How to annotate a sketchbook: a guide for art students

Last Updated on November 29, 2021

High school art students often have to submit sketchbooks, art journals, or other preparatory material that includes writing as well as visual material. This annotation plays an important role in how examiners assess and respond to your work. Although each qualification has their own assessment criteria and requirements, almost all high school art programs have similar standards and expectations when it comes to annotation. This article sets out best practice when it comes to producing outstanding sketchbook annotation, and includes examples from students who achieved excellent results around the world. It is likely to be particularly helpful for students who are wondering how to annotate an A Level Art sketchbook, those wishing to conduct formal analysis for an IB Visual Arts Process Portfolio, or those looking for GCSE Art annotation examples.

Want more guidance? Some of this material and much more is in our new book: Outstanding High School Sketchbooks. This book has high-resolution images so that fine details and annotation are clear, making it an excellent resource for students and schools. Learn more!

Communicate intentions

It is helpful to begin a sketchbook by discussing your intentions, initial ideas, or design brief, including any requirements and restrictions set for the project. (Some students also include brainstorming and mind maps at this stage of their project).

Sketchbook annotation example
This sketchbook annotation example by Ashleigh Stephenson provides a clear introduction to her project, outlining initial intentions and explaining how she has interpreted and approached her theme. This is part of Ashleigh’s OCR AS Level Art and Design project, which was awarded A* grade, at Hessle High School and Sixth Form College.
A Level Textiles annotation
This annotation example is part of a sketchbook page by Halima Akhtar, completed while studying Edexcel AS Level Textiles at Woldingham School. In this excerpt, Halima introduces her theme and the techniques and processes she intends to explore. This is part of exam project that was awarded A* overall. You may wish to view more of Halima’s outstanding textiles projects.
sketchbook annotation
This is an enlarged detail from an IB Visual Art Process Portfolio by Enrico Giori, completed while studying at St Louis School. Enrico outlines the intentions for this section of work, describing his rationale for drawing human hands. The annotation helps the examiner immediately understand what the project is about and why Enrico has chosen to explore this subject-matter. Enrico was awarded level 7, and achieved full marks in his IB Visual Arts course. You may wish to view more of Enrico’s excellent IB Visual Arts project.

Demonstrate subject-specific knowledge

Aim to communicate your thoughts in an informed, knowledgeable manner, using a range of art-related vocabulary and terminology. This knowledge may be the result of formal classroom lessons, individual research, or personal art-making experience.

A Level Art sketchbook annotation
This A Level Art sketchbook annotation from ACG Strathallan College contains examples of subject-specific terminology, such as “pastiche”, “impasto”, and “stippled”. This communicates a sound knowledge of the subject-matter and demonstrates an excellent understanding of different painting techniques.
sketchbook annotation terminology
This sketchbook annotation example is by Allison Ho, completed as part of her IB Visual Arts Diploma at Sha Tin College, for which she was awarded level 7. This sketchbook page contrasts and compares the work of Cane Dojcilovic and Pat Perry. Note how keywords are highlighted, ensuring that important terms and subject-specific vocabulary are easily visible, and quickly brought to the attention of the examiner.
ergonomics athropometric architecture
This is an IGCSE sketchbook page from an architectural project by Emily Bolam, completed while studying at ACG Parnell College. Annotation discusses ergonomic and environmental considerations, demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of subject-specific terminology.

Include personal responses

Aim to record personal reflections, evaluations, and judgments, rather than regurgitating facts or the views of others. The aim is to provide insights into your thinking and decision-making processes. Visual art examiners do not want to read long lists of facts, excessively detailed descriptions of technical processes, extensive artist biographies, or long-winded passages documenting broad periods of art history. Use research to inform your own responses. It is not acceptable to copy written information directly from other sources, although small portions may be quoted and referenced.

AS Level Art annotation
This annotation excerpt is from an Edexcel AS Level Art and Design (Fine Art) project (awarded A grade) by Anya Emmons, completed while studying at University College School. Anya describes the ideas and emotions behind her work, and how the choice of layout, arrangement, style and use of materials helps to communicate these ideas.
IB Art formal analysis
This enlarged detail is from an IB Visual Art Process Portfolio (awarded level 7) by Enrico Giori, completed while studying at St Louis School. The typed annotation provides formal analysis of the artmaking process, allowing insight into Enrico’s thinking and ideas. You may wish to view more of Enrico’s excellent IB Visual Arts project.
A Level Art annotation example
This Edexcel A Level Art annotation example is by Emily Fielding, completed while studying at Kennet School. Emily references the work of Chris Vector, revealing why she made particular aesthetic decisions within her artwork – explaining choices regarding color and tone. Emily was awarded 100% (A*) for A Level Art – you may wish to view more of her excellent A2 coursework project.
personal response
In this example, Mishkah Abrahams has added personal reflections in and around stitched sketchbook exploration, documenting thoughts and questions as they spontaneously occur. This sketchbook page is part of Mishkah’s National Senior Certificate, for which she was awarded 92%, completed while studying at Bergvliet High School.
A Level Art analysis
This A* Edexcel A Level Art and Design analysis is by Hope Francis, completed while studying at St Peter’s School. In this example, Hope summarizes the ideas behind her architectural project, explaining decisions relating to form, function, and materials.
GCSE Art and Design annotation
This A* Edexcel GCSE Art and Design annotation by Pallas Yiu was completed while studying at Sha Tin College. As with the other annotation examples in this section, note that Pallas offers clear explanation for aesthetic decisions, revealing personal thinking.
art sketchbook annotation
This AQA A Level Art sketchbook annotation is by Daisy Wrigley, completed while studying at St Mary’s Catholic High School. Referencing the work of Crystal Neubauer, Daisy explains why she has used particular media, and how these choices support the intentions within her work. Daisy achieved 98% for A Level Art.
artwork annotation example
This annotation example is by Cecilia Rafanan, completed while studying VCE Art at Caroline Chisholm Catholic College. Cecilia clearly explains the intentions behind her visual exploration, providing insight into her thinking and decision-making process. Again, note how key phrases have been highlighted, quickly drawing these to the attention of the examiner.
design annotation example
This annotation example is by Sarah Adam, completed as part of an NCEA Level 2 Design and Visual Communication project (awarded Excellence) at Whangarei Girls’ High School. The annotation reveals insights into Sarah’s decision-making process, as she refines and develops her design.

Avoid the obvious

Self-explanatory statements—such as ‘this is a drawing of a shoe’—are unnecessary. Such comments do not communicate any new information to the examiner.

GCSE Art annotation
This Edexcel GCSE Art annotation example is by Alisha Khanna, from Highclare School. Rather than making simple statements about what has been drawn, Alisha explains why she has completed the drawing, and provides insights into her thoughts and intentions. This is part of Alisha’s GCSE Art exam, for which she was awarded 94%.

Communicate with clarity

Write in a succinct and clear manner. A sketchbook should not contain endless pages of waffle; this wastes the examiner’s time as well as your own.  You can record thoughts in any combination of legible formats: mind maps, questions, bulleted summaries, or complete sentences and paragraphs. Whichever format you choose, avoid ‘txt’ language and ensure that you proofread for spelling errors. These indicate carelessness and may suggest that the work belongs to a low-caliber student.

Don’t feel you have to write in full sentences. Noting key words or phrases can be just as effective.

Annotating your work, GCSE, Art & Design, BBC Bitesize Guides
sketchbook annotation analyzing composition
This A Level Art sketchbook annotation is by Nikau Hindin, from ACG Parnell College. Rather than writing in full sentences, Nikau jots down brief thoughts about artwork by New Zealand artist Kelcy Taratoa, recording ideas about the composition in summarized format, with arrows linking comments to relevant areas of the artwork. Abbreviated comments of this nature can be all that is required, and provide an effective way to quickly communicate key ideas to the examiner. You may wish to see more of Nikau’s outstanding A* (98%) A Level Art project.
sketchbook annotation analysis of artwork
This example of sketchbook annotation is part of a Cambridge A Level Art and Design (Painting) project completed by Jiwon Im, while studying at Macleans College. Jiwon analyses the work of New Zealand artist Susanne Kerr using arrows and brief comments. Note how these comments are rich in subject-specific terminology and quickly communicate a thorough understanding of composition to the examiner. Jiwon was awarded Top in the World for her 99% AS Art and Design submission and 96% for A Level overall. You may be interested in viewing more of Jiwon’s excellent A Level Art project.
IB Visual Arts annotation
This IB Visual Arts annotation (from a project awarded level 7) was completed by Wing Yung Ng, while studying at Sha Tin College. As with the examples above, arrows help identify which aspect of the accompanying artwork is being discussed, and notes are often added in abbreviated form. Full sentences are also included on the sketchbook page in places, clarifying thinking and intentions.
Annotation in A Level Art
An example of AQA A Level Art and Design annotation (awarded grade A) by Sinéad Kirby, completed while studying at The Marist School. Again, see how the annotation is abbreviated, communicating ideas succinctly and clearly.
GCSE Art sketchbook annotations
These Edexcel GCSE Art sketchbook annotations are by Shreya Rane, completed while studying at West Island School. Quick responses and evaluations are jotted around the accompanying photograph. Note how the brief comments are rich in art-related terminology and demonstrate close analysis of the image. Shreya was awarded A* (100%) for GCSE Art.

Reference all images, text, and ideas from other sources

All content from other sources should be formally acknowledged and credited. This is true even when you are interpreting the content rather than directly copying it. It is helpful to cite the artist underneath the relevant image (artist name, artwork title, media, date, and image source). Also, provide brief details about any visits to studios, galleries, or museums, noting that you visited in person. Label any original photographs so that it is clear to the examiner which images are your own.

GCSE Art sketchbook writing example
It is good practice for students to get in the habit of clearly crediting all work from others. This is an excerpt of an Edexcel GCSE Art and Design sketchbook by Justine Ho, West Island School. Underneath the image by Jim Dine, Justine has clearly written the name, date, and source of the image. Justine was awarded A* (100%) for GCSE Art.
IB Visual Arts analysis
This is an excerpt of IB Visual Arts analysis by Allison Ho (awarded level 7), completed while studying at Sha Tin College. Allison credits the artist, and documents the image source, immediately alongside the work by Cindy Bernhard.

Critically analyze artwork

Art analysis is an integral component of most high school art programs. Make sure you also analyze your own artwork, appraising the outcomes against your original intentions and the assessment objectives. These insights should inform and influence subsequent work.

Art analysis annotation example
In this example, IB Visual Arts student Samantha Li, of West Island School, analyses the artwork of Lucian Freud. Rather than regurgitating facts about the artist, Samantha records her own personal response to the artwork, with annotation rich in subject-specific terminology. You may also wish to view Samantha’s 100% GCSE Art project.
Jason Hicks art analysis
This is part of an A* (98%) IGCSE Art and Design coursework project by Nikau Hindin, analyzing the work of New Zealand artist Jason Hicks. Analysis is arranged around photocopies and imitations of Hicks’ work. You may wish to view more of Nikau’s outstanding IGCSE Art project.

For further assistance with sketchbook annotation, please read our guide to analyzing artwork. This is a comprehensive art annotation help sheet, with art annotation vocabulary formulated into questions to help guide students through how to annotate an artwork.

Need more help with creating a sketchbook?

This article is part of a series we have published about high school sketchbooks. You may also be interested in viewing our other sketchbook resources:

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