Art Personal Investigation Essay Topics

Posted on by Tohn

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

A2 Art students are required to produce a detailed Personal Study (previously known as the Related Study for CIE students). The Personal Study is a critical and visual appraisal or theoretical study of any aspect of the visual arts. It is usually an analysis of art or design that focuses on one or both of the following:

  • Process and materials (the way an artist or group of artists use/s media);
  • Subject or theme (the way an artist approaches a similar topic, generally with reference to composition, technique and the visual elements – line, texture, space, colour etc).

It may or may not relate to your AS or A2 Coursework, although a link between the two can be helpful. (This is a new requirement – it used to be that the Personal Study had to relate to Coursework).

Whatever topic is chosen, students must have first-hand access to at least some of the art or design work analysed in their study. It is also beneficial to have access to sketches, planning, incomplete and finished works, so that students are able to understand and illustrate the art-making process. Please read how to select a great A2 Art Personal Study topic for more guidance with this.

 

Students are required to submit:

  • 1 x Personal Study (max 3,500 words, maximum size A1).  It may be presented in any appropriate written and/or practical format, including an illustrated formal essay; a structured sequence of annotated art or design work; a presentation of slides; VHS video footage; digital or multimedia presentation (these must be backed up by hardcopy). The Personal Study must include an:
    • Introduction
    • Conclusion
    • Bibliography

Prior to beginning the Personal Study, students should submit a Outline Proposal Form, which details: intentions (the focus of the Study); sources for first-hand study; sources of other information; bibliography; and your teacher’s comments.

 

A2 Personal Study assessment

The A2 Personal Study is worth 40% of your A2 Art course and 20% of your final A Level Art grade. It is externally assessed (i.e. marked by CIE examiners). Most countries send the Personal Study to Cambridge University to be moderated; other counties, like New Zealand, are lucky enough to have the examiners travel to them.

The Personal Study is given a single mark out of 100, using the following criteria:

 

Personal Study presentation ideas

CIE gives the following recommendations:

If a balance of visual and written analysis is presented it should not exceed 3500 words. Alternatively, a carefully structured sequence of annotated drawings, paintings, photographs, prints or three-dimensional objects may be presented in any appropriate format. A carefully-ordered slide, tape or video presentation or any combination of written or recorded analysis with any possibility of graphic presentation is also permissible. An introduction, a conclusion and a bibliography are expected to be included in each type of presentation.

In other words, virtually any format is acceptable. Formats that have not been specifically mentioned above include a mounted display or an onscreen presentation, such as a PowerPoint, blog page or vlog (as long as examiners travel to your school for assessment and there are facilities for setting up computers in the moderation and assessment area when the examiners arrive). If you are contemplating a digitally displayed presentation, it is best to seek advice from the examiners prior to beginning your study.

The best personal studies are those that are visually appealing; show artistic and literary skill; communicate a message clearly; and visually complement the artist/s or designer/s studied.

The Personal Study is a substantial project, which cannot be completed at the last minute. Every aspect of the study should be carefully researched and organised. Students must plan and consider the content, order and structure of their study, as well as the presentation methods, including, for example, how they will integrate text and image, as well as selection of font style and colour (the examiners must be able to read the text clearly – if there is any doubt about this, send a typed copy of the text with your submission), text alignment, page format, paper colour and weight, column widths and so on. Illustrations should be exceptionally high quality, relevant to the topic and selected carefully. It is advisable that many of these are hand-crafted or photographed by the student themselves, rather than the majority being second hand images sourced from the internet. Tactile, textured paintings are likely to be better displayed in the flesh, whereas photographic or graphic work may suit a digitally created presentation. Those who are able to create beautiful video footage of an artist working might consider making a DVD.  It is worth noting here that while the presentation should be exciting, beautiful and visually interesting, a wildly unusual presentation style is not always necessary – a beautifully composed ‘book’ presentation is more than capable of achieving 100%.

Image (above right) sourced from Tom Wood.

 

A Level Art Personal Study examples

Below are some examples of some ordinarily presented (yet beautiful) sketchbook layouts, as well as some more creative Personal Studies. I am actively looking to illustrate a wider range here. If you have or know anyone who would be willing to share their work on this website then please read our Featured Art Project submission guidelines.

An A2 Painting / Fine Art Personal Study by Jennifer Neeve from William de Ferrers School:

 

An A2 Painting / Fine Art Personal Study by Nikau Hindin of ACG Parnell College:

 

 

A CIE A Level Art Personal Study by Tirion Jenkins from YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College: 

 

An A Level Art Personal Study by Elizabeth Nicholson from William de Ferrers School:

 

A Personal Study by Scott Robinson from William de Ferrers School:

 

A Personal Study by Yantra Scott from William de Ferrers School:

 

Digital presentation (below right) by Martyn Littlewood:

Note: This article relates to the A2 Personal Study, Component 4, CIE 9704 A Level Art and Design – the International version of A Levels, assessed by the University of Cambridge. Information is sourced from the CIE A Level Art and Design syllabus. It is hoped that the examples of student work will also be of value to students studying A Level Art under other examination boards.

 

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