Students will look at Donald Coen’s painting Yellow Rain Jacket and discuss the compositional technique he used. Students will then choose a photograph that interests them, crop intriguing sections, and paint the cropped image, emulating Coen’s process.
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonOne 55 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- identify and describe details from Coen’s painting;
- explain Coen’s artistic process;
- crop a section from an image and create a painting of it; and
- compare their artistic experience with Coen’s.
- Show students Donald Coen’s painting Yellow Rain Jacket. Lead a brainstorm with the students about the painting, prompting them with questions such as: What is this painting about? Whose horse might this be? Where could the rider be? What details did Coen include? What details didn’t he include?
- Explain to students that to compose this image, Coen chose a portion of the horse that intrigued him, photographed just that section, and then painted the image. By photographing just this part of the horse, he is able to notice things he initially missed, like the veins on the horse’s neck or the little piece of the mane that is slightly raised as if in a breeze. Ask the students: Do you like how Coen composed his photo and painting? How would this painting be different if it showed a whole horse?
- Let the students choose a photograph that intrigues them. You could either provide the photos or ask the students to bring in a few photos from home. You may want to collaborate with a Yearbook or Journalism teacher to get photos of school events.
- Distribute black paper. Invite students to move the sheets of construction paper around the image, cropping and blocking sections of the photograph so only part of the image is visible. Have them experiment with cropping lots of areas, even areas that seem boring at first. If time allows, you may want to let the students construct frames with black paper.
- When the students have found a cropped composition they like, have them trace the borders on the photograph and cut out the cropped image.
- Distribute art supplies and invite the students to paint their cropped compositions. Remind them to fill the entire canvas with the image and to focus on the little details they might have missed before cropping the photograph.
- Share with students the following quotation from the About the Art section that explains why Coen chose to compose his painting like he did:
I just loved how this yellow rain jacket was on the back of this saddle, the look of the saddle, the way the light was hitting on it, the way the horse was standing there; it was a great image.
Compare this to the students’ own artistic process. How did they go about composing their painting? Why did they choose certain compositional croppings? What intrigued them about a particular area? Did they like exploring this artistic process? Why or why not?
- Assorted photographs (either provided by you, the students, or a yearbook teacher at your school); magazine cut-outs would also work
- Black paper
- Paint, paintbrushes, and canvas/heavy paper
- About the Art section on Yellow Rain Jacket
- One color copy of the painting for every four children, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Invent and Discover to Create
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Envision and Critique to Reflect
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Don Coen was raised on a ranch in Lamar, Colorado, and now lives in Boulder. As a kid, he made hundreds of cowboy and Indian drawings, inspired by the likes of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. He also sketched maps, people, and comic book characters while listening to the radio at night. “Thank God we didn’t have TV,” he says. Coen went on to study art at the University of Denver and the University of Northern Colorado. At that time art was all about abstraction, so most of his early paintings focused less on realism and more on color and form. Several years later, on a trip back to the Lamar family ranch, Coen witnessed a stunning plains sunset that led him to return to subjects of rural western life. He says:
I feel what I am doing is important because this type of life—farm and ranch life—is changing rapidly. It seems like every day a farm family goes out of business. These are proud, honest, hard-working families whose story has never been told in art. I’m trying to tell that story in my work. I feel I have a kinship with them in that I spent the first 20 years of my life on a farm.
Coen’s signature tool is the airbrush, which he likes because he can achieve a highly luminous paint surface. His airbrush applies paint in extremely thin coats, and Coen creates rich, sophisticated colors by strategically layering them. “The color you put underneath has a tremendous effect on the color on top. It always shows through. If you want to paint, say, a brown area, you shouldn’t ever use brown paint but colors that, mixed together, will give you brown.” He doesn’t use white paint, but simply allows more or less of the white of the canvas to show through. Some areas of his paintings have as many as 70 light coats of paint, and each painting takes three or four months to complete.
What Inspired It?
In place of his childhood visions of romantic cowboy adventures, Coen chooses to focus on quiet, ordinary moments in today’s rural West. As a contemporary ranch insider, he strives “to show the truth and the beauty and simplicity of what’s really happening in rural America, without all the clichés that go with it.”
This painting was inspired by a trip to Cheyenne Frontier Days, a yearly celebration of the West in Wyoming. Coen likes to arrive at the fairgrounds very early, before any other visitors are there, and watch the cowboys milling about with their horses tied up, getting ready for the day. He says, “I just loved how this yellow rain jacket was on the back of this saddle, the look of the saddle, the way the light was hitting on it, the way the horse was standing there; it was a great image.”
Coen carries a camera everywhere, shooting hundreds of images, and he creates paintings from his own photographs. He shoots his source photos with a telephoto lens, which for this piece allowed greater focus on the objects in the foreground while blurring those in the background. He creates a telephoto effect in the painting with softer focus on objects farther away.
The text on the saddle, “Champion Team-Roper, Reno-Nevada, 1985,” is located smack in the middle of the painting and it introduces a person you don’t see—the champion team-roper. The story of the rider isn’t in the action you see or in expressions you can interpret, but we can look for clues given by the artist:
• the yellow rain jacket, and its significance implied by the title;
• the rope hanging over the saddle horn;
• the back end of another horse nearby; and
• visible wear from the buckle on the saddle strap.
Coen does not use black paint, yet there are parts of this painting that look black. If you look closely at the hairs of the horse’s mane, for example, you can see that they are actually composites of color, built up with layers of blue and purple.
The black material wrapped around the saddle horn, or handgrip, is made of inner tube strips—modern day team ropers do this so that a rope will catch and not slide off the saddle. Coen thinks too many Western artists are frozen in the past; he likes to show the West as it really is.
Coen painted Yellow Rain Jacket with an airbrush. Airbrush guns break down paint into very fine particles and use compressed air to spray the paint onto the canvas. Coen prefers to create a “soft edge, a personal kind of edge” with his airbrush. When he needs to paint an edge, he designs a plastic stencil and attaches it to the painting with rolled-up pieces of masking tape, rather than putting the stencil flat against the canvas. This way the paint bleeds over the edge, creating a blurry line.
One of the reasons Coen likes using an airbrush is for the dot pattern it can create. Areas with a dot pattern are blurry up close, but they resolve into objects when you move away from the painting—like the effect Coen got as a kid when he would stand close to a large movie screen. He creates different sizes of dot patterns with different airbrushes.
In this painting, Coen focuses on the central part of the horse, with the head, mane, tail, and legs cropped away. By photographing just this part of the horse, he is able to notice things he initially missed, like the veins on the horse’s neck or the little piece of the mane that is slightly raised as if in a breeze.
Yellow Rain Jacket is nearly 4 ½ feet tall and 6 feet wide. Coen likes really large canvases, partly because of his experience with big views on the plains and also because of his fondness for film and old, big-screen movie theaters. He also likes how you can be absorbed into a large painting. Working with an airbrush, Coen needs to maintain a careful position in relation to canvas, so he has rigged up a pulley system in his studio that allows him to raise or lower his large canvases through a slot he’s cut out in the floor. Supporting his wrist to keep steady, he slowly and carefully sprays as he walks back and forth.