makes a strong figure at the center of the quilt and around the outer edge of the lighter fabric. A Notan effect is seen clearly in the areas where the light fabric comes forward just as strongly--see the white lobster-like shapes on the diagonal?

Amy Milne
Quilt Alliance, 2012
All rights reserved

Quilt Title

Artist Name     Contributer

1800     Location, Place

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Quilt Size: 61 inches x 61 inches

Fabrics: Cotton, Geometric, Novelty, Solid/plain

Construction: Machine Piecing

Quilting Techniques: Machine quilting

1-1-0

  • Documentation Project

    Quilt Alliance

  • Documentation Project

    The Heritage Quilt Project of New Jersey, Inc.

    Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives

  • Documentation Project

    Connecticut Quilt Search

  • Documentation Project

    The Quilts of Tennessee

    Tennessee State Library

  • Museum

    Winedale Quilt Collection

    University of Texas at Austin, Briscoe Center for American History

  • Documentation Project

    Texas Quilt Search

    University of Texas at Austin, Texas Sesquecentennial Quilt Association

  • Museum

    Mountain Heritage Center

    Western Carolina University

  • Museum

    DAR Museum

    DAR Museum

  • Documentation Project

    Hawaiian Quilt Research Project

    Kalihi-Palama Culture and Arts Society

  • 1930-1949

    Orange Peel

    Baptist Church ladi...

  • 1901-1929

    Oak Leaf

    Connors

  • 1930-1949

    Broken Square

  • 1876-1900

    Drunkard's Path

    Pence, Laura Bell A...

  • 1876-1900

    Anvil

    Losey, Emma & Lavin...

  • 1800-1849

    Delectable Mounta...

  • 1876-1900

    Log Cabin

  • 1901-1929

    Garfield's Monume...

    Hall, Eunice Leona ...

  • 1976

    Virginia Reel

    Landers, Donna Ray ...

  • ca. 1854

    Stained Glass Dol...

  • Ka Nani o Haleaka...

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