Eye-Catching Compositions

Lesson Plan


Students will view and discuss Yellow Rain Jacket, paying particular attention to the artist’s choice of content and composition. They will learn about composition by creating a frame and choosing areas of an image that they wish to emphasize. Students will create a title for this composition and, if time allows, turn it into a finished work of art.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe and analyze what they see in Yellow Rain Jacket;
  • identify and discuss visual emphasis and composition in a work of art;
  • create a visually pleasing composition; and
  • explain the reasoning behind the choices they made.


  1. Show students Yellow Rain Jacket and ask them to identify what they see. Have they ever seen anything like this before? When and where? What was the first thing that caught their attention? Why? Do they notice anything interesting about the composition? Explain that the composition is the arrangement of individual elements of design and details within the painting (e.g., shapes, lines, colors, objects, etc.). Composition can reveal what the artist thinks are the important or meaningful things in an image by drawing attention to them–or by drawing attention away from them.
  2. What does the artist draw attention to in this painting? How? Is there anything that the artist seems to make less obvious? What? How does he do this? Why do you think we can’t see the horse’s head in the image? Point out that what caught artist’s eye in this scene was the yellow rain jacket on the back of the horse. It was such an important detail to him that it even became the title of the work. Share information from the About the Art section as appropriate to the discussion.
  3. Point out that the artist works from photos he takes. Have students look around the room and at images from books and magazines to find a scene or photo that they find interesting and appealing.
  4. Students will create a paper frame to crop their image, much like the artist cropped his image. Have each student fold an 8 ½x11-inch piece of paper in half. Students will use scissors to cut a square or rectangle shape on the fold side of their paper. Make sure to demonstrate this and point out that you have not cut all the way across the paper but have cut out a square or rectangle. Some students may need to draw the rectangle that they plan to cut out first. Open the paper to reveal a frame. The size of the frame is up to the student.
  5. If, after exploring images, students find that their frame is too small, they can re-fold their paper and cut out a larger rectangle. If it is too big, they can fold a new piece of paper and cut out a smaller rectangle. If you have very young children you may wish to cut the frames for them ahead of time.
  6. Demonstrate that the frame will be used to emphasize an object or other aspect of the picture they choose. Show them how this is done by moving the sample frame around an image, highlighting different parts of the image. Tell students to keep moving the frame around until they find a pleasing composition that calls attention to the part they want to emphasize. Point out that the best composition isn’t necessarily created by putting an object dead center.
  7. Have magazines or other images around for students to choose from. Ask students to pay attention to details in their images when choosing their cropped compositions. Remind them that it was the detail of the saddle and the rain jacket that caught the artist’s eye.
  8. After students have decided on a composition they like, they should decide what they will title their selection. Revisit the image of Yellow Rain Jacket and ask students if they think it is a good title for the painting. Why or why not?
  9. Divide the class into small groups and have them share their original image and their selected cropping of it. Have them explain why they made the choice they did. Why is this the best composition? What does it emphasize? They should also share their title for their cropped image.

For an extension activity, students could revisit their image on another day and sketch it, add color, and create their own finished work of art. You might choose to display the student’s finished work along with an image of Yellow Rain Jacket as their inspiration.


  • One 8 1/2×11-inch piece of paper for each student, plus extras
  • Scissors
  • Variety of images from magazines, Internet, book illustrations, etc.
  • Pencils
  • About the Art section on Yellow Rain Jacket
  • One color copy of the image for each pair of students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


  • Drawing paper, colored pencils, crayons, paint, or other art materials appropriate to the class for turning cropped images into a final artwork


CO Standards

  • 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

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention

About the Art

Yellow Rain Jacket

Yellow Rain Jacket


Donald W. Coen, United States

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.

Hints of a Story
Hints of a Story

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.

Black Mane
Black Mane

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.

Contemporary Details
Contemporary Details

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.

Soft Lines
Soft Lines

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.

Dot Patterns
Dot Patterns

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.

Cropped View
Cropped View

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.

Large Canvas
Large Canvas

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.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.