Without looking deeper into the art and design world, much work can appear confusing and pointless. Yet, the more students know about the artist and designer and the more they discuss the work, the more it begins to make sense. Learning about artists and designers can be fascinating for any level of student, but when it comes to writing a structured essay most art and design students experience considerable apprehension. This resource was made with the guidance of Bernadette Manning, lecturer in art and design

Why the fear of writing essays:

Once students have produced an art and design essay they usually appreciate the effort they have made to really understand an artist and designer or a particular piece of work, but there are a few issues to consider before starting.

There are many reasons why art and design students may prefer not to write essays. Some compare the practice of writing with practical production and find that written work looks physically smaller and less significant. Others might not be able to see the impact and relevance to their practical work.

Most students focus on the length of the work and are daunted by the scale, such as 1,000+ words for a personal study in an art and design GCE. At the outset they find it difficult to break up the essay into manageable pieces and confront each as a bite size component. Being able to do this is a particular kind of study skill, which a lot of students haven’t had the chance to develop.


Breaking up the task into components:

Essays in art and design education can have different expectations, so the first thing you need to do is identify the components the essay is expected to cover. A typical essay for a GCE Art & Design Special Study is frequently set in order to provide students with an in depth view into an artist or designer’s work. Below is an outline of components that would support in depth analysis and articulation of viewpoints for an art and design essay on a single artist or designer:

  • Introduction
  • Details of the artist’s life and career
  • A Picture of the work and other relevant pictures
  • Reason for choosing the work
  • Social/Cultural influences on the work
  • Political influences on the work
  • How a specific development in art may have affected the work
  • Artistic influences on the work
  • Quotations about the work by other writers and your opinions of them
  • Visual analysis of the work
  • Personal interpretation of the work
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography


Variation in art and design essays:

It is important to realise that not all of the above elements will always have an impact on an art and design essay. It clearly depends on the artist or subject area.

For example, some artists and art movements are clearly impacted greatly by world politics. As such, you need to look at political influences on the work. Yet other artists are more affected by the economy and will need more exploration in relation to social and economic impacts on the work.

The outline provided, of components for essay writing, is flexible, which means that you need to have an overview of the components and be able to decide which elements should be included. If you go through the different sections above and reflect on how important they are, you will quickly be able to identify which ones you will need to include.

You could do this in mind-map form or just making a simple list. Try researching each of the sections in the library and online. Some will give much more information than others. This will help you determine the weight to give to each section.



Some essay topics will be set as a hypothesis, which is essentially a question format. The beauty of this kind of essay structure is there will be no right or wrong answer. The hypothesis will also enable you to steer the essay more clearly and be more selective about the kinds of research you do.

Remember to keep going back to the original question. Ask yourself: “am I sticking with the point.” As it is easy to get engrossed in information, especially if you are really passionate about the artist’s work and want to know more about it.

Having a hypothesis within an essay can actually really help you progress, so you may consider putting a hypothesis whenever you write about an artist’s work.



This is one of the easiest kinds of written pieces to undertake. Essentially, take two artists and compare their work. You can be quite critical about each, but do need to remember to have a balanced argument. Keep your own personal opinions to the end and justify them in the conclusion.

A simple way of structuring the comparison is to keep it quite logical. You could almost have a paragraph covering each artist one after the other.



This is the first thing people will read, it sets up the scene and helps determine if the reader is clear or not as to the content of the rest of the essay. Getting it right can be tricky, many students find it really useful to write a draft introduction and then go back to it at the end of the essay and re-write it. You may have changed your opinions or found something really new that you want to include in the introduction.

A good introduction sets out exactly what you are going to cover. It does this by explaining the aim or purpose of the essay. There is no harm in including a sentence like: “The aim of this essay is to…” Moreover, because there will be different methods of interpreting any kind of art, it is really useful to indicate the kinds of methods you will use. Will you be looking at the cultural impact on the work or comparing the art to another artist?



While the conclusion is your opportunity to put in your own opinions, it is really easy to forget about the essay and jump to something completely new. The essay as a whole should be aimed at finding out something, discovering and clarifying your thoughts. It should serve a purpose for you personally, giving you a new insight or helping you to answer questions about the art you have investigated. It is these very answers that you should be including in the conclusion.



Don’t think you have to make a formal black and white document. Adding personality to your writing makes it even more interesting. It is not uncommon for art and design students to write their essays in Word to get all of the spelling correct and then have a printed copy and a creative copy. The images above represent essays that have tried to break the mould, but still have critical content.

Daniel Freaker Daniel Freaker Educational Consultant, Editor for Pearson Portfolio. danfreaker@pearsonportfolio.co.uk