Art Project Ideas: A Guide to Subject Matter Selection
Looking for art project ideas? A theme for high school art boards? Whether specialising in Painting, Graphic Design, Photography, textiles or Sculpture, most senior high school Art students begin by selecting a topic for their portfolio, coursework or examination project. It is a decision that many find difficult, whether due to a lack of inspiration, an inability to discern between two or more possible ideas or a general misunderstanding about the type of topic that is appropriate. Below is a step-by-step guide that IGCSE, GCSE, A Level Art students (and those from many other high school Art qualifications) may use to help brainstorm, evaluate and select an outstanding subject, topic or theme for their high school Art project.
Step 1: Brainstorm Ideas
- Write down all subjects, themes, places, things, activities or issues that are personally relevant and that matter to you (even random, unexpected things, such as a the art room sink, or heirloom knives and forks in your kitchen drawer). The purpose of any artwork is to communicate a message: to comment or scream or sing about the world in which we find ourselves in. If there is no emotion behind the work, there is no driving force – nothing to direct and shape your decision making. Write down the things that you care about; that move you.
- Include topics that are unusual, challenging, controversial, gritty or inspiring: those that fill you with passion. Students who select substantial, heartfelt issues that they really believe in are more likely to achieve great results than those who choose aesthetically pleasing but superficial subjects. A tried and true subject can still be approached in an individual and innovative way, but choosing a topic that is novel and fresh has certain advantages. Strong, contentious issues are those which the assessors themselves have a reaction to; they provoke an emotive response. Such topics make the markers and moderators sit up and take notice: it gives them ample opportunity to see the merit within your work. (Example shown below: Photography Coursework folio boards by Louise Hutt).
Painting Coursework folio boards by Lauren Day from Green Bay High School:
Note: For inspiration about how to present your brainstorming, you may like to view How to make a Mind Map: creative examples for high school Art students.
Step 2: Evaluate your ideas
Think carefully about the topics that you have written down. Use the flowchart at the end of this article to evaluate your ideas.
- Eliminate those which are ‘cheesy’ (i.e involving pink hearts and Brad Pitt), insincere (i.e. a theme of ‘World Peace’, when really this is something you couldn’t care less about) and overly “pretty” or lacking in substance (i.e. bunches of roses). This doesn’t mean that a traditionally ‘beautiful’ subject cannot be successful, (see the cupcake example below by a student from Sir William Ramsay School – image sourced from Dan China), but think carefully before proceeding with such a topic.
- Eliminate those subjects which you are unable to explore first-hand. In order to create artworks, you will need access to high quality imagery. For example, if you are exploring the way in which humans kill animals in order to consume their meat, access to the inside of a butchery or abattoir/freezing works is likely to be essential. Reliance on photographs taken by others is rarely a good idea. No matter how awesome a theme appears, if you are unable to explore any aspect of it firsthand, it is very unlikely that you will be able to do the topic justice. Remember that you will likely need to return to your source imagery several times during your high school course, so a submission based upon a particular plant that only blooms for a couple of weeks out of the year or a view of your village during a rare winter snow storm is very risky. The ideal GCSE, IGCSE or Art A-Level subject is one that you can physically return to, whenever you need – to draw, photograph or experience first-hand.
- Remove the topics for which the source material is excessively simple, i.e. containing only a few forms, textures and patterns. A small pile of cardboard boxes, for example, might inspire a great drawing, but if this is the starting point for an entire year’s AS or A2 work, the straight lines, rectangular forms and flat box surfaces are unlikely to provide enough visual variety to explore for months on end. Overly busy source material, on the other hand, is not an issue – it is much easier to simplify form and detail than it is to add back in.
- Eliminate those topics for which the source material lacks aesthetic appeal. Do not mistake ‘aesthetic appeal’ for pretty. In fact, some of the ‘ugliest’ things can be stunningly rendered in an artwork or design. Art teachers (and artists in general) often speak of finding the beauty in the ordinary or mundane: seeing the magic in that which others have discarded or forgotten (see the electrical plug painting below by Amy Thellusson from Notting Hill and Ealing High School). This does not mean, however, that anything is suitable for your A Level topic. Some scenes are genuinely unattractive and unsuitable visually. Certain object combinations (due to their particular shapes, colours or textures) are extremely difficult to compose in a pleasing way. Similarly, some items – particularly disproportionate drawings or designs by others – are very challenging for a high school student to replicate. A drawing, for example, of a doll that is proportioned unusually, may appear to be an inaccurate, badly proportioned drawing of an ordinary doll. In other words, the examiner may not realise that the doll is proportioned badly – they may think you simply cannot draw. (If you find ascertaining the aesthetic potential of your ideas difficult, discuss this further with your art teacher. Alternatively, you are welcome to join the discussion in our forum).
- Eliminate topics which are common or over-done (unless you have an original way of approaching this topic). It doesn’t matter if some others have explored the same topic as you… With the millions of people in the world, it is highly unlikely that you will be the only one to explore a particular theme (in fact, this is beneficial, as you can learn from others…and no one will make art exactly like you), but, if EVERYONE is doing it – if it is a topic that the examiners have seen a hundred times before, you should think carefully about whether you have something sufficiently new and original to say about it.
- Ensure that the topic you choose is something that you really care about and which can sustain your interest for a year. If you have more than one topic left on your list, pick the thing that you care about the most.
Painting Coursework folio boards by Melanie Nieuwoudt from Green Bay High School:
A quick guide for evaluating ideas
The information in this article has been summarised in a flowchart, which can be used as a quick tool to evaluate GCSE, IGCSE and A Level Art ideas. The top section of the diagram contains general areas to trigger brainstorming; the bottom outlines the evaluation process.
A good GCSE, IGCSE, NCEA or A level Art coursework topic keeps you enthusiastic, creative and eager to create more. It eliminates the need for slavish self-discipline. It opens the door for you become a ‘real’ artist – making art about what matters to you.
When first published, this article received over eight hundred comments from students looking for direction and assistance with their high school art projects. Some of these comments have been published below. It is hoped that the answers provide valuable insight for others.
Levi: I am struggling with a theme for my art A2 Level Unit 3. I was wondering if you can advise. I was thinking of ‘seasons’ but cannot find much information or artists to research and this is important because I have to write an essay on the artist. I do not think this is a theme with enough information. I did very well in my AS Level and got an A on both units. They were on Natural Form (Fish) and Waterways. There was so much information on both these themes. I did the Day of the Dead festival for my GCSE and got an A*. I am trying to find a theme which has lots of information but am struggling. Thank you for your help.
Amiria: Firstly, I want to stress that the most important factor should be how personally relevant your theme is: the quantity of information available on this topic is much less crucial. The truth is that these days – with the prevalence of information available on the internet – it is very rare to find a topic which you are unable to find sufficient material. If you are finding it difficult to source information that relates to a ‘seasons’ theme, this may be because you are being too general in your investigations. I suggest that you think about what aspect the topic you are most interested in… For example, are you merely drawn to aesthetic aspects, i.e. tawny autumn leaves or a barren winter scene…or do you wish to conduct a more theoretical investigation – i.e. exploring ideas of regeneration / cycle of life etc? Once you have narrowed it down (hopefully to something that is gritty, meaningful and personal) begin Google searches for artwork that fits this specific subject. Hopefully this will provide you with more results.
If you would like to abandon the seasons theme altogether, and wish to start with something new, it is difficult for me to make suggestions as I don’t know your interests and the possibilities are endless! If you are really stuck, take something ordinary – and do something unusual to it. For example, one of my most recent students took fruit, waited until it rotted and decayed…and then strung them up on the classroom wall using nails and string. She then took savage and beautiful photographs of these, and began the most intricate and detailed drawings and paintings. There were many painters of fruit whose work was helpful to her. There was also an endless supply of crazy, contemporary modern artists whose exploratory use of media was of relevance.
Forget about quantity of information. If you care enough about something, you will be able to write an outstanding essay with ease.
What moves you? What matters to you most in the world?
SOPHIA: I’m about to begin my AS Art and we have been asked to produce work over the summer on the topic they have given us. Although I won the art prize last year I am struggling with ideas for our theme which is Manmade. I like fine art and my previous works have been detailed forms of nature including horses, plants etc. To start with I have been looking at Leonardo da Vinci and have been inspired by his sketches of human anatomy, but I don’t know how to develop this into my own ideas keeping within the Manmade topic. Also after reading your tips I realise it has to convey emotion. Help!
AMIRIA: Hi Sophia, thanks for your question. Your enjoyment of drawing natural forms, horses, plants and human anatomy drawings suggests you particularly like curving, organic forms – perhaps with a preference (at this stage) for realistic depiction. There are plenty of ‘Manmade’ items that also fit into this category, i.e. curving architectural forms; ornate utensils / kitchenware (old kettles etc); woven baskets; intricate jewellery pieces… If you do a Google image search on ‘curving organic form’ you get a good idea of the huge range of beautiful man made forms that fit into the aesthetic you seem to like… which could thus form the basis of an AS portfolio. The possibilities, however, are endless, so it is better to ask yourself what things really matter to you – what do you want to communicate to the world? Your work is often best driven not just by an emotion, but by a message (which will then provoke an emotional response in you and viewers). What bothers you? What enrages you? Once you have an idea, you can then start to think about ways of exploring this aesthetically…
ABIGAIL: Hi! I am really struggling to find ideas for my theme of landscape this year. Last year I received an Excellence for my NCEA Art board which was to do with humans and birds. My art often surrounds humans and animals but I cannot do that with the theme this year so I am really stuck! I was thinking of doing Rural vs Urban but as I am in love with Venice and other historical buildings that I feel the need to paint them for my art board!! I don’t know how I could incorporate these ideas (rural, urban, historical buildings) or if you have any other ideas for the theme of Landscape it would be MUCH appreciated! Thank you!
AMIRIA: What particular aspect of a Rural vs Urban theme would you focus on? The encroachment of urban sprawl on the rural environment? Conflict at the boundary where the two meet? It is possible that historical buildings could play a part in an urban/rural theme if you looked at, for example, vines/creepers crawling over decrepit buildings / nature taking back a manmade structure etc. However, such interpretations are reasonably common and don’t seem to be that personal – i.e. historical buildings seem to be something a teenager might like aesthetically, but don’t appear to have much personal relevance (correct me if I am wrong).
When thinking about a ‘landscape’ theme, remember that the word landscape can be interpreted quite widely…i.e. it doesn’t necessarily limit you to ‘pretty’ outdoor scenes, but could involve digital/virtual landscapes and how these interact with the physical world…or perhaps human despair / disenchantment manifested in dirty, graffiti-filled urban alleyways. Whatever the case, as suggested in my responses to the above two questions, you need to begin by identifying issues that really matter to you and using these as the starting point for exploring landscape. For example (this is just a random idea, to illustrate the point), you might be disenchanted with the rigidity of school life and how the education system has been reduced to spoon feeding students with small capsules of information. You could then begin to explore this idea through the depiction of schoolyard landscapes – focusing perhaps on grid-like patterns (repetition of rectangular classroom windows etc) in dreary disconnected architecture. As your work progress, you might end up abstracting the architectural forms in an effort to better represent/communicate/express your ideas.
If you find it easier to start with a physical subject and let the ideas flow from there, then select something unusual and interesting. Not a pretty building or a valley containing flowers – but perhaps a cattle carcass decaying in long grass or a smashed up car abandoned on a verge. It’s not the macabre is necessarily more appropriate than pleasant imagery, but that the world is already filled with a million depictions of pretty landscapes. Unless you are an absolutely amazing artist,you are doing yourself a disservice by selecting a common, ‘pretty’ subject. And even if you are absolutely amazing, it can be far more exciting to pick something unusual and crazy!
HAYA: Hey! I’m having a problem choosing a topic with my five page (AS Level) portfolio. I prefer natural over manmade. Any idea as to what I can base my five pages on? So far I’ve been working on different postures of the human body wrapped with drapery in an attempt to symbolise repression – a characteristic well known to myself as I’m a repressive person. Throughout my work, the true identity of the model is hidden. I was wondering if my topic needs to be developed any further? Also, I was thinking of basing my work on something manmade…but I don’t know what I could possibly do under manmade. Your site is absolutely awesome. Thank you for all your help!
AMIRIA: I really like your repression theme. It has a lot of potential. You could explore such things as the results of repression and whether this damages you / makes you withdraw or put up facades / conceal your true personality etc. The theme may lend itself to using acrylic gel mediums etc to achieve transparency and translucent layers…exploring what is seen / what is not seen / what is hidden etc.
It is difficult to say whether your topic needs to be developed further without seeing your work – but the body of work as a whole should show development…from a starting point towards a resolved work. If your project seems to be simply repeating the same subject from a different angle etc it is time for ideas / compositional strategies to be resolved. Looking to other artists for inspiration is often the best way to move forward if you are stuck.
You might like to select manmade items that are connected to both fabric and ideas of repression …i.e. metal buckles on clothing and stitched ties / cords / zips etc – all of which invoke ideas such as tying shut / restraining / confining etc. These objects have more structure and rigidity than merely draped fabric and the human form (and would thus provide you with some welcome variety) but also can be tied in nicely with your earlier themes. Good luck!
ASHLEIGH: For my AS Art I am doing Urban Decay. It has to have some kind of story developing through to the end but I cannot think of anything????
Amiria: There are many possibilities… Literal interpretations, such as an area of town that is physically falling into disrepair and has some sort of history or story attached to it…i.e. perhaps a thriving industrial area that became disused for some reason and then became overtaken by graffiti / vandalism etc. Alternatively you could explore notions of communities being dispersed due to computers …i.e. the desertion (decay) of traditional urban social centres (i.e. malls / movie theatres) due to people favouring internet-based interactions from the warmth of their own homes…
Perhaps you could zoom right and look at things on a near molecular level…extreme close-ups, visually analysing, for example, the rust and erosion that creeps across metallic surfaces – or mites that eat into timber. These could lend themselves to beautiful abstract works. The ‘story’ in this case might be to do with the circle of life and how physical forms are transient and illusory with no clear boundaries…the ebb and flow of atoms etc…
Another option might be the beauty in decay? Discovering something that has rotted away only to expose something beautiful…
INAPICKLE: Hi! I have to COMPLETELY rethink my original idea for my folio board (NCEA Level 3) and I’m really struggling for conceptual ideas. At the moment my new idea is the loss of innocence/complete mental destruction and changed perception of the world through the experiences of war, told from a third person point of view with a solider as the main character (like a narrative). Also weaved into that idea is the idea of being so easily manipulated/brainwashed by the government into being merely a playing piece/slaughtered in their ‘game’ of war.
Help! I need your advice, am I on the right track? Or am I completely off?? I fear that the idea is way too cliche AND I’m also unable to take photos of the subject matter first hand…
AMIRIA: Your ideas are not new, as such, in that others have explored them before, but I don’t think they are clichÃ©. There is a slight risk that they could be presented in an obvious, literal ‘this is what I am saying’ type way, but this applies to most topics.
In terms of firsthand subject matter, I would be hesitant about only using 3rd party images – and would be particularly careful if they are just commonly available photographs (i.e. those off the internet). You should use first hand subject matter if at all possible. For example, do you have relatives who were in a war? Can you get hold of any of their old memorabilia? Perhaps you could take photographs at a museum or an old bunker? If you were thinking more along the lines of Americans in Iraq etc, then newspaper clippings / magazine articles – perhaps televisions or computer screens with online news stories – could be used as physical objects in themselves (i.e. with you initially creating a pile of photographs or pinning articles to a wall…and then drawing them, with all the creases / shadows / three-dimensional elements). You could even take images and digitally superimpose them onto other surfaces (i.e. find a demolished building or something that appears to be some war scene ruin type thing…photograph it beautifully, then digitally superimpose other war based images over the top of it…
There are some instances where third party source material is appropriate (usually when the resulting work is a far departure from the initial images)…but I would be hesitant. Discuss it carefully with your teacher. They will know your work and whether it will work for your situation.
KIMIKO: I’ve recently started my NCEA Level 3 Painting board and I’m very confused and muddled with ideas. I’m worried that my theme may be too superficial or not easy for others to understand, to the point where I’m thinking of redoing my boards. My theme right now is Arizona (desert), which was inspired by a dream I had of an open road journey. The paintings that I have already done have a lot of vast open spaces to show freedom, buffalo skulls and dark colours which depict death of the land, a main character (a girl), her tattoos and an old school car. I plan on making my second board more surreal and reintroducing this coyote as a spirit guide (maybe this would create the more dreamlike qualities I’m trying to show)? I am also worried that I might be trying to cram too many themes or ideas into one making it complicated. Any ideas or pointers would be such a life saver.
AMIRIA: Hi Kimiko. Your theme sounds cool and crazy (in a good way), but it seems to bring together a whole range of elements and ideas, so it doesn’t surprise me that you are floundering a little.
Firstly, I just want to check whether you have (or have had) firsthand access to any of your subject matter? Have you been to the Arizona desert? Have you seen and photographed real buffalo skulls? Is the car a real one that you have access to? Is the girl you? Even if these things are ultimately depicted in way that is stylised and surrealistic, it helps immensely to have quality source material the beginning. Could you substitute cow skulls for buffalo skulls (your school science dept should have some)? You want the examiners to believe that this is something personal to you – you don’t want them to suspect you have produced the whole thing from second hand imagery sourced off the internet. There have been some good folios based on second hand imagery – i.e. pictures from comic books – but these are rare, and in these cases the students cleverly manipulate the image to ‘make them their own’.
The second thing that concerns me a little is the large range of objects/scenes within your work. For most students, becoming proficient with the representation of just one or two items within a year’s work is enough of a challenge, let alone trying to become competent at drawing landscapes, bones, human figures, cars, and (now possibly) animals all at the same time. I would probably refrain from introducing a coyote, especially if this is something that has not appeared anywhere elsewhere in your board for this reason…but it is difficult to say without seeing your work. If you are a strong drawer and can cope with a wide range of forms, it might be appropriate, as long as it could be integrated seamlessly within your board. What does your teacher think?
The real issue at hand, however, is whether you have established what your work is actually about. If it is hard for others to understand, it may be because you have not fully defined yourself what you are trying to say. You mention that you are trying to depict a dreamlike state, and also freedom and death of the land, but how are these things connected? Your art needs to be more than a simple depiction of a landscape you dreamed about, with hinted emotion. It needs to have a real message and purpose. What was the dream really about? What is the purpose of the landscape? What is the artwork trying to say?
Once you have established this, it should be easier to know how to proceed with your work. For example, if you are trying to communicate the thrill and fearful freedom that might follow an apocalyptic catastrophe (that is the result of humanity’s careless attitude towards protecting our planet, for example), with the earth is ‘wiped clean’ and the landscape as we know it gone, leaving humans free of the shackles of modern society and eking out a primitive existence etc… then little details in the desert sand could give hints at what happened and what has been lost – perhaps collaged littered remnants of society… The expressions, clothing and tattoos on the girl could also all contain clues about what has happened…
JADE: I’m having a little difficulty deciding on a project for my A2 Fine Art project. I begin this project in September but we have been advised to start brainstorming ideas and collecting relevant sources during the summer holidays to contribute to the development and stability of my project. This project is basically a personal experimentation project, so I can literally do anything for this project which is why I’m struggling slightly to find an idea. I am generally quite an indecisive person unfortunately! So when I think of an idea, it has to be one in which I feel I will not ever get bored of and a project that essentially can be broadened. In my previous projects, I’ve always had trouble with keeping with projects consistently flowing. I tend to eventually run out of different ideas!
I have been thinking about doing ‘the seven deadly sins’ as a project, and I’ve done some research on this topic. Personally, I think this could be an interesting theme to explore. However, my concern is that my own research and gathering of sources (i.e. original images) may be limited. If you have any suggestions I would be very grateful. If you also have any other suggestions for me going in a different direction or topic, I would also much appreciate any ideas. I enjoy painting, sketching, chalk and I love mixed media work. I’d like to find a project in which I can incorporate all mediums.
Thank you for your time, i’m sorry this post is so long! I find this site very helpful and encouraging, so thanks.
AMIRIA: Well done for beginning your preparation early – your teacher will be very happy! My feeling is that the seven deadly sins is a very broad topic. Even just one of the sins would be sufficient for an A2 theme. It is much better to have a narrow, well executed body of work, rather than a broad project that is scattered and incoherent. The key to picking a topic is to find one that is really important to you (on an emotional level, not just an intellectual level). For example, you could pick gluttony if you (or someone you are close to) struggles with dieting/eating/weight; or greed if people you are close to work themselves into the ground in chase of money, whilst sacrificing other aspects of their lives (i.e. a father who is always at the office and doesn’t spend time with his family); or envy if there is something you desperately long for…or someone who you see is being destroyed by envy etc… In other words, be driven by an issue that is really relevant in your life.
In terms of your desire to use many mediums – this is a great idea for all topics. Experimentation and trialling a range of mediums is beneficial for all topics, so don’t let this worry or influence your topic selection.
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This article was written by Amiria Robinson. Amiria has been a teacher of Art & Design and a Curriculum Co-ordinator for seven years, responsible for the course design and assessment of Art and Design work in two high-achieving Auckland schools. Amiria has a Bachelor of Architectural Studies, Bachelor of Architecture (First Class Honours) and a Graduate Diploma of Teaching. She is a CIE Accredited Art & Design Coursework Assessor. Follow Student Art Guide on Pinterest or join the discussion on Facebook. (If you are an Art teacher, you may also wish to join our High School Art Teacher Facebook Group).