More than half of your final grade in Art & Design will be determined according to your portfolio, which is why your sketchbook artwork and research has to be just right. No pressure there! The remaining points will be offered in conjunction with your performance during the ten-hour exam... nobody said that Art was going to be an easy option, did they?!

But before we go into what should be in your GCSE sketchbook (in terms of scale of work, written work vs artwork, presentation style, etc...), let's recap what your pre-college GCSE Art course will look like (based primarily on the AQA GCSE Art & Design syllabus, one of the most common in the country).

A Guide To Your AQA Art GCSE Options

As we have mentioned above, there are various subject areas that you can choose to focus your attention on. Below, we have provided some detail on the course content covered by each subtopic to give you a better idea of whether it fits in with your professional interests and life aspirations.

Fine art

During your fine art module, you can expect to do drawing, painting, sculpting, printmaking, photography, installation and other lens or light-based media and mixed media art. As an aspiring artist who wants to see their work in galleries, then this is the perfect choice for you.

Graphic communication

This area focuses on communication graphics, design for print, advertising and branding, illustration, package design, typography, interactive design, (including web, app, and game), multi-media, motion graphics, and signage and exhibition graphics. This choice is therefore very well-suited to those wishing to fulfil a career in advertising.

Textile design

This subtopic is all about textile art like fashion design and illustration, costume design, constructed textiles, printed and dyed textiles, surface pattern, stitched and/or embellished textiles, soft furnishings and/or textiles for interiors, digital textiles and installed textiles. Therefore, anyone who sees themselves in the textiles industry would benefit from having studied this module.

Textiles involves the use of textile fabrics.
Textile art is just one of the options you can choose from in the Art & Design syllabus. Photo on Visual Hunt

Three-dimensional design

This particular section offers those wishing to express themselves artistically with the opportunity to do with varying mediums and within different settings. For example, this module is made up of architectural design, sculpture, ceramics, product design, jewellery and body adornment, interior design, environmental/landscape/garden design, exhibition design, three-dimensional digital design and designs for theatre, and film and television.


Finally, budding photographers will no doubt be drawn to this area of study because it allows them to develop their skills and experiment with portraiture, location photography, studio photography, experimental imagery, installation, documentary photography, photo-journalism, moving image: film, video and animation, and fashion photography.

Are you still wondering about the benefits of studying art at GCSE level?

How Will You Be Assessed?

When it comes to assessment, this Art & Design course is structured as so:

There are two compulsory components. Students must complete both components.

Component 1: Portfolio

A portfolio that in total shows explicit coverage of the four assessment objectives. It must include a sustained project evidencing the journey from initial engagement to the realisation of intentions and a selection of further work undertaken during the student’s course of study.

See further details below on how this component is assessed:

No time limit
96 marks
60% of GCSE
Non-exam assessment (NEA) set and marked by the school/college and moderated by AQA during a visit. Moderation will normally take place in June.

Component 2: Externally-set assignment

Students respond to their chosen starting point from an externally set assignment paper relating to their subject title, evidencing coverage of all four assessment objectives.

See further details below on how this component is assessed:

Preparatory period followed by 10 hours of supervised time
96 marks
40% of GCSE
Non-exam assessment (NEA) set by AQA; marked by the school/college and moderated by AQA during a visit. Moderation will normally take place in June.

Search for online art courses on Superprof now.

As you can gather, the majority of your final grade will be given in conjunction with your sketchbook or portfolio (i.e. the work that you complete throughout the two-year period) whilst 40% will be based on how you perform in your final assessment and the final piece of artwork that you produce as a result of those 10 hours of supervised work.

Learn more about how to ace your final piece!

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Perfecting Your GCSE Art Sketchbook

What Is Your GCSE Art Portfolio And What Should It Look Like?

Your sketchbook is intended to be a creative document that displays a range of visual and written work and which documents a journey towards, and your intentions for, your final piece (which you will spend ten hours working on at the end of the two-year course).

Think of your sketchbook as your Art diary or notebook; a place to think.

Any ideas that enter your mind should be put down as they all add to your artistic journey. It doesn't all have to be finalised ideas that make an appearance, you can use the space provided to brainstorm, experiment, analyse and refine your ideas. It should, in theory, be deep and personal and provide a backstory to your entire project, leading the examiner to the end product, or the culmination of your journey.

Most sketchbooks are A4 or A3 in size and are pre-bound for ease. An A3 book is obviously better because it allows you to fit more on a page whereas A4 ones are often preferred because they fit into a backpack or schoolbag much easier.

There are no rules as to how you use the space on the pages (you can use them in portrait or landscape mode ) and you'll find that the pages are made using quality paper so that you can use a multitude of mediums on them (including wet and dry).

Don't forget, however, that if you need to use a specific material to make markings on then you can always glue these materials onto the page. Don't worry about your sketchbook not closing properly - some might say that the bigger the inside of the sketchbook then the more diverse its contents are!

Also pick up on other tips, tricks and hacks from these top resources...

Most sketchbooks are A4 or A3 in size.
Your sketchbook will be made up of quality paper on which you can use wet and dry mediums. Photo credit: vavoir on VisualHunt

Finally, one disadvantage of using materials like wet paints (for example, watercolours) in a sketchbook is that the other pages are likely to get wet and bumpy too. You can avoid this by either using a separate sheet and sticking it in, or by placing cardboard in between the page in use and the rest of the book and waiting until the piece of art is dry before attempting to close the book.

Learn more interesting facts about the GCSE art syllabus...

How Should I Display My GCSE Art Projects?

Your portfolio should be a good representation of your academic journey in this subject, so the content is as important as the presentation.

For instance, you should ensure that it responds in some way to a theme, subject, task or brief set out by your course and that it provides evidence of how you have engaged with this subject matter and how you came to your final piece. Your intentions, therefore, should be made completely visible so the examiner can recognise them.

To prove that you have engaged with the subject matter during your course, you should evidence a clear personal connection to the topic in question, and explain the personal context surrounding the work, as this may not always be obvious to an outsider.

Secondary materials are vital to show that you have learned and been influenced by others but you must also fill the sketchbook with your own visual material which yet again supports the theme of the project in some way. Don't just put drawings in there for the sake of it - everything should link back to the journey you have embarked on during the art curriculum.

You may be better at using one particular medium, but don't forget to show a wide range of mediums and materials in your art projects.

This may include, textured paper, drawings, papier mache, news cuttings, plastic sheets, old wallpaper, glossy photographic paper and other collages surfaces, for example.

Look up for art classes Edinburgh now.

When it comes to drawing mediums, you might like to experiment with charcoal, colouring pencils, chalks, acrylic paints, dyes, spray paint, wax and other pastes and glazes.

One very important thing to remember is that this component is marked as a whole, so every single visual representation should be to the highest of standards.

There is no use having a few amazing pages in your portfolio followed by an incomplete and bare-looking page, as this will only bring your markdown. The examiner wants to see that you have put in the effort and that you have really engaged with the task at hand rather than just sticking things down unnecessarily to cover blank white spaces or writing things down that have little or no meaning to you or your project.

Find art classes London now.

Don't stick with what you know, experiment with different mediums, materials and styles.
Be sure to use a range of colour and mediums in your sketchbook. Photo credit: roberthuffstutter on VisualHunt

GCSE Art Projects Presentation Tips

As we've mentioned above, the key to a good sketchbook is to keep it consistent.

White, empty spaces will just be an eyesore next to those other jam-packed and colourful sheets. That said, more doesn't always mean better.

Sometimes, keeping it simple and not over-working it can have more impact and come across more confident than if you were to go crazy and include elaborate decorations on each and every page.

Try using a consistent style in your presentation, i.e. keeping writing to a similar size throughout, and attempting where possible to let the pages flow from one to the next. Do feel free to mix things up a bit though and to vary page layouts to make the observational journey more interesting and appealing. If you have started in portrait orientation, then it would be wise to continue that so that the journey is broken up and made complicated to follow.

Finally, try to order your work in a way that it shows a true development of ideas.

What options do you have with your AQA art GCSE?

Working backward or leaving blank spaces to fill in later isn't recommended as your story won't come across genuine, neither should you attempt to bulk up your portfolio with poor or rushed work right at the end of the course. If you have engaged with your subject matter and put in the effort along the way, then you should have everything you need by the time you come to your final exam and are ready to submit your art projects to the examiner.

Use these resources for primary school art!

How To Annotate Your GCSE Artwork

You have discovered what your GCSE sketchbook should look like, now here are a few last tips on how best to annotate your work.

Show your personal response
Write clearly
Demonstrate subject-specific knowledge
Analyse work critically
Communicate your intentions
Avoid stating the obvious
Reference any image, text or idea that is not your own

Sketchbook Ideas

Now that you have an idea of what is expected of you and how your sketchbook will be appraised, let's take a look at some ideas to refine your artistic expression; to present your talent and ability as an artist in the best possible light.

Art is such an all-encompassing concept, especially when one considers the possibility of overlapping media.

It is quite possible for the burgeoning artist to become overwhelmed at the prospect of choosing a theme, selecting a medium or two, and then progressing from an ephemeral idea to a fully formed work of art.

We now take a look at some of the more popular theme selections to give you some ideas on how to enrich your subject; to make your renderings unique.

The Human Form

Let's suppose you would choose this most popular subject. How can you populate your sketchbook in such a way to make it outstanding; far superior to other GCSE art candidates' works?

You might, for instance, start with pencil sketches of some of the more difficult aspects of drawing life forms: a hand, for example.

If you have opted for an A3 sketchbook, you may draw a progressive series of hands: infants' hands unconsciously fisted, a toddler's hands grubby from outdoor play; adults' hands engaged in various tasks and elderly hands, symbolic of a lifetime of work.

The eyes have it!

Human eyes are a fascinating study of themselves: different colours and shapes, conveying different expressions under brows that could be trimmed, shaped, light or heavy.

How about this idea?

Divide your page into bands approximately five centimetres wide. Within each band, draw as many pairs of eyes as you can: green and blue and brown and hazel; close-set or wide, almond-shaped or round... even the eyes of somebody afflicted with Waardenburg Syndrome!

Besides colouring the eyes - which gives you a chance to adopt another medium be it pastels, chalk, coloured pencils or watercolour, you may consider adding makeup to select pairs: eyeshadows and liners, even mascara.

Don’t forget to include a pair of eyes cut out from a magazine advert, just to show you are comfortable using diverse media!

As your proficiency at pencil drawings grows, you may highlight the human form in action: a basketball player leaping for a dunk shot, a twirling ballerina; a fisher reeling in a big catch or a chef, busy in the kitchen.

These representations may be rendered alternately in pencil and colours – again, the choice of medium is all yours.

As you progress through your sketchbook, your work should culminate in representations of a fully formed humans.

The latter pages of your sketchbook might be filled with photographs or paintings, portraits and posed subjects, and should display your mastery in representing the human form through a variety of media.

Can you correctly render your family pet's soulful look?
Animals can have such soulful expressions; a real challenge for an artist to capture! Source: Pixabay Credit: ivanovgood

Making Animals Your Theme

Furry, funny, wet and wild; sassy and sly and sluggish and slow: no matter what the creature, these life forms engender in most of us a sense of wonder, awe, and a desire to protect and preserve them. Thus, they make a great theme for your GCSE sketchbook!

You may start with your family pet: a tabby or trusting pooch; one who was your constant companion in your younger years.

What aspect of this animal do you find most endearing?

You may start your sketchbook with an assortment of drawings and/or photos of your family pet in a variety of actions and poses: eating, sleeping, chasing a toy; walking sedately or sitting up to beg - or demand, should your family pet be feline.

You could then sketch, draw or paint different breeds of dogs: Maltese and Yorkie - with cute hair bows, of course! Chihuahuas and terriers and Pinschers and Pekinese; Shi Tzu and Shar pei, Dobermans and Dalmatians.

On another page, you might display a single breed in all of its sizes; maybe a poodle? Such a breed would indeed be challenging to draw or paint because of its unique, curly coat!

Start with a toy poodle and work your way through the sizes: miniature and medium, all the way to a standard poodle. Your work may show them in repose or active, their coats of many different colours and barbered into many styles.

Other categories of expression for dogs may include working dogs such as sheepdogs, service animals, security dogs; short- and long-haired animals; dogs from different regions, shown against a backdrop of their native origins.

How about sketching a husky team running the Iditarod? 

The Endless Possibilities of Landscapes

Claude Monet is undoubtedly one of the most renown impressionist painters, yet he painted the same scene, Grainstacks at Giverny, no fewer than 25 times.

He also painted the Houses of Parliament 19 times, all from the same perspective but in different weather conditions and at different times of the day.

In a sense, you might say that Andy Warhol replicated Monet’s idea through his repetition of Marylin Monroe likenesses all done in different colour schemes, and his Campbell’s Soup Cans series consisting of 32 canvases.

The only change from one to other is the type of soup the tin might contain.

Obviously, neither Ms Monroe’s likeness nor tins of soup are in the same thematic field as landscaping but all of these examples set a precedent for the idea of replicating a scene with each rendition presenting minor changes in tone and hue.

As you have a fairly large sketchbook to fill, you may consider borrowing that idea.

Take a look outside your window: what do you see? Something remarkable? Something mundane?

Either way, it is a view that is uniquely yours, both from the perspective only you can have on it and for the way you interpret it.

You might start your sketchbook drawing your street scene through a four-year-old’s eyes: bold colours and uncertain lines, without much definition at all, rendered in coloured pencils or wax crayons.

Remember how, as a child, you drew houses? A façade somewhat resembling a face: the door being a mouth and the windows representing eyes, all under a pitched roof?

You could lend such characteristics to your current project.

Start with infantile expressions of feeling safe at home and then looking out; marking the passage of years and your growing awareness of the world outside your window in the detail you provide with a maturing of your artistic talent.

Naturally, you would graduate to more exacting technique and demanding media; by the end of your sketchbook, you would have presented a complex street scene at any given time of day (don’t forget nighttime, when the streets are empty!).

What if you don’t live in a big city? What if the view outside your window is nothing but countryside?

In that case, you may invoke your inner Monet, devising impressionistic versions of the same scene, differently lit and through a variety of media.

This explosion of colour would surely be a challenge to render!
How would you render this explosion of colour? Source: Pixabay Credit: Valiunic

Sketchbook Cover Ideas

Now that you have some ideas on how to fill all those blank pages within your sketchbook, what will you put on the cover?

Ideally, your sketchbook cover should give a snapshot of the artistic journey you have undertaken.

Just like a person’s first impression of you determines their opinions and attitude towards you, how you preface your artistic journey will influence evaluators’ opinions of your work.

In other words, your sketchbook cover should give some clue of your artistic talent and developing abilities but not tell the whole story.

You might, for example, place your name in the middle of the page and sketch objects related to your theme all around your name, using different media.

If the human form is your theme, you might try doing a self-portrait in pencil or charcoal and then surrounding your likeness with various other faces and/or posed figures.

If your chosen medium is paint – oils or gouache, a Pointillist cover would certainly attract attention!

Not only would Pointillism demonstrate your command of colour and control over your brush but it would lend weight to your sketchbook cover that could be interpreted as a certain gravitas.

What if your chosen field is graphic art?

Such a sketchbook should be attention-grabbing, perhaps a collage of hand-drawn and computer-generated imagery in bold colours with distinctive lines.

You may also include quotes from one or more established artists of the same genre you aspire to make your mark in:

  • I dream my painting and I paint my dream – Van Gogh

  • I don’t paint dreams or nightmares; I paint my own reality – Kahlo

  • Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it – Dali

  • There are no lines in nature; only areas of colour, one against another – Manet

  • There are two ways for a painter: the broad and easy one or the narrow and hard one – Cassatt

  • Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world - Renoir

  • Art is not what you see but what you make others see - Degas

Edgar Degas’ assertion is most on-point when it comes to your GCSE sketchbook.

Your work should be an assertion of what you can make others see: in you, in your artistic flair and, mayhap, in the world around them.

These suggestions should help you do that.

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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.