Before they’ve even started the course, some pre-college GCSE pupils begin to get nervous about the concept of a ten-hour-long exam but, in actual fact, the final piece assessment isn’t as daunting or scary as you might think.
If you are familiar with the Art & Design course, you will know that your final piece counts as 40% of your overall grade and that the other 60% is awarded for the effort you put into your portfolio during the two academic years leading up to the final exam. So it doesn’t all lie on those two days of full-on pressure!
The key, however, is not to produce an exceptional final piece and a separately superb sketchbook, it is to make them both absolutely brilliant and (most importantly) for them to link together.
As you will see below, the ideas, images, texts, and experiments that you display in your sketchbook should all be stepping stones towards your final art piece. It’s all about the journey, not just where you’re headed!
As such, in this article, we will look at how you can gain those top marks by making your portfolio and final piece tie together.
During your time as a GCSE Art student, you will be given a very good grounding and a general introduction to the subject of Art and will be given the opportunity to choose from a range of options.
Below, we have provided some detail on the subtopics available to you in the Art classroom.
During a 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.
A fine art option enables you to learn about classical and modern painters and develop your own drawing and painting style. Photo credit: rverc on Visualhunt / CC BY
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.
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.
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.
Learn more about your GCSE art syllabus in this complete guide!
Your portfolio, i.e. the work that you will spend your class time and homework time completing over the course of the two-year programme, should be a good representation of your academic journey in this subject.
This shouldn’t be hard, because your sketchbook will naturally evolve along with your ideas and interests. Some content will be classroom-led to get the cogs in your head turning, so it’s not all down to you from the start. What you can expect is for your teacher to introduce topics and ideas for you to explore in your own individual way, and then to see what ideas take off from there.
While presentation and aesthetics are obviously very important in this artistic subject, the content is equally as important. The examiner isn’t going to hold it against you if your drawing skills aren’t excellent but they will mark you down if you show little effort to record and annotate your thoughts. Your tutor will no doubt encourage you to illustrate your thought processes from the beginning of the course to get your sketchbook looking nice and full.
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If you are wondering how on earth to even begin your journey on the art syllabus, then don’t panic!
You will be given an overriding theme, subject, task or brief which you will be asked to focus your attention on and to engage with in a personal way.
It is this overarching theme that your teacher will help you to develop in class without actually telling you what to do. They might, however, help you along by pointing out which are your strongest areas and suggesting that you use certain styles and mediums in your exploration as these best showcase your artistic ability.
As a result of being given a subject by the examiners, you should ensure that the pages in your sketchbook (from start to finish) respond in some way to this theme, eventually communicating your intentions for your final piece. If you do go off on a tangent, this is ok but just ensure that you make your thought process and pattern clear to the examiner.
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Learn more about how you can ace the GCSE sketchbook component!
One example of a theme you might be faced with is ‘reflection’ and you will be asked to interpret it as you wish. Photo on Visual hunt
While you may be better at using one particular medium, don’t forget to show a wide range of mediums and materials in your art projects from term to term as well as attacking the subject from various analytical angles. Even though you may feel that you are perfecting your style, using one single medium throughout your GCSE course and ending the art project with a piece created using this same exact material could come across very cautious. Also, the variety of media you use can be used to enhance your different approaches to the subject, for instance, you might like to vary the use of colour, texture size and so on to show how you are feeling when examining a particular part of the brief.
The examiner wants to see you come out of your comfort zone and be bold and courageous whilst experimenting with new materials and mediums, learning something about yourself or others in the process.
That said, it isn’t wise to use a completely new medium during your final exam. If you have a particular medium or tool you wish to use, then make sure that you have shown in your portfolio that you’ve dabbled with this prior to entering the exam.
The assessment is not the time to be experimental!
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If you are in your first year of the course and are stuck for ideas with your GCSE Art final piece, then don’t worry too much. If, however, you are fast approaching the Summer term with no clue as to which direction your art course is going to take you, then now is the time to really firm up your ideas and plans.
Remember, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to let the subject run its course while you explore it, but there comes a time when you need to start to narrow down your ideas again and bring the brief back onto a particular line of enquiry. Imagine a diamond shape on its side… You start off with a single theme, you widen your search to cover a broad range of interconnected sub-themes and then you head to a specific, related yet developed point once again which will culminate in your final piece.
Whether you have already decided that you are going to specialise in Painting, Graphic Design, Photography, Textiles or Sculpture, selecting the topic to go along with this is where most students struggle. It is a decision that many find difficult because of a lack of inspiration, an inability to choose between two or more possible final outcomes or ideas for their brief, or a general misunderstanding about the type of topic that is appropriate.
The key is to brainstorm, evaluate and select an outstanding subject, topic or theme for your project. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for other people’s opinions where you feel you need the support, like your art teacher or family and friends.
Even if you had an image inside your head from the moment your art course theme was announced, don’t fail to explore other avenues too. You may come across an idea that is way better than you could have imagined, especially after a year or so of added experience and practice.
Start by writing down all subjects, themes, places, songs, things or issues that you feel are personally relevant (because any art course must have some personal meaning or connection to be successful) and that matter to you as an individual. Don’t feel embarrassed about being too ‘deep’, the idea of the art curriculum is for you to explore yourself and your feelings whilst also examining artists and art.
Remember, the purpose of the coursework and final piece put together is to communicate a message, no matter how big or small. It could be about something that has happened to you in your private life or it could be your way of screaming at the world about a global issue.
If there is no meaning or emotion behind the work, there is no driving force and nothing will be able to move this forward, only sideways with no destination to reach.
Be sure to include topics that are a bit ‘out there’ (unusual, challenging, controversial, or inspiring subject matters) as those are often the ones that spur the most passion.
Students who extract an emotive response from the examiner by selecting issues that they really believe in are much more likely to achieve better results than those who simply choose aesthetically pleasing but somewhat superficial subjects. So, try to make the markers and moderators sit up and take notice of your work!
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Think carefully about the topics that you have written down during the above activity and now start to filter through your options.
Eliminate those which are insignificant and lacking in substance, along with those that are out of reach (i.e. themes relying on others or on equipment you simply can’t access). Remove the topics for which the source material is too simple and won’t provide enough visual variety to explore for two academic years.
Get rid of those topics for which the source material lacks any aesthetic appeal. This doesn’t mean it needs to be obviously ‘pretty’, as often the beauty of art is finding the beauty in the ordinary or mundane.
Most importantly, however, dismiss any topics which are common or over-done, especially if someone in your class is already attacking one of them. Unless you have a unique angle, you may feel that you are comparing your work or playing catch up the whole time if you know someone else is working along the same lines. It’s really easy to get disheartened and feel you disappointed that you didn’t think of something first because you put so much emotion into the course.
Finally, as mentioned, ensure that the topic you choose is something that you really care about and that will keep you interested for a year or more. If you have more than one topic left on your list, pick the thing that you are most passionate about.
We have focused a lot on the nature of your theme, but when you come to develop an idea you should make sure that you bring in various visual elements to support those thought-provoking ideas.
Using a different combination of materials to create different effects and styles, like line, tone, colour, shape, form, texture and pattern will help to move your development phase forward and will help you to decide which medium you prefer and which works best with your chosen subject.
The development stage should be focused on exploring and experimenting and, remember, every idea and effort has its place even if it is less successful than another idea. You should never omit to put an exploration in your sketchbook because it didn’t work out – it may be that this idea illustrates perfectly why and how you moved on to the next idea.
Whilst developing your thoughts, it is not important to produce ‘finished’ studies or pieces so be aware that your experiments can be rough and ready.
If working with an idea inspired by a painting, you may wish to try exploring different types of paints, alternative surfaces, expressive brushstrokes and so on. If working from an idea that stemmed from photography, then you could play with monochrome versus full colour.
When it comes to 3D design, however, you might use 2D thumbnail drawings to sketch out ideas and then work on illustrating perspective, shapes and patterns before making 3D models. For your sketchbook, you can take photos of your models to insert and analyse.
Although your work shouldn’t look identical to a particular artist, you should most certainly explore artists that are relevant to your topic. For instance, a surrealist project that focuses on Alice in Wonderland should identify links with artists such as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso and talk about how their work makes you feel and what you take away from their style that you can put in your own artwork.
When it comes to evaluating your own artistic journey from start to finish ahead of your final exam, you should return to where it all started: the brainstorming phase.
Go back to the beginning of your course and ask yourself these questions:
Do I have a clever approach to this subject?
Is the subject matter I’ve developed relevant to the brief?
Does the work I am producing have an aesthetic quality?
Is the story of my sketchbook intended to simply be controversial or does it show I care?
Does my teacher support my choice of topic?
The chances are that there will be some gaps in your thought process. This is easily fixed in the weeks or months before your final exam by going back through your journey and inserting evidence or referring to experiments completed around this time.
Do not worry about your sketchbook becoming messy. Your teacher will no doubt tell you that more is best and that examiners like to see a sketchbook that barely closes because it is bursting at the seams with ideas! Even sticking pieces of fold-down paper in and changing the orientation of pages can add to the book’s charm and bring it to life.
You will have a number of months, to research the theme of your choice (or the theme set out by your course) and create a preparation journey in your sketchbook.
The final part of the examination project is a 10-hour exam where you will create your final piece, but what exactly are you allowed to do in that time under the exam settings?
You will be able to add to your sketchbook during the exam however you ideally want to be focused on your final piece and have already completed all the preparation you need ahead of the day of the exam.
You might be interested to know, however, that the following activities, according to the AQA exam board website, do not get counted as part of your exam time:
preparation of print materials, such as filing edges of perspex or metal print plates
stretching of screens, preparation of blocks and plates
mixing of photographic chemicals, washing and drying prints
arrangement of a still life. You can take the materials for a still-life group into the exam.
rest time for life models
the making of a bare model stage
fixing dye, dyeing yarn, washing and finishing of hand-woven fabrics or stretching of embroidery
casting and mounting of models and sculptures
drying of printing inks, oil paints, varnishes, glues or papier-mâché
drying and firing time for sculptural work
For ceramicists: the firing of the kiln is not counted in the time you’re given but preparing the clay and the shaping of the work is. Ceramic work should be fired and completed before you present it for assessment, and you’ll need plenty of time for drying-out and firing.
What you decide to work on during your exam should not be a decision you take lightly, and should be something that you have planned and put a lot of thought into.
In theory, you will have had an idea in your head from quite early on in the course and will have used your portfolio to identify a path towards this final piece of artwork.
Make sure that you are familiar with your chosen medium before you go into the exam. Photo credit: samstockton on VisualHunt
As you can probably expect, the 10 hours will fly by.
You can either set out an hourly schedule or guide or you can simply set out objectives for your first and second days. The exam more often than not takes place in your classroom so you can at least feel comfortable completing work within your usual learning environment.
In most cases, the exam is spread across two consecutive days to ensure uninterrupted creativity.
Your GCSE Art final piece must be a conclusion to your research and experimentation, directly related to all key aspects of your investigations.
It must be well informed by various sources (as well as by making references to artists or periods of art) and should tell a story of your thought process from initial idea to final conclusion. The final piece produced in the exam should answer a key question or communicate a response to an issue, rather than be there simply to look pretty.
In a way, 2018/2019 Art students are quite lucky because they have such a breadth of information at their fingertips. For instance, you can look at and seek help from numerous student websites, exam boards and forums with regards to your course, and a quick search on Google Images or Pinterest will result in a load of images and examples of others’ final art pieces.
However, as we have already mentioned, while it can be reassuring to see the work completed by others during their 10-hour assessment, it doesn’t always help you because your personal connection to the theme and your unique style will be so very different to everyone else’s.
In fact, you might find it quite daunting looking at other people’s artwork! I know I felt very self-conscious painting my A3 watercolour picture during my exam whilst one of my peers was working on a 6-foot sculpture right next to me! Once again, remember that everyone has a different response to a subject and a different way of expressing themselves.
If you are getting close to the exam period and you are starting to feel a bit on edge about your choices when it comes to your final piece, then run your ideas and concerns past your art instructor, your family and your friends to see if they can offer you some encouragement or constructive criticism.
Alternatively, you might like to speak to a private tutor who can help you to realise your best efforts.
A tutor will certainly not do work for you or put ideas into your head but, as creative beings and professional artists (in some cases), they can often help you to open your eyes that little bit wider and to step a little further out of your comfort zone.
After all this, you may want to review the benefits of learning art at GCSE level!