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.
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.
- 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
Senior Leader Teacher of Art & Photography @DevNicely
A good art history essay comprises a strong central thesis supported by judiciously selected evidence and critical argumentation. Your task is to critically evaluate the sources, to select the most plausible interpretations of the facts, and to present them in a logical, compelling and systematic manner so as to bolster your thesis.
Answer the Question
The first rule in writing an art history essay is to make sure that you answer the question set. This means that everything you write must be relevant to that end. Thinking hard about the question itself, about what it means, the issues it raises, and the various ways it might be answered, is far more important than most students realise.
Read Widely but Wisely
Having understood the parameters of the question, the next task is to find a way of tackling it that does more than simply regurgitate the answers you find in standard textbooks. While encyclopaedias and general textbooks are useful for gaining an initial overview of your topic, such reading does not count as citable research. The bulk of your reading should concentrate on specialised books and scholarly articles.
Art historians, like historians in general, must be sceptical. This means examining your sources critically and comparatively. As an art history student, you should weigh up the evidence used by a range of scholars and avoid over-reliance on particular texts or authors. An historical debate should first be understood before one stakes out a position within it, and this means drawing upon second, third and fourth opinions before arriving at a conclusion.
Use Evidence Critically
During your degree your examiners will be less interested in your conclusion than in how well you are able to support it. Always substantiate your claims with judicious use of relevant evidence. Sources should be examined critically rather than simply taken at face value. Vague, unsubstantiated and sweeping statements should always be avoided. As far as possible you should formulate an argument that does justice to all the information available, while also considering alternative points of view.
A good art history essay marshals plausible evidence in support of its arguments, but is never simply a narrative of events. Generally speaking, if you find yourself telling a story, the likelihood is that you have drifted from the point. Essay questions require clear answers supported by coherent arguments. This requires you to structure your material in the best logical order, an order that will rarely if ever coincide with the chronological sequence of historical events.
Get the Introduction Right
In essay writing as in life more generally, first impressions count. An introduction is often the most difficult part to write, but it is well worth spending time getting it right. A strong introduction should grab the reader’s attention, clarify how you will tackle the question, provide a clear outline of what is to follow, and set the tone for the rest of the essay.
Employ the Signpost Principle
Always employ the signpost principle: every step in the argument should be clearly marked out, and the reader should never be left wondering where the argument is going or why a particular point is being made. Use of rhetorical questions can be effective for this purpose: “What, then, is the nature of the evidence for the influence of the Italian masters on Dali’s work during the interwar period?” Generally speaking, the clearer your transitions the more readable your paper.
Too many student papers end abruptly without providing proper conclusions. A conclusion should not be a word-for-word restatement of the thesis but rather a succinct summary of the main points you have made in the body of the paper. You might then briefly gesture towards the wider implications of your argument. However, a conclusion is not the place to introduce new claims, evidence or arguments, which only betrays poor planning.
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