A Level Art Essay Outline

Tips on Writing a Personal Study for
A-Level Art and Design

Image Credit: Ricardo Viana

If your child is studying for A-Levels in any Art and Design related subjects, chances are they will have to present a personal study.

So, whether they are doing painting and drawing, photography, sculpture, 3D, textiles or design technology, here are some tips for them on how to get the maximum marks.

I am writing this article from personal experience; I've written two personal studies, one for A-Level Art and Design: Photography and one for A-Level Art and Design: Painting and Drawing.

What Topic Should I Do My Study On?

The personal study should, first and foremost, be about a topic that interests you. You will do a much better job, and will be much happier reading and looking at artworks on a particular subject if it is something you are interested in.

Think about artists or art movements whose work you feel strongly about. Passion makes the writing much easier.

Secondly you should pose yourself a question that you will answer in the course of the study. It is much easier to write a study when it has a specified purpose.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Compare and contrast the work of two painters. Choose two that have some similarities, maybe in subject matter or the time they lived in. Discuss the similarities and then the differences. You can focus on just one area of their work if they were prolific. E.g. Braque and Picasso, Hirst and Emin, Magritte and Dali.
  2. Discuss what has influenced an artist's work. The influence of African art on Picasso and the Cubists has been done rather a lot, so how about van Gogh and Japanese art, the influence of the pre-Raphaelites on surrealism, the influence of primitive art on sculptors such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
  3. How has one artist's work influenced many? Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams have influenced hundreds of other photographers.
  4. Of course you can think of any question to set yourself. Was Turner the first impressionist? Was Andy Warhol prophetic in his obsession with celebrity culture?

Making Your Personal Study Personal

Next the study should be PERSONAL. This means it should be about your response to the works of art. How does it make you feel? What story does it tell you? What do you conclude from looking at the picture, sculpture, or photograph?

Your study should be about your opinions and feelings. You can refer to other people's interpretations of a piece but you should always state this and never pass these opinions off as you own. Always write it in quotations and give the author's name.

A personal study is not just a biography of the artist. You will get few marks for simply re-writing a book on an artist's life. Biographical details should be brief and could be included as an appendix if you have too many words! Also, this is an art project, so make your study visual with lots of examples of artists works, diagrams and your visual responses to the works.

Image Credit: My Life Through A Lens

What Should My Personal Study Include?

You should of course always refer to the syllabus for your particular exam board, but here are a few suggestions of things to include in your study.

  1. Introduction. State the purpose of the study that is, the question that you are going to answer or the theme which you are going to explore.
  2. Make an analysis of at least two pictures by each artist in your study. Describe the picture, how it makes you feel, what it tells you. Is it relaxing or energetic, narrative or impressionistic?
  3. Visit galleries to view original works and write about your visit. How does it feel to view an original work compared with seeing a reproduction? Were the colours different? Was it bigger or smaller than you imagined? Exciting or disappointing?
  4. Conclusion. What is the answer to your question. What have you found out? Was it what you expected or were you surprised by it?
  5. Add a bibliography and list any other resources that you used, such as museums and galleries that you have visited or websites that you have used.

Remember that there is no 'right' answer to your study; you simply have to show that you have thought about the artist's work.

Recommended Books

These are two books that I found invaluable during my A-Level Art course.

The Story of Art - E.H. Gombrich
A bestselling history of art book and quite rightly so. From prehistory to the present day, this book is so well written that you can read it for pleasure.

This book is an investment, because if you decide to continue studying art you will still be referring to it all the time.

Approaching Art and Design: A Guide for Students - Rod Taylor and Dorothy Taylor.

Sadly out of print but you may be able to find it secondhand or in your local library.

This is a book which gives an approach to studying A-Level art and shows you the standard required to succeed. It emphasises the importance of basic drawing skills, then shows how to develop drawings into a final piece of work. It does mainly focus on drawing and painting skills but is also relevant to 3D and Textiles.

Finally, best of luck with your A-Level art!

Updated 10th March 2018

About eParenting: eParenting was started by Jacqui O'Brien in 2004. At the time her kids were 1 and 4 and kept her nice and busy. Now they are teenagers and still keeping her pretty busy!

Ah, the A2 Personal study. For all our good intentions – get it done before Christmas; embed it throughout the year; condition students during the AS year (or earlier even) – it usually ends like this: Post-exam time and – despite the light at the top of the tunnel – I’m asking students to dig a bit deeper.

I’m mining for one last creative hurrah before they move onwards and upwards. Hopefully this post might help…

Emma’s Personal Study was presented as a concluding essay to her printed coursework book

What is the Personal Study?
For the official line – and if you like untangling word puzzles – see Page 29+ of the current specification. Teachers introduce this in different ways though, with some placing more emphasis on accompanying practical work than others. Personally, I’m all for art students developing their writing and research skills, so the following notes focus on this – the ‘continuous prose’, to coin a term from the forthcoming changes. For current students, let’s just call it an essay and crack on.
Your essay should:

  • Be a minimum of 1000 words (short and punchy is better than drawn out and draining).
  • Focus on a specific artist / photographer or art movement.
  • Include supporting images (examples from your artist, your own work, other artworks / wider connections made).
  • Be related to your coursework (Unit 3).
  • Be personal, informative and inspiring.
  • Be a labour of love (and a pleasure for others to pick up and look at. And read, obviously).

Your writing should reflect your creative nature: Provide subtle insights into your thinking, provoke interest; tempt curiosity. Use quotes and challenging questions to engage the reader.
Here are some practical suggestions:

Give it a punchy title
A decent title will set out your focus in a concise, ambitious and punchy way. A two-part title or question might help. For example:

  • Liar! Jeff Wall, photography and truth
  • Modernism, Abstraction and the work of Barbara Hepworth
  • Painting portraits: Jonathan Yeo and Me
  • The Human Figure: Sizing up Euan Uglow

Pretentious? Don’t worry about it. Devise a relevant title that inspires you to then fill it’s boots. Exhibition titles are devised with similar intentions. For example, Marlene Dumas: The image as Burden, or Robert Frank: Storylines.

Tonie, who completed her A2 in Year 11, thoughtfully sets her stall out

Write an introduction that leaves the reader wanting more…
Your introduction should explain your interest in the subject and the personal connection that you have to this. Use it to narrow down your focus and make it more specific. For example: “I am choosing to focus on… (Artist / art movement) because…it astounds me how…/ I find it fascinating that…/ I’m curious to know why…/I hope to show / share / highlight / discover…”. Aim to draw the reader in with each step.

Other aspects to consider:

  • What is the relationship that you want to establish with the reader?
    For example, do you have a deep understanding of this subject that you will share? – Is your tone that of an expert sharing insights? Or, alternatively, is the reader on a journey of discovery with you? – Are you using an investigative question at the start that you then set out to answer?
  • Introducing key aims or investigative questions
    For example: “I’m particularly interested in how moving to the coast influenced the work of Barbara Hepworth; living by the sea has had a big impact on my own creative development…” Doing this will also help when it comes to writing a conclusion, planting markers to revisit.

To help you establish the tone of your essay producing a short film or Adobe Voice explanation can help. Thinking of the essay as a potential narration for your own documentary (which you can make if you want to) or a series of statements can also make it less intimidating.

The meat in the sandwich
In this main section you might wish to:

  • Focus on specific artworks  – analyse and unpick these in depth, in relation to your own work and experiences.
  • Reference wider contexts – this might include other works (by your chosen artist, yourself, or relevant others), or other significant moments, events, or  connections – for example, of personal, historical or cultural significance (see below)
  • Include explanatory illustrations – for example, overlaying artworks with explanatory graphics / text to support your insights.
  • Consider where to place most emphasis – for example focusing on TECHNICAL, VISUAL, CONCEPTUAL or CONTEXTUAL analysis. (You might cover all of these but, for example, if your focus for the year has been developing observational and technical skills with painting, conceptual insights might be less relevant).

An example of a student making her own connections between artists, and across time and place

But how do I analyse artwork?
Year 13 asking that? Really? Ah, you’re winding me up. Nice one.

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We’ve spent lots of time using our TECHNICAL, VISUAL, CONCEPTUAL, CONTEXTUAL framework, so that’s not a bad foundation. Below are some ‘levels’ of analysis which might help further:

Level 1 has its place, but only as a foundation. You’ll need to dig deeper…

Still, to demonstrate yourself as an art student who can “express complex ideas with authority“, there’s a need to get beyond the TECHNICAL and VISUAL to address CONTEXT and CONCEPT.

download PDF here

Writing your thoughts
When writing personal opinions there is a danger that these can be too simplistic. Consider the progression in the points below:

  • Your initial reaction– informed by instinct, taste, likes and dislikes, interest in / relevance of subject matter.
    This can offer valuable insights when justified E.g. “I like this because…”. However, just providing an opinion without explanation is a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot.
  • A basic / superficial understanding of wider contexts. This might demonstrate growing understanding but can be even more dangerous: “I’m interested in Cubism because I like how Picasso’s artworks are made up of cube-like shapes”; “I like Pop Art because it uses bright colours and film stars”. Not good; quiet despair.
  • Based on a deeper understanding / complex grasp of wider contexts – demonstrating a confident stance and justified, well-informed opinions: “I’m interested in Cubism, particularly how the depiction of multiple viewpoints – stimulated by Cezanne’s explorations of form – revolutionised…”; “I’m interested in how Pop Art emerged as a response to Abstract Expressionism, it strikes me as a mischievous movement that counter-balanced…”
  • From an alternative perspective – Perhaps more of an expectation at degree level, but are you able to place yourself in sombody else’s shoes? For example, can you argue or justify an alternative viewpoint e.g. from a feminist, modern, or post-modern perspective? “Whilst appreciating Rothko’s intent to provoke with his Seagram Restaurant commission, I can imagine a dining capitalist might have been entirely less sensitive to the sense of claustrophobia he envisaged…” 

Concluding your essay
This is an opportunity to:

  • Summarise your study and show the benefits of doing it.
  • Revisit your introduction – specifically the aims or investigative questions set out at the start. (You do not need to have definitive answers though; reflective, new, unanswered questions can have value too).
  • Summarise key findings that have come from your research and analysis.
  • Offer reflective, personal opinions on your research, and how this has shaped your own practical work.
  • Share thoughts on potential opportunities for future exploration – themes / artists / experiments you might explore if given more time.
  • Include a short reflection on the process of the study itself – the research and thinking skills that you have developed.

No need to cover all of these in your limited word count. Identify the insights that resonate most; don’t let your hard work whimper out in these final stages.

Including a bibliography

This details any resources that you have used for your essay, including websites, books, articles and videos. Try to list these as you go along rather than having to back-track. Set it out like this:

  • Author – put the last name first.
  • Title – this should be underlined and in quotation marks.
  • Publisher - in a book this is usually located on one of the first few pages.
  • Date – the date/year the book/article was published.

For example: Cotton, Charlotte, ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Can I put a bow on it? How best to present your essay
Your personal study can be creatively elaborated on, and some schools go to town on this. Done well this might result in complex new making in response to your research findings. But there is a danger that practical responses at this point can seem ‘bolted on’, plain rushed and superficial. Before we get to any bells and whistles it’s best to complete a straightforward formal essay.
Suggested format:

  • word-processed and double-spaced.
  • All imagery should be clearly referenced within text (e.g. Fig. 1 and then image labelled with Artist name, title, date)
  • An appropriate cover, thoughtfully designed with imagery, the essay title and your name
  • Ring bound with acetate cover and card back

Once this is done, if time allows, it is over to you. Why not produce a short summary film, like Becky’s below?

Helpful? Have I missed a trick? Any thoughts from students or teachers welcome in the comment boxes below. 

About The Author

chris francis

Senior Leader Teacher of Art & Photography @DevNicely

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