The Music of George Gershwin

(Part 3/Working it out/Abstract illustration/The music of George Gershwin)

Exercise – Abstract Illustration using the Music of George Gershwin

I decided to use Gershwin as I happen to have an old CD of some of his work.  Whilst selecting it from the shelf I had a look around for CD cases with abstract designs on them. I found a selection of various styles.

Whilst I find the above interesting they are in no way inspiring to me. The Gershwin CD itself has a semi- abstract design which again is not particularly striking.

I am guessing that the exercise here was to create marks inspired by the music. These have been superimposed over a piano keyboard with a black background. The cover design is by Su Huntly and Donna Muir.

The reverse of the CD case has fingers over the keys. Whilst the piano keyboard is essential to the Gershwin music, in fact the ‘American in Paris’ is principally for trumpet and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is fronted by a Clarinet.

My own work.

Realising the first part of the exercise needed to be done spontaneously, I initially opted for a sheet of A4 cartridge and a set of Sharpie pens – all colours available.

This was one of the early efforts. There are a lot of smooth even phrases in the music which inspired the even curls as the music seems to turn over and over.

The more speedy dynamic blue curl coming forward left to right was the moving traffic and it’s increasing noise. Then further to the traffic effects I ‘threw in’ the yellow splodges as car headlights confusedly going in diverse directions as suggested by the wilder music.

Then came an interlude of more soothing but pressing rhythm. I construed this as footsteps for different people so I used pink for ladies and blue for men, as I heard it.
These provided a more regular pattern crossing the paper.

I then listened again to the music and rather than starting a new image I thought I would add to the original.

Here I have emphasised the light from the headlights with the intention of increasing the ‘noise’ of the image. I also added some more ‘walking patterns’ across the page. There is a distinct section of the music which says footsteps to me and I wanted to include that to show crowds.

However, because I have used only Sharpie pens, the lights are all lightweight, even the stronger ones. It does give the chaotic feel that comes from the music but what is produced on the paper is not pleasing to the eye.


I think. To me, the music illustrates the evening rush hour in Paris. All is busy and hurried and there is lots of flashing and crashing. So I decided to try another option and use a dark background. I selected a sheet of black A3 pastel paper as I thought the visual contrasts would be greater and therefore represent the noise and movement of the music.

I gave further thought to the title and decided that should somehow be represented I the illustration. My immediate reaction was to limit the colours to prevent less eye’chaos’. Therefore I chose shade of red and blue and white only to start with. These colours are both French and American.

This time I included red tail-lights as well as the white headlights.
The zigzags at the back are an abstract feeling for the high buildings and the extreme noise waves.
I used different shades of red, and blue. The blue even curves across the page are for the more restrained music section when there is a better flow. They are also symbolic of the avenues of trees in Paris.



I then looked at the image from the composition point of view. The ‘mess’ in the centre right needed to have the eye moved away so I added a couple of interlaced blue lines flowing to the bottom left to take the eye across the page. It also ‘knits’ it together a bit!


I considered various squares around the picture to select an interesting bit. This is the one I settled on and straightaway tried to saturate the colour to create further interest.



As soon as I saturated the colours on the computer the image came to life.

I was delighted that when the image was saturated the black turned to a mottled green. Although not one of my chosen 3 colours, the effect resembled the parks and avenues of Paris so it was a most suitable background, (even though achieved by accident!)

The headlights were a bit messy so I added white ellipses for better effect. A grill to link them together is supposed to suggest a vehicle.

I was happy to retain the white lights as white was no longer represented on my extraction but the black grill was not compatible so this was changed to dark blue and the rims of the lights were also added as a blue/white edge.

I wanted to make more of my idea of footsteps flowing through the music dodging and weaving through the traffic. Rather than abstract shapes at this stage I decided to use realistic footprints which I added in white.

I was still very aware that the title of the ‘CD’ was relevant. I wanted to introduce the specific concept of ‘Paris’ without adding a shape of the inevitable Eiffel Tower! So I wrote the simple word ‘Paris’ in capitals and filled this with the stars and stripes flag.

It is not obvious in the image but it is there.  The positioning of the word helps the flow of the white footprints which now branch at an intersection.

At this point I felt the headlights were becoming ‘left out’ with all the interest below them. I was loathe to bring in another colour but tried white and it was less effective than the quick touch of yellow. This does draw the headlights back into the picture but the top left hand corner is now too ‘busy.

First I tried to darken it hoping there would be a balance with the darker patch bottom centre. That didn’t work well so I changed it (on the computer) to the basic green background.

The final image is shown below.

Considering the image for a CD cover.
Having created many posters over time, I am very much aware that the design often has to be ‘out of balance’ before the lettering is introduced. We were not asked to bear this in mind at this stage and my design probably looks better without writing on it. However, I think something minimal would suffice using a typical 1920s/30s font to convey the title and the composer.
I will include that also below.

I did decide at the beginning to use only the three colours of the US and French flags, however, I think the general effect shows those 3 colours predominating the design.
The pixilated green background is not one I originally envisaged but works well.
I think it is still a bit complex and interwoven but then, so is the music it represents so I have left it.

I am pleased with how the word Paris (with America in it) fits into the image without dominating it at all yet is there to read quite clearly.

This was a hard exercise which took a lot of thinking about. But was, nevertheless, very enjoyable.


Here is the abstract illustration slotted into a CD cover. A more appropriate 1930s style font has been added for better effect.