As Level Art Essay Idea

This is the first in a series of articles aimed at helping A Level Art students with their Personal Study (a project which is required as part of CIE A2 Art & Design). This article outlines twelve guidelines for selecting a good topic. The recommendations are based on my own experience with the teaching of this component, discussions with examiners during CIE training days and the feedback given within Examiner Reports.


1. The topic must relate to Art or Design

This sounds obvious and something that should not need saying, but, absurdly, it does. For some, inexplicable reason, students continue to submit projects that are completely unrelated to Art or Design. This is a quote from a recent CIE Examiner Report:

There were numerous inappropriate submissions which were not concerned with any aspect of Art and Design. These included such topics as ‘Giving up smoking’, ‘The biology of the senses’, ‘Growing tea on a plantation’, as well as aspects of tourism, green issues and political themes. 


2. The topic should be something that you are genuinely interested in

The ultimate purpose of your Personal Study is to teach you something: to help you develop as an artist and to strengthen your understanding of art-related issues. The most successful Personal Studies communicate ‘a strong sense of involvement through personal enthusiasm and a commitment to sustain the investigation’.

Simply speaking, when you are passionate about a topic, you are more likely to do well.


3. The focus of your Personal Study should be process and materials (the way an artist or group of artists use/s media) or subject or theme (the way an artist approaches a topic, usually with reference to composition and technique)

In other words, your Personal Study should involve the analysis of specific pieces of art; it should NOT be the life story of an artist or the documentation of a broad period of Art history (unless this somehow includes sufficient focus upon specific artworks).


4. A topic should provide you sufficient material to write about, while not being so vast that your project becomes all-encompassing, disjointed or surface-deep

In order to produce a high quality Personal Study, you need to have a clear, well-articulated focus. This gives you something to organise your project around and encourages you to write with coherence and structure (a lack direction is a common weakness in low achieving Personal Studies). Completing an entire project around the analysis of one or two artwork, for example, is limiting, while attempting to analyse Abstract Art in all of its entirety (without any connection to a specific artist) sets up an enormous, daunting task which cannot be given justice in the time given.


5. The study should be about someone else’s art (not your own)

This is an area where CIE Art & Design students are often confused. There is an incorrect belief that students are expected to submit a body of original creative work as part of the Personal Study, similar to that produced for the Coursework project (some students even go so far as submitting only original practical work or additional Coursework pieces for this component – often with no annotation or explanation – which does not satisfy the requirements of the Personal Study at all). While the Personal Study certainly can – and in the majority of cases should – include beautiful practical work completed by the student, the Personal Study is about analysing, studying and learning from other artists: it is NOT about producing original artwork on your own topic (more information about the images used in a Personal Study will be given in a subsequent article). This quote from CIE helps to clarify this:

The main aim of the Personal Study is to encourage candidates to focus on selected examples of existing works of art or design from established contemporary or historical practitioners, seen at first hand, by making critical judgements and personal evaluations.

Note that this article has been written for CIE A2 Art Personal Studies: Personal Studies required for other examination boards differ in some respects.


6. A link to your Coursework can be advantageous

Although it is not necessary for CIE Art & Design students to select a Personal Study topic which relates to their A2 Coursework project, the examiners comment that ‘good practice might suggest that a link between the two is advisable’. This is because a selecting a related topic allows you to acquire knowledge, skills and understanding that may help you to complete your Coursework to a higher standard. (Remember that if you refer to your Coursework project within your Personal Study you should include photos to help explain what you are saying. Each component is assessed individually and examiners do not have access to your Coursework project while they are assessing your Personal Study).


7. Choose a topic that allows you to view artwork first-hand

This is not a guideline: it is imperative. In my experience, the best CIE A2 Art Personal Studies are produced when students not only view artwork in the flesh (in a gallery or museum exhibition, for example), but are able to meet and interview the artist or designer and see their methods of working. This gives opportunity for the work to be understood in great detail (seeing true colours, textural surface qualities and the real scale of the piece) and encourages truly personal responses. It also means that students can take beautiful photographs of the artist or designer working in their studio and see all of the processes and various stages of completion. Examiners frequently report that lower grade Personal Studies ignore this requirement and depend more heavily on secondary sources: lifeless reproductions from books and the internet.


8. Contrasting and comparing the work of artists can be helpful

Studying the work of a mainstream or critically acclaimed artist alongside a local artist can be beneficial, especially if the local artist is less established. This gives you the best of both worlds (the enthusiasm and first-hand contact from a local artist, plus the insight that comes from studying historical, contemporary and/or international artists who work in another cultural context). You may, for example, choose to focus upon two artists who paint the same subject in a different way, or to discuss the influence of a famous artist upon a local painter. It should be noted that the examiners understand that many students will not be able to see all of the artworks they study in the flesh, so supporting first-hand study with those viewed in reproduction is absolutely acceptable.


9. Select a topic that is supported by quality reference material

While the Personal Study is centred around your own personal responses, drawing on the opinions of educated critics can provide insight and a depth of understanding: grounding, validating and/or challenging your own views. Before finalising upon a Personal Study topic for A2 Art, check to see if there are existing articles, books or online reviews about the artists in question. This also helps to verify that the artist you have selected has some standing in the art community and is thus likely to be an appropriate and valuable person to study. It should be noted, of course, that in many cases, the more well-known an artist is, the less time they have to accommodate visits from eager high school students; sometimes relatively unknown artists can be very skilled and have much to teach a high school Art student.


10. Word your title so that it captures the essence of your Personal Study and indicates a well-chosen focus

For example: ‘The Portraiture of [artist name]: An Appreciation of Light and Colour’ is more appropriate than ‘Portraiture in Art’. ‘The use of Symbolism in Traditional and Contemporary Weaving’ (an example given in the CIE 9704 Art & Design syllabus) is more appropriate than ‘The Art of Weaving’. ‘Landscapes of the Idurah Valley’ (another example given in the syllabus) is more appropriate than ‘Landscape Paintings’. ‘An Investigation into Gender Roles in Contemporary Art’ is better than ‘Contemporary Art’. In the former examples, the title helps to clarify the focus of the study; the latter suggest an enormously broad study that would be difficult to complete well. Similarly, it is also beneficial to avoid overly simplistic titles that convey little information, such as ‘[artist name] Personal Study’ or ‘Fish’. Ideally, the examiner a clear idea about what your study is about (and be impressed) from the first moment they encounter your project.


11. Select your Personal Study topic near the start of the A2 Art Course

The Personal Study is a large and comprehensive project. It is impossible to complete in its entirety (and achieve a good grade) at the last minute. It can be good practise to start thinking about your topic selection at the conclusion of the AS Course. High achieving students often use the winter or summer break, seeking out artists who are available for interview locally. This leaves them in a strong position to start the A2 year (it can be wise to touch base with teachers prior to making contact with an artist, however, to avoid wasting anyone’s time). Regardless of whether the vacation period is utilised, it is essential that the Personal Study receives regular attention (ideally within scheduled class time as well as in homework sessions) so that students can plan, research and complete the project in a systematic, organised way.


12. Submit an Outline Proposal Form to CIE before you begin

While this is not a requirement, all students should be encouraged to do this. Any concern about the suitability of a topic can be overcome by making use of the Outline Proposal Forms (OPF). This is a free way of gaining invaluable feedback from the official CIE Senior Moderator before you begin. Blank forms are available on the password protected Teachers’ Support Site and can be submitted electronically to CIE for approval. It is important to note that the brief feedback given should be read with great care and always adhered to. This form should then be retained and submitted along with the finished Personal Study.


An example of the CIE Examiner Reports quoted in this article can be found on the publicly accessible Art & Design section of the CIE website. Further reports are available from the password protected Teachers’ Support Site.

The next article in this series discusses how to write a Personal Study. A subsequent post will focus on the images. You may also be interested in reading our overview of the CIE A2 Art Personal Study.

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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