KEY CONCEPTS in Primary Art & Design


‘Concepts must be linked to the contents or facts that give them meaning’ 

Prof Michael Young 


key concepts in art

Some Key Concepts relate to the NSEAD progression targets: KNOWLEDGE - MAKING - IDEAS - EVALUATION

Key Concept 1: Formal Elements

The formal elements of art are Line - Shape - Tone - Colour - Pattern - Texture - Form - Composition

They are the building blocks of any work of art. When we analyse any work of art we analyse these elements to see how they combine to create the overall effect of the artwork. Formal elements can be both practical and theoretical, and it isn't necessary to be able do both in order to understand them.

Deeper understanding: The aim and objective of teaching formal elements is for children to understand them to the extent that they can apply them to their own work, or understand how an artist has used them to create effect or meaning. So it’s not enough to simply teach colour mixing or do a colour wheel, because you want pupils to understand what happens if they use a particular colour next to another, or the effect of using heavy, dark tone. What happens if I move this figure to the side, or use geometric lines instead of circles? This can take a lifetime to learn, so all you will be doing is starting pupils off on a long process, but at least make them aware of what they are trying to achieve.  More information on the formal elements can be found at arty factory

Key Concept 2: Sources

A source in art & design could be an artist, designer or craftsperson whose work influences or inspires the pupil. But a source can also be a newspaper headline, a current issue, a photograph or poem, book or text that inspires visual thinking. Pupils should be able to identify and use sources to inform & inspire their artwork. 

Deeper understanding: Pupils need to be taught how to extract what they need from a source, then adapt it to suit their own idea. Copying information is fine in moderation, as long as it supports the process, but plagiarism is banned! Think of sources as starting points, not end points! Where should they look to find quality sources? What is a good quality piece of information and how can you tell it apart from a one that is not so good? More information on art sources at Obelisk art history, Google Arts, Tate, Wikiart

Key Concept 3: Movements & Periods 

Art movements are significant groups or periods in art that have significantly influenced visual culture. Pupils should build their knowledge of the techniques, materials & processes that artists use, and the many ways they employ them. They learn about the history of art across the ages, making connections between Ancient, Traditional, Modern and Contemporary art forms. 

Deeper understanding: What is key here is to teach the meaning behind the movement or artist, not just the work they did. For example, Pop Art was a statement against the high prices being paid for elitist art. Pop artists were saying; art is all around you, why do you need to pay millions for it? So it’s ironic that Andy Warhol became so rich and famous. These deeper meanings aren’t always obvious. You have to search for them. Wikipedia is a good place to start, but for more information on art movements and periods go to Obelisk art history, Google Arts, Tate, Wikiart

Key Concept 4: Themes in Art

A theme in art is the central topic, subject matter or message within the artwork. Some themes are universal and timeless: beauty, death, landscape, portraiture, or mother and child. Some are spiritual, some mythical, others more abstract.

Deeper understanding: Themes do have some overlap with your topics, but again, try to look for the deeper meanings behind the art. This can then give you useful information to relate it back to the pupil’s own lives. Ancient Egyptian art changed considerably over time but was very spiritual, symmetry was also important as a metaphor for life cycles and there was a powerful belief in the afterlife. This came out in grave goods, but not just for the rich Pharos, Ashanti dolls were popular among the poor. How might this deeper meaning be taught and related back to your students? A list of themes in art can be found here.

Key Concept 5: Creativity, Ideas, Imagination & Intentions

An idea is a thought or conception that is the product of mental activity. Imagination is seeing the impossible, the unreal or dreamlike. Creativity is using ideas and imagination to create new and valuable forms. 

All of these disciplines require the teacher to provide opportunities for them to occur. They need space in the planning of art activities for the unknown to happen, for independent choices and decisions to be made, and above all for young minds to have the opportunity and understanding to shape potential thoughts into tangible outcomes. 

Deeper understanding: All of these disciplines require the teacher to provide opportunities for them to occur. They need space in the planning of art activities for the unknown to happen, for independent choices and decisions to be made, and above all for young minds to have the opportunity and understanding to shape potential thoughts into tangible outcomes. 

‘If you know the outcome of the art before you begin, then it isn’t very creative. Art should surprise you’. Paula Briggs Access Art. More information on idea generation at Bartel Art

Key Concept 6: Reflection

“Reflection is part of learning and thinking. We reflect in order to learn something, or we learn as a result of reflecting, and the term ‘reflective learning’ emphasises the intention to learn from current or prior experience” (Moon 2004)

Deeper understanding: How much time do you give your pupils to simply look back over their work and think about what they have done? Which work did they like best and why? What were they frustrated about? What would they like to do again? What do they need to practice? Reflection is a huge part of metacognition - our ability to know ourselves and our position in the learning process. Reflection should be a regular activity in class, perhaps once a half term or more for at least ten to fifteen minutes per session. More information on what reflection is and how to promote it in class by Raymond Yang at the art of education University

Key Concept 7: Cultural Capital

Cultural Learning Alliance website'Cultural Capital is a social justice issue: research shows that children with an arts deficit are disadvantaged educationally and economically while those who do participate in the arts are more resilient, healthier, do better in school, are more likely to vote, to go to university, to get a job and to keep it. Participation in the arts fuels social mobility.'

Deeper understanding: What do the children feel is their culture? Where do they get it from? How does culture grow and develop? Is culture a choice or entwined in our surroundings and the people we interact with? Are some people afraid, or resentful of other people’s culture and what should we do about that? Is culture political or religious, or both, or neither? Art can help us visually express our thoughts and feelings about an important issue that affects all of us. 

Key Concept 8: Inclusion & Diversity

Taken from the website ALLFIE The Alliance for Inclusive Education: Inclusive education – also called inclusion – is education that includes everyone, with non-disabled and Disabled people (including those with “special educational needs”) learning together in mainstream schools, colleges and universities. This means the system must adapt to include Disabled people – they should not have to adapt to the system.

Deeper understanding: Is our society biased toward able bodied people? How do we view people with alternative abilities, skills or characters? How do people with different abilities make art and is it different to able bodied people? 

Is our artistic, cultural heritage diverse enough? Has the past unfairly depicted artists of different genders, colours or ethnicities? Should we highlight people who were not given the acclaim they deserve, or are ‘great’ artists still great? Diversity is a huge issue in society and one that makes for great classroom discussions. Use it to help children make statements about the world as they want to see it. 

Key Concept 9: Design

Design is development of thoughts, concepts and ideas to create objects and artefacts to fulfil aesthetic, functional, economic, or socio-political considerations. and is expected to interact with a certain environment. For more information on design, visit the Design Museum

When teaching design we should consider: 

  • Design by Type: Product, Graphic, 3D, Fashion, Film, Animation, Interior, Digital, Game, other design forms.

  • The Design Cycle: planning, problem solving, making, evaluating, testing.

  • Design by Process: formal elements, proportion, space, balance, purpose, function etc.

  • Design by Purpose: Problem Solving, Audience, Vocational, Function, Pleasure, Act of Creating. 

Deeper understanding: Everything made by humans has been designed. But what is it? How do we learn to design? The formal elements of art are crucial to design, but also important is suitability for purpose - function, and how it looks -aesthetic. Balancing these two areas is important for designers. Also important is designing for market forces and need. For more information on design, visit the Design Museum

Key Concept 10: Observation: Observation is crucial in this respect, to develop the artists’ eye and become better at seeing things which are often unseen. 

Deeper understanding: We don’t all ‘see’ the same things because our vision is largely constructed in our brains, not our eyes. This means that how we perceive things can be influenced and learned. Artists spend long periods studying objects in intense detail, but also looking at things from different perspectives and angles. Artists look at the space around and in between objects, they look for textures, patterns, lines, colours and shapes and are interested in many aspects of how things appear. This in turn, forms and shapes the kind of art they make. Art therefore, is a product of what we sense and experience. Observation is the first step toward being an artist. More information on observation in art at Artsy

Key Concept 11Discipline To make art, artists work in various mediums to realise their intentions. The choice of medium moulds and shapes the kind of art we make. 

Deeper understanding: A fine artist will take a very different approach to the same subject as an illustrator would. A sculptor would respond differently to the same theme as a designer etc. and so, the discipline we are working in is important because it moulds and shapes the kind of art we make. At the primary phase however, it isn’t always useful to make such clear distinctions, but nevertheless, we can and should show how children might naturally gravitate toward one area and not the other. For example, some children are naturally good at drawing, but there are other types of artist, a photographer is an artist, a weaver, a potter, a digital artist, a carver or abstract painter, and not all of these disciplines need us to be able to draw realistically. By varying the discipline you can show children how they can be successful artists even if they have never considered themselves as such before. More information on mediums and disciplines in art at Obelisk or Google arts

Key Concept 12: Media, Skills, Processes & Techniques: When making art we learn through, and from the material we are working with as part of an active process. Whilst this does require tutelage, much of it is unspoken, tacit or intuitive. Learning through making is often a long process that can take a lifetime, and so requires the learner to be open to receiving guidance and constructive critical advice, overcome frustration, develop their understanding, be reflective and self-directed. 

Deeper understanding: Learning through making is often a long process that can take a lifetime, and so requires the learner to be open to receiving guidance and constructive critical advice, overcome frustration, develop their understanding, be reflective and self-directed. With limited time and expertise at their disposal, primary teachers might best cater for children’s artistic growth by seeking out self-directed learning options through online video resources, books and instructional sources. Art can be self-taught as much as it can be done by an expert, though the expert should always be the student’s first choice. What manifests itself regularly in art is the numerous ways skills and techniques can be attained. There is rarely a right way to do things, only more efficient or productive ones. More information on the skills & processes of making art at Marvin Bartel's website

Why should I bother teaching key concepts? 

The truth is you don’t have to. It is not mandatory to do so, but it is, I believe, best practice. We are teaching in a knowledge driven educational environment and, if you follow the research, then there is almost unanimous agreement that key concepts are important to teach students how the knowledge you are delivering comes together to form understanding. 


Knowledge pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another, and that is not true of list learning. 

Daniel T. Willingham 


Does this mean extra work?

Maybe a little, but not much. If you have a progression plan for art, as most schools do now, all you need to do is to study it and group the learning targets according to the key concepts I’m suggesting. You don’t have to cover them all, they aren’t compulsory, but it will help you and the students see where and how the knowledge you are teaching is linked to deeper understanding. 


How do key concepts work?

If you compare to key concepts in science, you may teach about nutrition. Over the course of a key stage you might study nutrition in different ways; the life cycle, plant nutrition, animal nutrition etc. If you constantly refer children back to the key concept of nutrition they can see how all of these different processes link together and see that, whilst very different from organism to organism, they all share common purposes.

Similarly in art, the same themes crop up time and time again; Michelangelo’s David is as much a commentary on beauty as contemporary artist Cindy Sherman’s grotesque selfies. By linking several ways in which the same theme has been tackled over time, we are teaching deeper understanding of art. 


Many of the key concepts I’ve identified relate to four knowledge domains of art - Making skills (procedural knowledge), Knowledge (of art, artists, techniques & processes), Ideas (conceptual) and Evaluating (metacognition). 

What are key concepts? 

Key concepts are groups or categories of concrete or abstract ideas and things to create a deeper, shared understanding.

In my introduction I used a metaphor that progression targets are like a Christmas tree and the art activities you do are the baubles and tinsel on that tree. Well, key concepts are the roots, they are what the tree is standing up in, they keep it upright and stable and anchor it to the ground. 



The illustration shows how the previous progression targets dovetail in with the Key Concepts model. You aren't inventing anything new, simply strengthening what you have already.

How do I use key concepts in my teaching?

Just try to relate your activity to the diagram I’ve created and see which of them best fit. You would still plan art activities in the same way as before. You would still need to link your same progression targets as you have been doing. None of that changes with key concepts.

The only purpose of key concepts to highlight to the pupils what the key concept is and why it is relevant to what they are doing. So if you are making a clay thumb pot, you could contextualise it to the historical development of thumb pot making or the wider field of clay and ceramics. You might even investigate how physically impaired people make thumb pots or how small pots are used in cultural rituals. If you are doing a drawing, you should link it to an artist the children can learn from, but maybe even what the style of drawing is they are doing, what other styles of drawing there are or what the purpose of the drawing is and how it might affect it. Hopefully you can see that what key concepts do is to move away from teaching superficial content and move towards deeper understanding. 

So, instead of just ticking a box that says; 'I have covered the observation key concept', you need to join them up and connect different concepts to each other for deeper learning.

MAKING SKILLS link well with ARTIST SOURCES, but by incorporating some IDEAS & IMAGINATION into it, it becomes richer learning. You might even add some INCLUSION, CULTURAL CAPITAL or REFLECTION to make it even deeper.

REFLECTION might be a starting point, not an end point. You might get children to reflect on how they feel about their prior attainment and think about how they need to improve. 

DESIGN links really well with INCLUSION - how can we redesign our world to make it more inclusive?

CULTURAL CAPITAL links really well with REFLECTION - can it also link to PROCESSES, making art to reflect how we feel about it?

IMAGINATION is always a great place to start. 'What if?' 'Dreams,' imaginary places, the fantastic, the strange or surreal. But you'll probably need to link their ideas to KNOWLEDGE through surrealism, psychedelic art or Op-Art, not to mention teaching SKILLS to raise attainment. In this way, our ideas become more concrete and realised.


By linking Key Concepts together you can create deep, rich content instead of box ticking!

This short animation shows how Key Concepts fit in to your wider planning.

Do key concepts relate to our topics?

Yes, very much so, especially artist themes, but the knowledge concepts do too. Take for example Ancient Greece, which is a common topic of study in primary schools. Ancient art is part of the key knowledge concept - sources. But instead of simply referring to Greek art, you could show a deeper understanding of how artists through time have been inspired by Greek art. 


For example  you might be used to showing the children Greek art and asking them to make art in a Greek style. This is ok, nothing wrong with it, but on its own it is a little superficial. However, if you want to enrich your students educational experience you could research how artists have been inspired by Greek art ever since. You only need to look on a few sites; Google Arts and Culture, the Tate and maybe Wikiart. Here is what I found:

I’ve still included Ancient Greek art - a Greek amphora and the Discobolus thrower statue, but now I’ve found other artists that were inspired by Greek art, Henry Gibb’s Aeneas fleeing Troy, Barbara Hepworth’s Corinthos, Cy Twombly’s abstract Bacchus, Chris Ofili’s runner, and Edward Allington’s Ideal Standard Forms based on Platonic solids. I have deliberately selected works from the Ancient world, Traditional art (Gibb’s), Modern art (Hepworth, Twombly) and Contemporary art (Allington, Ofili). 

IMG_2839 copy.png

 Using this method, children can see, not only the beauty of Ancient art, but also how it has continued to inspire artists to this day. Any topic you are studying will almost certainly have been covered by art in some way, because art is so ubiquitous. A source for art might be a photograph in a newspaper, a TV programme, a piece of music, an issue, a political event, a book or a famous person.

 Literature and poetry is usually illustrated so you might use an illustrator such as Quentin Blake. There is Victorian art, coal mining art, and art from any historical period, there is local art to tie in with the locality, art from every country, volcano art and even maths and science art too.



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