Master the Principles of Pictorial Composition with Marshall Vandruff

Master the Principles of Pictorial Composition with Marshall Vandruff

Willie Jimenez is a U.S. Navy Vet who is transitioning into creative career in animation and entertainment. After many years of working in comics he decided to go to college to learn 3D Modeling and Animation.

Image Courtesy of Stan Prokopenko.

Willie Jimenez is a U.S. Navy Vet who is transitioning into creative career in animation and entertainment. After many years of working in comics he decided to go to college to learn 3D Modeling and Animation.

On his learning journey, Willie took instruction from industry veteran and talented Illustrator, Marshall Vandruff, and reviews the course in this article. If you are looking to improve on and master your drawing and composition skills, then read on - this one's for you!

This spring I had the honour and pleasure of assisting one of my heroes Marshall Vandruff. After years of following his articles. And watching his courses on DVD. I was lucky enough to check his new online course and watch him teach live via Zoom.

Like many students, I too had to make a transition to online learning. I was afraid I would be getting cheated a bit. But this experience has been quite the opposite. I am very impressed with how much I have grown taking this course.

Original art by Howard Pyle

Who is Marshall Vandruff

Marshall Vandruff is an American Illustrator. who started his career working for advertising companies all over Southern California. Over the years though, Marshall has become widely known for teaching subjects like anatomy, storytelling, and art lessons from the old masters. He currently co-hosts a podcast with Stan Prokopenko called The Draftsmen Podcast. I became familiar with him from DVD’s at Gnomon, and articles on ImagineFX Magazine.

I’ve been teaching in classrooms so often that I haven’t had time to turn my teaching into recorded products, and I don’t mean a video recording of me in a classroom, but real productions, designed for efficient learning, putting the medium of video to use, as Proko has done with Figure Drawing and Anatomy. I am about to retreat, produce, and emerge again with more commitment to online classes, which I love. The globality, the multiple time zones, the meeting “in each other’s homes”… I’m hardly inclined to return to the brick-and-mortar classrooms, 38 years of it was enough. The one thing I miss is watching movies together with a group, and I have plans to do that in the next year or two through CAT-Animation. - Marshall
Original art by Howard Pyle

The Course

Marshall currently has a few classes advertised on his website, and he is always busy teaching at several different institutions. The class I was able to observe was the Composition Bootcamp. The bootcamp was created to help artists master the major elements and principles of pictorial composition. This class goes way beyond the basic definition of simple placement, just look at the syllabus. You can tell this is something Marshall has spent years developing.

The greatness of any artform cannot be in the technique, as important as technique is. Nobody loves a song because the singer hit all the notes correctly. They love it because the melodies and rhythms and interactions of the instruments give them a feeling. It’s the same with imagery. Good composers know how to create an image that haunts, or entertains, or somehow emotionally involves a viewer, and that happens on a primal level through compositional choices. And even though I believe it is a talent, it is realized through practice and training. As with music. Musicians and artists both compose. The good ones move our emotions. -Marshall

When it comes to learning the fundamentals, there is a lot of instructional content on anatomy and perspective you can find online and in the classroom. There are fewer classes available on composition. What is available is all very theoretical and can vary depending on the instructor.

The Composition Bootcamp is true to its name. Twelve weeks of exercises and projects that take challenging work and commitment, but they are designed for anyone, beginner or pro, to work out their best skills in creating images that rock… compositionally. -Marshall

The way the classes work is that there are two tiers: A participant tier and an Eavesdropper Tier. The participant tier costs 3x as much, and requires a registration and an audition which means, those interested will have to fill out a questionnaire.

The participants follow the course and have their assignment critiqued. They are advised and mentored by Marshall. The 2nd group (eavesdroppers) gets to follow along. You get to attend the sessions, follow along with the projects, and learn while watching participants get their feedback.

Note: Marshall will also look through the eavesdropper assignments and choose at least one assignment every week, sometimes at random other times to drive home a point, to critique in front of the class. Hey may also find a piece of work impressive and will showcase it for that reason.

original art by Stepan Kolesnikov

The Experience

The class ran a lot like classes at CGMA or Brainstorm School. Critiques are done the first half of the class, and then then lectures are given in the second half. I have seen occasions at Brainstorm where the teacher would stop giving individual critiques, and instead of repeating the same advice over and over, will say something like “ok everyone listen up.” So, the eavesdropper group is not missing much if you ask me.

Every student is different. Some need to be encouraged as much as instructed, some need no encouragement, some need reality checks. A good mentor senses a specific mentee's need and helps with that. -Marshall

I find the way Marshall goes over critiques live and with everyone watching, to be most effective. Whereas at CGMA and Schoolism, the personal critiques are given separately - everyone gets their own video. Although everyone is encouraged to watch them all, in practice it becomes hard to keep up with.

In my experience, you sometimes learn more during the critiques than watching the lectures. Lectures can sometimes feel like watching endless hours of YouTube instruction - it can go in through one ear and out the other without doing assignments.

It's in doing the assignments and reflecting, that the real learning happens. Students also have a weird way of forgetting most of the material but remember the mistakes they made in test and assignments, and Marshall does not hold back when it comes to giving assignments. As he would say in class, it is a bootcamp after all. The course stresses the importance of practice and mileage gained in doing so.

Something else Marshall has done which I think is highly effective, is that as he gives you new assignments, he also reassigns some of the old homework. This gives you a real chance at taking in the critiques and applying them. Although this added more homework to do, the lessons really sunk in.

In my workshops, when Observer Tier students watch the feedback I give to Participants, many of those lessons are universal enough to touch the concerns of the Observers. During this last round, some of the Observers did remarkable work! - Marshall
Original art by Howard pyle

The Discord

One of the best parts of CGMA is live group chat (I believe it was mid-week). This allowed time to go over the lecture, then ask further questions. Marshall did something similar which was start a discord. It was a neat way for the students to stay in touch, help each other out, throughout the week. They would share their work and questions. Marshall stayed out of it. He wanted the students to have their own space. But if there was a question. or a problem came up that the students could not answer themselves. Marshall was then summoned. This was my job, to help monitor the discord and I got to be his eyes and ears.
 But it was friendly group. Friends were made. These were all students, so they shared a lot of great info and links to sites and videos. It was great to watch and be a part of.

original art by Dean Cornwell

The Assignments

Since Marshall has gone through most of his material in seminars and on the podcast, he really wanted to make the bootcamp stand out and for the participants to get their money's worth. And the way he did that is through the assignments. They were varied and effective. He tried to keep you busy throughout the week. He knew how lecture heavy and theoretical this stuff is, so getting a chance to put the learnings to use was to practice, practice, practice.  

Some assignments were optional, and he lets you know what parts were more important than others. so, you were able to play with and switch things up as needed. Also depending on where you are at in skill, the assignments were very adaptive and flexible - he really wanted everyone to challenge and push themselves.

Aside from the many smaller projects to get you thinking and developing everyday habits, there were larger projects available to challenge you. This worked great for those looking to end the course with finished portfolio pieces.

Original art by Howard pyle


It was a fun class. If you have seen Marshall teach or listen to the podcast (which I highly recommend artists to listen to), you will know Marshall is a great and engaging speaker; always in a good mood, funny and fun to watch. Yes, he will break out into song during class! The weeks went by fast, we all had an enjoyable time while learning a tonne.

We will reprise the Composition Bootcamp July 2021, starting the first week in July. It’s live only. The Observer Tier is inexpensive. And I’m pitching it with the confidence that a number of the students liked it enough to take it a second time! - Marshall

This is a course Marshall has spent years refining and adding to over the years. While I can only speak about this one class. I am sure all his classes are top notch. I have seen a few teachers say they love teaching, but I am afraid most of them say it because it is their job. Marshall really cares about his students. Classes would sometimes go overboard but he would stay, and students wouldn’t mind it one bit.

“I love these subjects. I’ve loved them all my life. I’m in my 60’s, and I have never loved art and music and stories and movies as much as in the past few years, increasingly during the lockdown. Teaching is a way to hang out with others who share the loves, from a fan’s point of view but more importantly in our classes – from the experience of those creating the work.” -Marshall


I highly recommend this class for participants or eavesdroppers. I don’t believe you’re losing much by not getting personal critiques. Like anything else, you get what you put into it. So be prepared to do a lot of homework, take a lot of notes, and have a good time while doing it.

Original art by Dean Cornwell
In a year or so, I hope to schedule more online classes, but also Jam Sessions, where we work for an hour on a drawing or creativity challenge, then post for the fun of it, not for critique. A way to bring enjoyment to the process. -Marshall

Visit Marshall Vandruff's website for more information on the Composition Bootcamp and other events.