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Knowledge of art & design

One aspect of art education we, as teachers often overlook is the appreciation of art for the joy of seeing. How often do you show your pupils art images without any additional learning agenda? How often do they get the chance to show YOU art that they like without it being part of a bigger project, or having to write about it or do a formal presentation? By integrating simple show-and-tell opportunities into your programme of study, you develop the understanding that you can just look at art and enjoy it. Imagine that!


I passionately believe that all students should leave Year 9 Junior High with a firm grounding in the history of art and design. Everyone should know the difference between Medieval and Renaissance art, between Romanticism and Impressionism, the development of abstraction and know how art has developed into the contemporary art we see today. This is a minimum requirement in my mind. Yet what happens is that most pupils finish art education at the age of fourteen with the bare minimum of experience and knowledge of art and artists. They might be able to name half a dozen artists and usually have no idea where they fit into an overall picture of art. Teaching the historical development of art can be quite dry and it is often very rigorous. That is why I spent a long time developing fun, interesting activities based on drama and role-play. These lesson activities address the delivery of visual literacy and (in the timeline of art) show pupils how art has developed and changed throughout history.

One of my pet hates is when art teachers deliver whole projects in the style of an artist they have chosen. So if I am a pupil in their class and I don't like this artist I'm stuck studying it for a half term or even a term. Often, the whole class emerges with the same or similar outcomes which is not only boring but incredibly unimaginative. Instead of working to the style of the artist, why not try to uncover the deeper meanings behind the way they worked and design a project around that? Instead of everyone doing a Kandinsky-style piece of art, why not create responses to music in different ways and look at a range of artists? Lastly, my other gripe is where pupils blandly copy an artist's work in their sketchbooks and write text about them copied from the internet, without really understanding the work or fully relating it to their own ideas. My Primary Factfinder sheet demands greater insight than that!

Studying art classroom resource

The 'Studying Art' Pdf contains literacy activities for teaching art history and the formal elements based on the Content - Process - Form - Mood model. 

More Info


Higher reading ability gives us the knowledge we need to synthesise new ideas and concepts, it feeds our imaginations, it enables us to decipher and understand artist knowledge, and it is integral to our ability to articulate both the decisions we make and our future intentions. I've written about literacy in art and design in depth here.

Reading ability is inextricably linked to performance in art, yet at age 15, around 1 in 2 children do not have a comparable reading age, 25% of all 15-year-olds have a reading age of 12 or below and 10% have a reading age of 9 and below at age 15. Pupils on Free School Meals have reading ages around 11% lower than that, and FSM boys are 13% lower again. 

Yet, research I did into the reading levels of GCSE Externally Set Assignments found them to have a reading age of 17-19 years, while the reading age of the GCSE English Literature paper had a reading age of 14 years. This shocking statistic means that many pupils simply cannot read the art exam paper, let alone do it! This is why many of you have to do those elaborate PowerPoint presentations to accompany the ESA!

If you want to increase performance in the subject, then you have two focus on reading and literacy almost as much as you do practical art skills. Research by GL assessment found that doing well in creative subjects had strong correlations to student’s reading ability. Ask yourself: What is the reading age of the teaching materials you give out? What are the reading ages of your pupils? How do you support reading of key text? Do you use phonics? Do you correct spelling and grammar? Get your literacy right and pupils will flourish.

Artist Investigations

I've created this Art Investigation worksheets to help your pupils investigate artists in the classroom independently and effectively. They should make your artist investigations high-quality and rich in content. Do this work in sketchbooks for maximum effect. Don't forget to help pupils with reading of complex words and help with spelling. I've shown here some images from KS2, including Word Banks. These should help you define suitable literacy for KS3 based on these. 

Download the art investigations here.

Timeline of Art

It’s important I think, for pupils to have a frame of reference for the artists you teach. I’ve seen this done beautifully in primary schools through timelines painted on the corridors or around the hall. Make this a pupil activity, get them to create their own timelines on long strips of paper, perhaps in groups. Scrolls are great for this too! You might link important events in all of your subjects on the same timeline. Spend a little time each year adding new events to the timeline and refer to it as you teach. 

In conjunction with learning timelines, children should be taught that (in my opinion) there are four broad periods of western art development. I’ve built on the work of art educator Neil Walton here, who outlined three periods of western art development. I think adding a fourth - Ancient Art makes sense, especially to primary colleagues. In this period, art was not viewed in the same manner we see it today. Many cultures such as the Egyptians, had no word for art. This art-less concept still prevails in many indigenous cultures today. Artifacts aren’t made solely for aesthetic reasons but are decorative functional objects. It is perhaps the Greeks, followed by the Romans that begin art as we know it today. What we have come to know as Western art, therefore, is deeply rooted in the aesthetic which affects our perceptions of non-Western art. We must identify the purpose and meaning of non-Western artifacts and not trivialise them. Native American, Islamic, Polynesian, Aboriginal, Asian and African art, all must be understood within the context of the society and culture that made them. To miss this deeper purpose out and to focus purely on the aesthetic is to teach it badly.  

art history knowledge in art image

Art Timeline

Teach the whole history of art in one lesson with a fun game.This is a great group activity


Free to Download

Building on Neil Walton’s work then; my four periods of art history are:

  • Ancient art - often made with little or no concept of ‘art’ as we know it. 

  • Traditional art - art that emphasised skills and techniques, and depicted subjects literally or for the purposes of narration or instruction. 

  • Modern art - beginning with Impressionism in the late 19th century. This covers a huge array of Isms in art - Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Fauvism, abstract expressionism, Pointillism, right up to Pop Art. All of these movements were more or less concerned with abstracting reality and depicting their subjects in new and unusual ways.

  • Contemporary art - beginning in the 1980s, and sometimes including earlier artists, contemporary art is a period that reflects current art practice and where the cognitive idea behind the piece can be just as important as the piece itself.


In addition to these western periods, you might look at East Asian art, Islamic art, and the art of indigenous cultures such as Aboriginal and art from the continent of Africa, India, Russia, or South America, etc. You also should investigate a diverse range of ethnic influences, black artists, and artists with disabilities. And if that wasn’t enough, you need to factor in local artists too, many of which can be sourced through your local galleries and museums. 




That sounds enormous, and it is, but remember you aren’t trying to teach them all. But if you have taught a timeline understanding of the development of art and you keep it fresh in pupils' minds, they can relate all the art they see to this big picture. If pupils have this big picture of art it contextualises each and every artist they study into a solid framework.

The AIMS of using artists’ work

Finding artists' work is one thing, knowing what to do with it once you’ve found it is another. Too many art teachers simply teach a topic by investigating the work of an artist and replicating their style. They will do a Van Gogh Sunflowers project, Monet’s water lilies, or Warhol Pop Art, without really thinking about the meaning behind this art and what it was that the artist was trying to convey. To make the study of artists’ work more meaningful, I have developed a model for using artists’ work - the AIMS of using artists’ work;


A – Approaches 

To learn how to employ the approaches artists have used, such as abstract, realist, sculptural, contemporary, etc. For example, you might study the beautiful cloud paintings of John Constable as part of a project on the weather. To extend the thinking behind this you could also look at other artists that have been fascinated by clouds, but used other mediums than painting. 

painting by John Constable
sculpture by Tony Craggs
sculpture of a cloud
dress based on clouds

John Constable

Hampstead Heath 1824

All I did here was to visit a couple of websites; Google arts and culture and Tate, then type clouds in the search bar. I then identified cloud-based art I liked in mediums other than painting. Instead of us all copying Constable clouds now, I've opened it up to exploring clouds in a deeper, richer way. Hopefully, you can see how altering the medium you use to portray the same subject matter can radically alter the outcomes. 


I – Inspiration and ideas for own work. 

All artists get inspiration for art by looking at other artists’ work. The trick is not to copy it directly, but pick out things you like about it then reinterpret them. 


M – Meaning 

To understand what artists were trying to say in their work, then reapply it. I like to read the artists’ original texts or descriptions of their art to find out what they were trying to say. Warhol was trying to make everyday mundane objects and images into high-art. He turned a tin of soup into art. What everyday, mundane food item would you turn into art if you could? Van Gogh wanted us to see the spiritual beauty in the flowers he painted. Which flower do you think is the most beautiful? Hokusai depicted 36 views of Mount Fuji. What feature of your local landscape would you depict? 


S – Skills & Techniques

Study how artists made their art so you can learn from them. Street artist Goldie looked to Monet’s cut-outs to get ideas about colour theory for his work. For his iconic 1967 painting ‘a Big Splash’, David Hockney studied Leonardo’s water sketches. Henry Moore studied Rodin intensely; Van Gogh studied Millet and Rembrandt. We can all learn from those that have gone before. 

GCSE examination - artist sources

Assessment Objective 1- Develop ideas through investigations, demonstrating critical understanding of sources

The first thing to note about the AQA 2016 version of the art exam specification is the emphasis on the phrase; 'critical understanding of sources'. Nowhere does it say; 'artist links' although the wider specification does state that a good education in art history is essential. The word sources is is important therefore and is explained further in the exam notes:

  • Students need to demonstrate critical understanding of sources, and one of the best ways of demonstrating critical understanding of sources is to show that they have informed ideas and investigations.

What the new specification indicates is that 'sources' are a very flexible term. Not only can a source be a piece of music, a poem, a song or a piece of film, it can be almost anything!

AQA Moderator's Report 2016:  Sources were, in the best instances, integrated within the themes and provided rich stimuli for investigation, exploration, research and analysis. Music, literature, performance, poetry, customs, beliefs, issues and popular culture were all cited as inspirational sources used by students in their Unit 1 submissions.


Now clearly, you're likely to get less marks for using Sponge Bob Square Pants as your source than if you used, say Rembrandt but this emphasis is important. It means that your students are not tied to being inspired by a dull painting from the past, they can use a news item, a political message or a belief to inform their art and this is very exciting!

What I find frustrating is when schools force students to produce pages and pages of 'artist research' that entail spending hours and hours of precious time copying artists work and copying text about their work in the margins. It is a complete waste of time and the moderators agree with me:

AQA Moderator's Report: (there were) fewer examples of downloaded biographies or random collections of printed images seen. Transcriptions of artists’ work were still in evidence, and this did not always show a sense of purpose behind the exercise. Connections with the work of others was frequently seen in lower attaining samples as a close imitation ‘in the style of’ of the selected sources. In higher attaining samples, students were seen to have made connections through their development of ideas and had used their selected sources as a rich stimulus and a springboard towards the creation of exciting, meaningful and personal responses.

So the skill of the art GCSE is not to mimic an artist style or to copy reams and reams of an artists work, but rather to use artists work AND OTHER SOURCES to inform and inspire their own ideas. You have to teach pupils (In Key Stage 3) how to use artist's work to help them solve a variety of problems:

1. When they have a specific problem, such as how to draw hands or faces for example or shade better.

2. How to improve their own technical ability (such as learning processes and techniques).

3. How to find the deeper meanings behind great work to understand it better.

4. To give them ideas and inspiration for their own work (but not copy).


Use my AIMS of artist sources presentation to help you.


Paul Carney Paul is a nationally recognised art & design consultant having delivered specialist art CPD in schools, colleges, galleries, and Universities across the UK and for the UK’s leading training providers. He is a former Council member for the NSEAD, which means he is involved in national art education policy issues.Paul is a published author of two books: Drawing for Science, Invention and Discovery and his latest book Drawing to learn anything. He is also a practicing professional artist and designer. Paul runs his highly successful art website: that provides high quality teaching resources and advice to teachers around the world. He has over twenty years teaching experience at Primary, Secondary and post-16 levels of education, is an Advanced Skills Teacher, ex-Subject Leader for Art and was a member of the DfE Expert Advisory Group for Art and Design. In addition to this he was a member of the NSEAD Curriculum Writing Group that wrote the 'Framework for Progression, Planning for Learning, Assessment, Recording and Reporting 2014.’ 

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