In our latest design class, Joie and I assigned our students their second composition study. The idea is to take a representational piece, abstract that piece into its basic compositional elements, and then use the composition you made to make a new representational piece. If that doesn’t make sense, that’s okay! In fact, that’s why I did the following as an example for the class:
I started with this painting by Claude Monet titled, “Gare Saint-Lazare”. This painting of a train station is already fairly abstracted, being impressionistic in nature, so it made for an easy subject for this example.


I then used 5 values (black, 25% grey, 50% grey, 75% grey, and white) to simplify the composition. This is a sketch of how it might look if the painting had only used these 5 values. Then I took those values from the last image and rounded their corners and connected their points to try to come up with the basic composition of the values, contrast, and shapes.

These are some other examples we sent to our students for this assignment:

The original piece here is called, “The Forest Troll” by Justin Gerard, one of my favorite illustrators. He has an extensive series of articles of the process he followed for his piece here

I’m not sure who made this photo (if you do, let me know). This is Joie’s example:

The second half of this Composition study, is to take the composition which we abstracted from our representational piece in the last class and turn it into something representational again. Here is the next half of the process:


Starting this time where I left off last time, here is the composition we came up with from Claude Monet’s “Gare Saint-Lazare”. We’ve simplified the original painting into its basic values, shapes, and contrast. After considering the composition for a while, I started sketching some new lines with the intention of representing something specific. The image above is just an overlay of the composition and the next frame, but I think it may illustrate how I tried to use some of the elements from the original composition.


This was my third try… first I was seeing a row of people and a dragon… then I went with an automobile in shed… then with an airship over a sea of clouds. Finally I rested on this rhinoceros idea.

The last sketch after textures, burning, dodging, and sharpening.

These are some of the thumbnails from the process.

The biggest changes to the composition occurred at the third thumbnail, when I shifted the lighter values from what used to be sky in the background of the original painting to a much darker background for the forest in this one. Also, the psychic lines from the rhino and the far left bird ends up directing the eye a bit differently than the original.

In the end, it was definitely a good exercise. I’m sure it will be one that our students with enjoy and learn from.