2012 GCSE / IGCSE / A Level Art Exam Paper: Help, Ideas & Interpretation

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

The GCSE, IGCSE and A Level Art exam paper contain topics which must be used to stimulate ideas for a portfolio of artwork. For some students, a set starting point makes life easier; for others, it throws up a mental block: a paralysing fear that they will not be able to produce anything original, or – worse –that they will be forced to draw/paint/photograph/design/sculpt something that is horrendously boring and which doesn’t interests them at all.

What follows is a list of thoughts, ideas and responses to the 2012 GCSE and A Level Art exam topics from a range of different examination boards. They are intended to spur creative thought and to aid the brainstorming process.

It is worth remembering, before you begin, that no topic is inherently boring and that even the most mundane can result in beautiful work. What matters is not the thing or even the idea, but the way it is interpreted; the way you respond to it, what it means to you and whether it wriggles inside and kicks at your soul.

It is important to remember that the best art topics are those which:

  • Are significant and important to your life in some way
  • You know about or have first-hand experience of
  • You have access to quality first-hand source material

It should also be noted that ideas on this list are provided as an aid to the brainstorming process. They may or may not be appropriate for you, depending on your circumstance. Selection and exploration of ideas should occur only in conjunction with advice from your teacher.

Some artist model ideas have been included with the lists below. For additional ideas, please look through our Pinterest Boards.


Encounters, Experiences and Meetings

A beautiful image from a Year 12 (Level 2) NCEA Printmaking folio (sourced from the NZQA website):

mixed media nature image - a level art exam
This beautiful mixed media image could be the result of an A Level Art exam theme such as ‘encounter with nature’.
  • The meeting between mother and child / adoption / birth;
  • The clashing of those who despise each other;
  • Friends in a bustling and crowded restaurant;
  • SEX and other forbidden encounters in a teenage world;
  • The shields we put up in our brains: the filter between ourselves and those we meet;
  • The joining (or meeting) of two halves;
  • Meetings between strangers…The million people we pass on a daily basis, but never connect with;
  • Drunken encounters;
  • Encounters with god;
  • Online encounters and the changing social landscape of the world;
  • The clashing of cultures;
  • Meeting someone who has suffered a great loss;
  • Shameful encounters / those you regret;
  • A meeting room, filled with business people who go about their daily lives in a trance;
  • A boisterous meeting between children;
  • A birthday party;
  • Meeting at a skateboard park;
  • Reunion at an airport;
  • Meeting for the last time;
  • A life-changing moment;
  • Focus on the senses (an event experienced through sight / audio etc);
  • Something that made you cry;
  • A deja vu experience;
  • Remembering an experience a long time ago: the passing of time / generations;
  • The meeting of truth and lies;
  • The meeting of fiction and reality;
  • Encountering animals: the interaction between human and animal kind and our influence upon them (for good or bad);
  • Meeting your childhood self or yourself fifty years in the future;
  • The meeting of land and sea;
  • Physical meetings between two things: the boundaries and edges, perhaps at a cellular level (plunging into / stabbing / tearing apart);
  • The meeting of theory and practicality;
  • How our own biases, backgrounds and modify/influence every experience we have: the influence of the mind;
  • Truly seeing yourself as you really are;
  • Conception;
  • The aftermath of a meeting that never happened;
  • Meeting temptation: the battle of wills;
  • The meeting of technology and nature;
  • Ancient man meeting the modern world: the conflict between genes and the modern environment;
  • Terrorist encounter (see image below).

More exceptional Year 12 (Level 2) NCEA Printmaking work, sourced from the NZQA website:

NCEA printmaking - terrorist theme
Terrorist encounters: This striking Year 12 folio offers inspiration for the A Level Art exam topic ‘Encounters, Experiences and Meetings’.

Combinations and Alliances

  • A young child holding the hand of their mother;
  • Bad influences (combinations of friends) and peer pressure;
  • A family unit, in alliance against the world;
  • The butterfly effect (how a combination of actions / behaviours leads from one thing to another until every tiny moment in a life is interwoven with all the moments that came before);
  • Political alliances;
  • How ‘good’ people can complete horrific acts when lead on by the wrong situation and the wrong company;
  • Still life combinations: salt and pepper, sweet and sour, fish & chips, apple and cinnamon; peanut butter and jam; the literal combination of ingredients used to make a meal;
  • Unpleasant combinations we would rather not be reminded of: chocolate and obesity; that cute lamb and the juicy steak;
  • The legal binding (combination) of lovers: marriage / civil unions;
  • Combination of genes: Darwin’s theory of evolution – how traits are passed on etc;
  • A study of two people (or animals), or people who care about each other;
  • A person and something that they use to embellish their identity (i.e. fast car, makeup, fashion accessories, label clothing, iPhones);
  • You and the one thing that defines you;
  • Twins;
  • Siblings;
  • Mismatched couples;
  • Unfortunate combinations: drugs and celebrities; childbirth and pain; cats and water; sugar and tooth decay;
  • Discipline and being cruel to be kind;
  • Combinations of exercises / sets / routines;
  • Mixing of light (light streaming through coloured glass windows etc);
  • Lock combinations;
  • Combinations of numbers – gambling, addiction;
  • An uneasy alliance: a dog about to break its chain;
  • Things that depend on each other for survival: a plant growing in dirt trapped in a hole in the rocks; tiny creatures that live in on the fur / skin of others – ticks on cows / hair lice / germs;
  • Vaccinations and the alliance of ‘good’ germs fighting against bad…
  • Eco-systems – the interconnection of water / life etc;
  • A trusted alliance: horse and rider; blind person and guide dog;
  • Business networks that rely on one another;
  • Uniting against a common enemy.


  • Highly accurate, scientific records;
  • The layering of time;
  • Disintegration and memory;
  • Bones: the structure of life – the architecture of a living form;
  • Fish skeletons;
  • Archaeology and the documenting of fossils;
  • Unexpected items as fossils (i.e. a fossil of an iPod or other contemporary object – remnants of a modern existence);
  • Dinosaurs / extinction.

Note: this topic lends itself perfectly to printmaking, rubbings and layered, mixed media works.

Society Today

  • Modern diet / processed food;
  • Digital technology and the impact it has on our lives;
  • Soaring depression levels / the psychiatric torment of modern man;
  • Soaring caesarean rates;
  • Drugs and mind-numbing forms of escape;
  • Slowing down;
  • More, more, more: ever increasing consumption;
  • The mechanised processes involved in the production of meat: pigs in tiny cages / battery hens / images from an abattoir;
  • Disconnection from the whole: i.e. a factory worker who spends his/her whole life assembling one tiny part of a product, without having any input into the big picture: disillusionment with life purpose.

Inside / Outside

  • Framing / windows;
  • Blurring of the boundary between inside and out;
  • Prisons / loss of freedom;
  • Breaking in the exterior barrier of things i.e. injuries in flesh resulting in the spilling out of insides;
  • Autopsy;
  • Opening a can of preserved fruit;
  • Pregnancy /birth;
  • Shelter from the rain;
  • The inconsistency between what is going on in the outside world and the inner turmoil of someone’s brain;
  • The change in state as something moves from outside to inside the human body (i.e. food > energy);
  • An environment that is devoid of ‘outside’ i.e. fluorescent lights / poor ventilation…lacking in plant life…unable to see nature outdoors…the dwindling human condition etc;
  • Apocalyptic future: what will happen if humans destroy the outdoor conditions; or a wall is erected to keep an infected virus-ridden population ‘outside’;
  • The peeling back of interesting things to expose what is underneath (inside)…i.e. banana skins, seedpods, envelopes.
  • Vegetables or interesting fruit sliced through to expose the insides (things with lots of seed / pips / bumpy skin etc);
  • Something opening to reveal something unexpected (i.e. inside a cardboard box);
  • The Impossible Staircase: indoors blending into outdoors in an indeterminable fashion / a blurring of dimensions;
  • Inside the human body: complex, organic form: the miracle of life (human anatomy drawings / x-rays;
  • Inside an animal carcass;
  • The human ‘outside’ – an exterior presented to those around us. The fixation we have on creating the best exterior possible: weight control/dieting; makeup; cosmetic surgery; latest fashions;
  • Inside the earth: minerals / geology / the underworld;
  • Sectional views through a landscape (i.e. showing a slice through the ground / inside the earth): mines / slips / erosion / quarries, with trucks and machinery taking soil and rocks away;
  • The soul: inside / outside – leaving the body;
  • Plays upon storage and scale, i.e. miniature ‘scaled down’ items inside other items, like large wild animals stored inside tiny jars;
  • Castings of the insides of objects – things you don’t normally think about – that are then exposed for all to see;
  • Walls / divisions / outsiders;
  • Deterioration that has occurred to something as a result of being left outside (i.e. an ice sculpture that is left in the sun or a decayed, rusted, weathered structure showing the long term effects of the elements);
  • Light streaming in a window from outside;
  • Kids in a daycare facility looking longingly outside;
  • Animals in a small enclosure: a sorry life in comparison to those wild and free outside;
  • Looking outside from an unusual perspective, i.e. as if you are a mouse looking through a small crack into a room;
  • Inside a bomb shelter;
  • Inside is meant to equal haven / shelter: what if inside is not this at all: a crime scene / an inside that has been violated;
  • In the palm of your hand;
  • The contents of something spilling out;
  • Shellfish or snails inside their shells.

Harmony and Discord

  • Love and hate relationships / fighting between families and loved ones;
  • The human mind, swinging from joy to misery and despair / schizophrenia / the meddling mind: our own worst enemy;
  • A whole lot of similar things, with one different thing that clashes with the rest;
  • Disturbing of the peace: a beautiful scene which is rudely interrupted (i.e. a hunter firing a bullet into a grazing herd of animals or someone pulling out a gun in a crowded shopping mall);
  • Musical interpretations: jazz bands / instruments / broken instruments;
  • Money: the root of good and evil;
  • The broken family / divorce / merged families;
  • The clashing of humans with the environment;
  • Something beautiful and ugly;
  • Meditation to escape the discord of modern day life;
  • Prescribed medication (happy pills) to minimise the discord in life – but eliminates the harmony?
  • A visual battle: a mess of clashing colours;
  • Things in the wrong environment: placing objects unexpectedly in different locations to create discord (or at least alertness and aliveness) a scene of apparent harmony.

Changed Landscape

  • Erosion;
  • Changing seasons;
  • The impact of human waste / litter on the environment;
  • Urban sprawl;
  • Forests cut down to make way for new developments;
  • The pattern of crops, farming and paddocks on the land.

Sky High

  • robert ellis motorway paintings
    Sky High: Aerial views of swirling motorways by New Zealand painter Robert Ellis

    Black holes / stars / solar systems / the big bang;

  • Skateboarders or snowboarders;
  • A drug induced high;
  • Cloud formations / the science of rain;
  • Flying in sleep;
  • Views from an aeroplane window;
  • aerial landscape by wayne thiebaud
    Sky High: Aerial landscape by Wayne Thiebaud

    Patterns humans have made in the landscape – i.e. motorways / city grids;

  • Hang-gliding / hot air balloons / free fallings / parachuting;
  • Insects / birds flying;
  • Wing structures;
  • Airports;
  • Aftermath of a plane crash;
  • Superman / superheroes;
  • Things blowing into the air (old newspapers / an open briefcase / seed pods / dandelion seeds);
  • Falling off a high rise building;
  • Paper aeroplanes;
  • Giants / over-scaled items;
  • A inner cityscape of high rise buildings – glimpses through windows to people living lives contained in tiny capsules in skyscrapers;
  • Athletes / sports people leaping through air.

Possible Sky High artist models: Robert Ellis (above right), Wayne Thiebaud (right) and Joel Rea and Jim Darling (below).

joel rea paintings of dogs
Sky High: Australian artist Joel Rea produces amazing paintings of dogs, people and other objects flying or free-falling through the air. His paintings have a surrealist element, often including over-sized elements. Brilliant work!
jim darling paintings of aeroplane windows
Sky High: Simple and symmetrical compositions showing scenes out aeroplane windows by Jim Darling.


  • skateboarder jumping with shadow
    A beautiful photograph of a skateboarder and his shadow

    An intricate still life that creates shadows which become an integral element of the composition;

  • Translucent sculptures;
  • Images containing only shadow (without the source object);
  • Woven shadows;
  • Overlapping shadows from multiple light sources;
  • crumpled paper
    Crumpled pieces of paper: manipulation of shadow

    Shadows that are not of the object shown;

  • A dark alleyway or other location where the lighting conditions are dramatic;
  • Photographs of paper sculptures: artificial manipulation of form to explore light and shadow;
  • Skin colour;
  • A monochromatic subject, with the emphasis on tone (light & shade) rather than colour;
  • Sunhats and sunscreen / skin cancer;
  • Buildings with visible shading screens built into the facade.

Image (right) sourced from Observando.


  • Symbols in airports with crowds of people of multiple ethnicities (i.e. icons communicating without language);
  • An absurd aspect of a pop star’s life;
  • The worship of a pop star by an ordinary teen (posters peeling off a crowded bedroom wall etc);
  • Religious icons – relevance in a modern world;
  • Someone using icons to communicate;
  • The lie of the icon: a pop star with a public image that is nothing like they really are;
  • Sex symbols: the disparity between ‘real’ bodies and those portrayed in magazines…


  • An obsessed fan’s memorabilia collection relating to a particular famous person;
  • Objects related to something negative that you don’t want to remember: i.e. a night out on the town (cigarette butts, empty beer bottles);
  • Memorabilia related to a famous wedding (i.e. Prince Charlies and Diana);
  • A collection of tacky plastic characters from a particular film, that lie forgotten and dusty in the bottom of a box;
  • War memorabilia, interspersed with photographs.


  • ‘Sleazy’ signs from a dodgy part of town…with litter / other traces of human life / dark alleyways underneath;
  • A inner cityscape crowded with brightly lit signs – perhaps exploring things to do with the clutter of human life / overpopulation of space etc;
  • An decrepit sign (on an entertainment park or tired motel, for example) with broken bulbs / peeling paint;
  • Disassembling old neon signs and reassembling different signs together in tongue-and-cheek ways;
  • Inspiration drawn from the Neon Boneyard – where old neon signs go to die;
  • Focusing on the eye-catching aspect of neon colour to draw attention to unexpected subjects…


  • Young children playing with toys;
  • A family playing a card or board game;
  • Playing in water – or at the beach, with a bucket and spade in the sand;
  • Sports – competitive playing;
  • ‘Playing the field’;
  • Dress up games;
  • A young child putting up make-up in the mirror (playing at the imitation of adults);
  • Wendy houses;
  • An early childhood education scene;
  • Playing gone wrong: an injured child / fighting children etc…

Folding Structures

  • pencil drawing of paper aeroplane
    A graphite drawing of a paper aeroplane by Christina Empedocles. Drawings of folded paper provide ample opportunity for practising the rendering of form.


  • Paper aeroplanes (see Christina Empedocles and Ali Page)
  • Paper bags (see the painting below by Karen Appleton)
  • Architectural models;
  • Folding architectural structures;
  • Tents;
  • Beach chairs;
  • Weaving.
paintings of paper bags
Folded paper bags by Karen Appleton
folded paper aeroplanes - art
Elevating the status of the ordinary: a printed folded paper aeroplane by Ali Page


  • A physical journey from a particular destination to another (i.e. the mundane drive between your home and school…seeing beauty in the ordinary etc; your first visit to see something that moved you);
  • The transformational journey from old to new (old structure demolished for something new / old technology making way for new etc);
  • A journey through time, such as a person aging / physical changes, or a record of memorable occasions in a life;
  • Childhood to adulthood;
  • Getting through an emotional circumstance, such as a loved one passing away or overcoming illness;
  • Conception/pregnancy/birth;
  • A miniature journey  (i.e. walking down your garden path – with viewpoint at your feet etc; brushing your teeth in the morning – the journey from arrival at the sink to bright white smile);
  • Achieving a goal;
  • An academic journey – through school etc (ambition / academic goals / failure / success / test papers / assignments / grades etc…as in the hurdles you need to get to university);
  • On a bus or a plane or a train;
  • Memorabilia related to a particular journey (i.e. an overseas trip);
  • A still life made from tickets, maps, timetables;
  • The journey of an animal (i.e. a bird or fish, swimming upstream);
  • The journey of an insect walking a short distance over interesting surfaces;
  • Terrorism and the journey you will never forget.


  • dishwasher drawing by artist Jo Bradney

    A family argument;

  • Domesticated cat or other animal;
  • Domestic chores – focus on a mundane ordinary task such as doing the dishes (see Sylvia Siddell and Jo Bradney);
  • Housewives / the female role / feminism etc;
  • Wild versus Domestic;
  • The ‘perfect’ home situation illusion and what bubbles below the surface…
  • Domestic versus foreign / invading / other;
  • Domestic goods = items made in your own country…a still life featuring country-specific items…


  • dripping painting of building facade
    A dripping painting of a building facade by Uwe Wittwer.

    Deceptive facades, and the walls we put up to hide our true emotions;

  • Decaying wall surfaces / peeling away;
  • Reflective windows, mirroring a busy street or some other interesting scene (fragmented reflections);
  • A decorative facade – old church walls etc;
  • Old fashioned shop fronts / signage;
  • Secrets hidden behind facades / the things nobody talks about;
  • Sunshades / light streaming through facades / window openings;
  • Masks / dress-ups;
  • Abstraction of a building facade (see work above by Uwe Wittner).

Digital Dreams

  • The merging of reality and our ‘online’ lives;
  • The fictional online persona (the person we craft in our Facebook profiles and so on);
  • iPods / digital devices and brightly lit screens;
  • Cyber dating / online love;
  • Brain waves and digital imaging of human brains while dreaming.

Looking Through

  • Windows / frames – from unexpected locations / unexpected angles or in places where the outside scene contrasts the inside scene;
  • Transparent layers / glass / distortion / interesting views through things;
  • X-rays;
  • Old overhead projector transparencies;
  • Flicking through an old recipe book or photo album;
  • Looking through small gaps between leaves in the foreground at a natural scene;
  • Trains / tunnels;
  • A child looking through cracks in a jetty at the water below;
  • Invisibility, and the feeling you get when someone ‘looks through’ you – i.e. doesn’t notice you at all;
  • Kids playing hide and seek, peeking out from a hiding place;
  • Inappropriate snooping through someone else’s personal belongings…

An emotive NCEA folio by Lizzi:

NCEA Level 1 painting board
This outstanding NCEA Level 1 Art board (the equivalent of a Year 11 GCSE or IGCSE Art folio) perfectly fits the ‘Looking Through’ theme.

People – Ordinary and/or Extraordinary

  • People engaged in ordinary mindless actions, i.e. brushing teeth, doing one’s hair, eating breakfast;
  • Scars / tattoos / deformities that are out of the ordinary;
  • The vices of ordinary people (cigarette smoking, alcoholism, food addiction etc);
  • Portraits of really ‘plain’ people – seeing the beauty in the ordinary;
  • The facades / layers people build up around themselves to make themselves seem extraordinary – make-up, fashion accessories etc;
  • A person of extraordinary importance in your life (your mother or grandmother etc);
  • Ordinary people who have extraordinary roles (i.e. a firefighter);
  • The extraordinary;
  • Merging images of people with other objects to make fantastical creatures;
  • A portrait of an ordinary stereotype: the gossip or the cheerleader etc;
  • The desperate attempts or lengths someone will go to become extraordinary;
  • Depictions of ordinary people, so that they look eerie and extraordinary, like the awesome artworks by Loretta Lux;
  • Sculptures of the ordinary, at extraordinary scales, like Ron Mueck (viewer discretion advised).

Old and New

  • A grandmother or other elderly person holding a baby;
  • Meeting your childhood self or yourself fifty years in the future;
  • Ancient man meeting the modern world: the conflict between genes and the modern environment;
  • Ancient artefacts, alongside modern instruments;
  • Discarded outdated computers / technology, to make way for new (things that become rapidly obsolete);
  • Fresh fruit alongside rotted and decaying produce;
  • Plastic surgery: an attempt to make old into new;
  • A decaying structure alongside a new, contemporary form;
  • New posters overlaid onto an outdoor wall layered with old, peeling posters;
  • An old architectural form demolished for something new / old technology making way for new etc).

Here and Now

  • The impact of digital technology on modern lives;
  • Advances in preventative health and medicine;
  • The prevalence of natural disasters in recent times;
  • Terrorism;
  • Time;
  • The mechanics of an old clock;
  • A topical issue, such as food addiction.

Arrival / Departure

  • Birth;
  • Death;
  • Train stations / Airports / Looking out windows at that which is left behind;
  • Divorce / departure of a parent;
  • Parents who leave their children;
  • Recovering from a departure / coping mechanisms;
  • First day at school (or some other place);
  • Feet walking away;
  • A decaying, decrepit building after the departure of the occupants;
  • A look at building entrances and exits;
  • Motorway exits;
  • Maps / subway routes / directions for travellers…

Fruit, vegetables and gardening tools placed in a setting of your choice

  • A freshly harvested outdoor setting;
  • A farm-like scene with wooden crates / indoor wooden shed;
  • Vegetables stored for animals;
  • Vegetables hanging to dry, i.e. onions / garlic with tools leaning nearby;
  • A kitchen scene;
  • A fruit and vege shop;
  • A bustling marketplace;
  • Preserving fruit – knives / chopped fruit / preserves in glass jars;
  • Fruit, veges and tools in an unexpected location, i.e. hanging in plastic bags;
  • Abstract works derived from the patterns on the skin of fruit and vegetables or the interiors that have been sliced open with knifes;
  • The brutal smashing of a watermelon or some other fruit or vegetable with a hammer;
  • The hanging of decaying fruit and vegetables.


  • Wedding traditions;
  • Birthday celebrations;
  • Religious rituals;
  • Guy Fawkes;
  • Christenings;
  • Coming-of-age rituals;
  • Graduation ceremonies.

This post is a work in progress. For more help with selecting a topic, you may like to read this blog post about what makes a good A Level Art idea.

You may also be interested in the article about the 2013 Art exam topics.


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