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. The best solution is to frame the art and design essay as a tool to learn about something in more depth.
Why the fear of writing essays
Just the thought of writing an essay will put a lot of students off. However, analysing work using this kind of academic format has lots of advantages that other kinds of analysis can’t offer. Moreover, Universities will really value a lengthy piece of writing in your portfolio. 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 of learning through writing.
Deciding on the focus of the essay
Its impossible to cover all and everything within an essay. Not having a focus, will make it vague and readers will quickly lose interest. A typical art and design essay explores one of the following:
- A particular piece of work
- A body of similar work by a practitioner (such as a period of their practice)
- The way a practitioner works
- A selection of work by different practitioners that can be related in some way
- Contrasting work that explores similar topics
- A practical exploration and reflection on what can be learnt from the techniques of practitioner.
Breaking up the essay into logical pieces
Most students focus on the length of the work and are daunted by the scale, such as 1,000+ words for a personal study. 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.
To help the reader, it is useful to break up the essay into sections. The basic sections would include:
- Introduction to what the essay will cover and why
- Introduction of the work and practitioners that will be explored
- Discussion of the work (the bulk of the essay)
- Conclusion and findings
How to start the investigation process
Here is a guide that might be used for the start of the investigation process:
- Look at the work that is relevant and make notes about what seems interesting
- Consider the materials, techniques or processes
- Consider why the work may be important to others
- Start to research what others write about the work and the practitioner
- See if there are any similarities between your interpretation and what others are saying
- Collect interesting quotes and references that relate to the essay topic
Including critical and contextual analysis
Critical and contextual analysis are different things, but its actually really hard to separate them. When learning about creative work, its generally expected to have a balanced discussion of both the critical and contextual analysis of the work.
Critical analysis – analysis of the work itself, how it is made and the form it takes.
Contextual analysis – consideration of the relationship between the work and society and history, i.e. how the work was influenced and the influence it has had.
Contextual influences to consider
Understanding the context of work is a huge task in itself as there are a wide range of influences that impact on the creative of art and design work. Breaking these down and considering just a few may be easier than trying to cover them all. Generally, it will be reasonably clear what types of influence will be most useful to discuss in an essay, by looking at what the work communicates.
Some contextual factors to consider that may have impacted on the work:
- Other practitioners
- Wider and popular culture (such as fashion and music)
- Historical events
- Geographical location
Example of the structure of a detailed study on a single art/designer:
- 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
Writing the introduction
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?
Key parts of an introduction:
- Explain what is going to be explored briefly
- Explain why the essay is useful and what you expect to get out of it
- Outline how this is going to be explored, i.e. by comparing several artworks.
Tips for the introduction:
- Expect to rewrite the introduction several times
- If the content of the essay changes, then rewrite the introduction to make sure it covers everything
- Read through the content and conclusion and compare it with the introduction
- Ask someone else to read the introduction and explain what it will be about – this will help identify if the introduction stands on its own.
Writing the discussion
There isn’t a single way of writing the discussion, but here are some ideas to help build up the discussion.
Introduce the work and the practitioner – help the audience understand the work that is being investigated before delving deep into the discussion. The reader needs to have some background knowledge of the work: what it looks like, how its made, when it was made.
Try a comparative essay approach – This is one of the easiest kinds of essays to write. Essentially, take two or more practitioners that are similar in some way and compare their work. Its important to be quite critical about each, but do need to remember to have a balanced argument. Otherwise it can seem like one practitioner is preferred over the other in an unbalanced way. Its important to keep personal opinions to the end. A simple way of structuring the comparison is to keep it quite logical. There could almost be a paragraph covering each artist one after the other.
Include a range of opinions – personal opinions are important, but to make the discussion really valuable, its critical to look at what others are saying. Consider whether there is a consensus between what people are saying about the work or practitioner. Do they all interpret the work in similar ways and explain how the work is important? Or do they have conflicting ideas about the work?
Stay on point – its not uncommon to write much more than actually goes into the final essay. Expect to edit it significantly in order to keep all of it relevant and avoid sidetracking.
Build up paragraphs – try keeping each point to be made as a single paragraph of section. These can be ordered and organised later to make a cohesive narrative or story for the reader.
Writing the conclusion
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 opinions and ideas. It should serve a purpose for students personally, giving them new insight or helping them to answer questions about creativity and society. These are the answers that should be in the conclusion.
Tips for the conclusion:
- Summarise the discussion overall and then have some concluding points
- Say why its important to think about the work in a particular way
- Avoid introducing points not covered in the discussion at the end
Being creative and going beyond words on a page
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.