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Cups of Tea, Dry Wit and Taylor Swift

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

How a GCSE Art Student Bounced Back from Illness and Demotivation

A Jolt of Change

Lauren* came to me for help with GCSE Art. She had been off school due to a serious and ongoing medical condition. These circumstances created a jolt of change in her life leaving her stranded outside of her usual routine and social circle.

*student name changed for privacy

Going Through the Motions

The result was a lack of motivation, engagement; a feeling of jumping through hoops without any real purpose. In order to build her creative drive back up, Lauren needed one to one support rather than the hustle and bustle of the classroom environment.

Easing Back In

At the beginning of our time working together, Lauren had just returned to school. She came for tuition weekly or fortnightly, and began to make significant improvements to some existing A2 project development sheets, and created some new ones. My session record shows that we:

  • Reviewed A2 sheets and made notes on which ones needed work.

  • Discussed content of sheets and the feedback received from teachers and peers.

Moving Forward

Laid out together, the development sheets started forming a cohesive project with potential to increase her final grade. Lauren had a highly organised approach, bringing a clear ‘to do’ list to the sessions, and usually had ideas about what she would like to work on. She was refreshingly honest and critical of her own work, all of which helped enormously with moving the project forward.

A Curious Contradiction

Lauren had a somewhat detached, pragmatic approach to her artwork, which tended to avoid direct, personal expression. Her main choice of subject matter (herself doing ballet) was highly personal. This presented a curious contradiction, something we discussed at length in our lively conversations during the sessions.

The Nuts and Bolts of It

In reviewing Lauren's sessions for this case study, I went back over the session notes. Here are some examples of the things on our task list:

  • Experimented with drawing media, to try out looser, more expressive styles of mark making.

  • Worked from ballet photos and looked at poses from anatomy drawing books.

  • Completed more monochrome studies with charcoal, pastels and pencils to try out different drawing techniques.

  • Discussed how to create the illusion of form in two dimensions.

  • Began a detailed, small scale pencil drawing from a favourite ballet pose.

She did a terrific job. Samples from the work she produced can be seen in the gallery below.

The Dreaded ‘Museum Sheets’!

Lauren told me about her 'museum sheets' with a mixture of dread and shame, which would have been a concern had it not been for her sense of self-deprecating irony. I knew that this was an area we'd need to work on in terms of inspiration and clearing away any mental obstacles. What are 'Museum Sheets' though? Per the GCSE Art assessment objectives, students must collate primary research material on artists, presented alongside their responses. Ideally, they should be linked to the art project theme and student's practical work.

'I Don't Hate It'

We duly reviewed the sheets and decided that it would be a good start to redo them to the point where she 'didn't hate them'. From my notes at the time:

'I recommend that she complete a new museum research sheet up to the standard of the others, to complement and enrich her project. This could be done at the National Museum in Cardiff and we have discussed possible artworks for her to study.'

Messy or Precise?

After some initial experimentation, it became clear that Lauren was not comfortable using messy, expressive media, such as charcoal, and prefers (like many students at this stage) to work neatly and precisely in pencil and sometimes acrylic paints.

Using the Grid

To capitalise on this, we proceeded to look at how accuracy and composition can be improved by using grids and reference points within an image.

Image Asset Bank

The aim was to create a ‘bank’ of images which could be photocopied and experimented on, in order to expand the repertoire of techniques in the portfolio while reducing the risk associated with experimentation. Session notes show that we:

'Continued working on the small pencil drawing, using visual reference points to achieve accuracy in the composition. Looked at the shapes created by negative and positive space to achieve this. Made a grid for scaling up photo and transposing onto paper.'

Critical Conversations

As ever, our conversations during the sessions explored how we could use technical experiments to enrich her project, and move towards the excellent 'final piece' outcome we knew she was capable of. The parts about fashion, peer relationships and Taylor Swift were sadly not recorded!

  • Discussed how photocopies of a drawing could be used for experiments in other media.

  • Discussed how different scale grids should be used for different areas of composition with more / less detail.

  • Discussed perception vs. reality in interpreting images of yourself and how this affects end result.

Room for Improvement

Lauren had completed some good A2 sheets, but she was a high ability student and I knew there was room for improvement. I felt the works would benefit from a deeper engagement with the subject matter of ballet. As such:

'Lauren re-worked the lino-printing sheet, removing all the pieces from the existing sheet, selecting the best ones, and applying them to a new sheet. More care was taken in the presentation of both images and text.'

The results were excellent, as you can see from the image on the right.

Personal Reflections

There was also exciting potential and for her accompanying notes to become more precise and opinionated. I encouraged Lauren to put some of the incisive and mature commentary from our conversations alongside her practical work, in order to reach Assessment Objective AO4: Present a personal and meaningful response that realises intentions and demonstrates understanding of visual language.

Next, we worked on enriching the work by using first hand experience. As such, we looked at the anatomy of the foot and the effects of pointe shoes, thereby also developing her observational drawing skills.

Exemplary Development Sheets

The trajectory and quality of project development work is really important in GCSE Art. Assessment Objective AO2 states that students must: Refine work by exploring ideas, selecting and experimenting with appropriate media, materials, techniques and processes. (source: BBC Bitesize)

We laid out all of Lauren's completed sheets (pictured) and I was satisfied that she had definitely met this objective to the high standard she was capable of.

Afremov and Acrylics

Another area for improvements was artist research. I advised Lauren that: Your research should refer back to your practical work, and your reflections on your own work should relate directly to your contextual studies.

For example, more analysis of the medium of acrylic paint and how it is applied; what this conveys and why. Lauren responded the the advice about artist research by doing:

...a new painted study from one of her ballet photographs, using the style of Leonid Afremov. She utilised colour and texture as Afremov had, successfully merging her own image his painting technique.

Again, as we see here, she achieved excellent results, which contributed to her final outcome and grade.

Fine-Tuning Compositions

Working towards her final exam, Lauren began sketching out design ideas on a sheet that she had begun in school. She explored alternative ideas for composition choice from photographs, and added some watercolour to the sheet, which was previously in monochrome. She also spontaneously added a pencil drawing of a swan next to the swan-themed pose, an apt and attractive addition to the sheet (pictured belo).

'In the Bag'?

Overall, there was some excellent material which had the potential to be worked up into an interesting, successful and personal outcome. By now, she had most of the work ‘in the bag’, but suddenly found herself in a slump of demotivation. I provided copiuos amounts of encouragement and suggested that she could do more to push herself to achieve a top grade:

In order to do this, we will need a two-pronged approach: a) finding an angle that will increase engagement and motivation, and (b) continue to review work using Assessment Objectives.

Refining the Portfolio With 'No Nonsense’ Editing

Editing weaker things out of the portfolio can be a difficult thing to do, but do it one must. Working together on this, Lauren became aware that it is quite quick and easy to eliminate or re-do work that she is not happy with. She agreed that such work had no place in her

portfolio, and was keen to bring all the work up to the same standard as her best pieces.

Context, Context, Context Assessment Objective AO1 mentions showing evidence of applying your work in different contexts. Lauren already had Fine Art and Photography working together in her portfolio, which was working really well. She capitalised on this by doing several photoshoots, which served as material for her final piece.

The Finale

Pictured right are a couple of shots from Lauren's development of her final piece. We looked at ways to incorporate printmaking and drawing work she had done, to create some contrasts of texture.

The result was a large, bold, and dynamic painting in acrylics, which combined her intersts in dance, street photography and acrylic painting in a harmonious composition.

Pathways to Progression

Lauren received an A grade for her GCSE Art, which she was delighted with. She went on to study A Level Photography, some sheets from which can be seen in the photos below. Her determined and sustained effort to recover from her illness and get the best out of school lead her towards a bright future with plenty of options. She chose to go on to undergraduate studies after her A Levels, and accepted a place at a top UK university.

I will remember our time working together as one of witty, dry and frank conversations, punctuated with cups of tea and moments of insightful reflection. And of course Taylor Swift.

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