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
This month's Photojournalism Links collection highlights 10 excellent photo essays from across the world spanning five continents, including Pete Muller's powerful work shot in the Ebola-ridden Sierra Leone. His two sets of photographs, featured below, were made on assignment for National Geographic, and are the first two in a four-part series examining the epidemic in West Africa. Muller's pictures document the battle fought by medical workers, body collectors, and burial teams to bring the crisis ravaging Freetown and the country, under control. The story and images from the city's King Tom cemetery are particularly harrowing; in just a few months, it has been expanded to three times its former size and the large number of fresh burial mounds make it look more like a construction site than a typical graveyard.
Pete Muller: How Ebola Found Fertile Ground in Sierra Leone's Chaotic Capital | How the Fight Against Ebola Tested a Culture’s Traditions (National Geographic News)
Uriel Sinai: In Africa, Mosquito Nets Are Putting Fish at Risk (The New York Times) These stunning photographs by Uriel Sinai from Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia, show how mosquito nets meant for Malaria protection have ended up being widely used in fishing, since they are cheaper than actual fishing nets and can be even more effective, especially in shallow waters.
Andy Spyra: The enemy within: Boko Haram’s reign of terror across Northern Nigeria | The enemy within: A closer look at survivors of Boko Haram attacks across Northern Nigeria (The Washington Post In Sight) The German photographer has spent more than three years documenting the northern Nigeria. His pictures provide a rare view into communities under Boko Haram's terror.
Mosa'ab Elshamy: Exploring the Mawlids of Egypt (TIME LightBox) These excellent photographs capture spiritual celebrations within Egyptian Sufism.
Manu Brabo: In Ukraine, The Frozen Tears of Donetsk (Paris Match L'Instant) The Spanish photographer, known for his work in Syria, is now in Ukraine to document the upsurge in fighting. | See also Brabo's work on the MSNBC and Al Jazeera America websites
Lynn Johnson: Healing Soldiers (The National Geographic) Compelling portraits of U.S. soldiers treating their war traumas by participating in art therapy, where they create painted masks to express how they feel. The images painted on them symbolize themes such as death, physical pain, and patriotism.
George Steinmetz: Treading Water (The National Geographic) These pictures from Florida's southeastern coastline capture a region with a lot to lose as sea levels continue to rise.
Álvaro Laiz: Ninjas: Gold Rush In Mongolia (Wired Raw File) These photographs document the hard and dangerous work of amateur gold miners.
Mark Abramson: An Immigrant’s Dream for a Better Life (The New York Times Lens)Extraordinary, in-depth photo essay that follows the life of a young Mexican immigrant woman and her family in California.
Emanuele Satolli: In the Bag for North (TIME LightBox) Revealing still life images of Central American migrants' sparse belonging on their journey toward the United States.