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Understanding and applying Art knowledge

Pupils develop their ability in art by building their knowledge & skills whilst simultaneously applying them creatively. This page looks at the knowledge element of progression in art and design. Other aspects are discussed in other pages in the menu. 

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Knowledge in art and design should address awareness and use of artists' work, but also teach the use of language when speaking or writing about art. It should also cover terminology regarding processes, materials, and techniques. I'm not able to cover every aspect of this on this webpage, but I'll try to cover the basics!

Artist knowledge cannot be taught in chronological order as you do in History, so it is good practice to mix it up so that pupils are shown different artist perspectives on the same topic. Knowledge should cover a range of artists over time, but there is no requirement to teach ALL of the history of art because that would be silly.

I usually use only a few websites to do artist research: Google Arts & Culture  Tate. Google arts is simply the most stunning, breathtaking website out there. You can find all manner of arts, culture, and history on there, even play superb art-based games. Its flaw is that contemporary art is under-represented, due to copyright issues, so Tate fills that gap very nicely. I do use other sites for contemporary sources when necessary. There are many other brilliant sites though; Obelisk, the Design Museum, the Design Council, the Crafts Council, the V&A, the British Museum, the British Library and lots of brilliant local galleries too. 

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Artist Investigations

I've created these Art Investigation worksheets to help your pupils investigate artists in the classroom independently and effectively. There are separate sheets for KS1, LKS2 and UKS2 that are sequential and build progression. Print the exercises out and use them in your lessons to scaffold the study of artists' work. 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. 

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

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. 

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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. 

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50 artists Primary K-6 pupils should know

Famous Western Artists Primary K-6 pupils should know. By this I mean that they should have seen images by these artists and remember key details about when and where they lived. These artists could support work done in other subject areas.

All dates are approximate. It is not suggested that Primary K-6 students should know every artist on this list, but rather that they should know and understand the main movements and how art has changed. There is a great activity I have written that does this called my art timeline game which is available to download free. There are also too many brilliant artists not mentioned here that I have omitted to keep things simple. By the time we get to Contemporary art you can pretty much choose what you like!


Prehistoric Art 

Cave art, engravings and carvings dating from 50,000BCE to around 10,000BCE

Ancient Art - approx 8,000 BCE to 5th Century AD

Ancient civilisations: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese, Celtic



Medieval Gothic - 6th Century AD to 15th Century

1. Hieronymus Bosch, 2. St. Catherine of Bologna (f), 3. Illuminated Manuscripts

Renaissance - 15th Century AD to 17th Century

4. Bruegel, 5. Leonardo Da Vinci, 6. Michelangelo, 7. Raphael, 8. Durer, 9. Lucia Anguissola (f)

IRealism - 17th Century to 19th Century

10. Rembrandt, 11. Caravaggio, 12. Gentileschi (f), 13. Vermeer, 14. Turner, 15. Goya,

16. John Constable, 17. Louise Moillon (f)



Impressionism (and post Impressionism) - 19th Century to 20th Century

18. Renoir, 19. Monet, 20. Degas, 21. Van Gogh, 22. Seurat, 23. Mary Cassat (f), 24. Hokusai

Abstract  - 20th Century

25. Picasso, 26. Henri Matisse, 27. Jackson Pollock, 28. Mark Rothko, 29. Gustav Klimt,

30. Piet Mondrian, 31. Kandinsky, 32. Klee, 33. Henry Moore, 34. Barbara Hepworth (f) 35. Hilma af Klint (f)

Surrealism - 20th Century

36. Salvador Dali, 37. Rene Magritte,

Not tied to a movement: 38. Georgia O'Keeffe (f) 39. Frida Kahlo (f) 40. Paula Rego (f)

Pop Art - 20th Century

 41. Andy Warhol, 42. Roy Lichtenstein, 43. Peter Blake, 44. Bridget Riley (f)



Contemporary - 20th to 21st Century

45. Damien Hirst, 46. Faith Ringgold (f), 47. Jeff Koons, 48. Banksy, 49. Yayoi Kusama (f), 50. Grayson Perry

The Language of Art & Design

Learning the language of art and design begins as soon as children learn to read and write in EYFS. Children should be exposed to and encouraged to react to, art regularly. You can easily show works of art, craft, and design on a regular basis then hold a discussion and debate about it. Use sentence stems to prompt key questions around four key areas; Content: describe what is in the work of art, Process: How the work was made, Formal Elements: line, tone, colour, shape, pattern, texture, Mood: how does the work make you feel.

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The studying art PDF contains formal element word banks and sentence stems for you to use and adapt in your classroom. Download it free

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There are many other interesting ways to engage with works of art. Here are a few I've used in classrooms myself:

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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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