The Top 10 Mistakes Made by Art Students

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

A Spanish translation of this article is available here: Traducción Española

In my seven years of teaching, I have assessed over one thousand Painting / Fine Art student folios. It has become obvious that high school Art students make the same mistakes, over and over again. This article outlines these errors, so that others can avoid making the same errors themselves.

common errors made by high school Art students

In no particular order, the mistakes are as follows:

Thinking Art will be an entertaining, ‘filler’ subject

Many students select Art thinking that it will be a fun subject where you hurl a bit of paint around and scribble with brightly coloured crayons. Students who enter under this misconception suffer a very quick wake-up call. Art can indeed be fun, but it is also an unimaginable amount of work. It requires constant and ongoing effort. Many students spend more time on their Art homework than they do on all of their other subjects put together. Art should be taken for one reason only: because playing with line and tone and shape and form and texture and colour fills you with joy. If you don’t love making art, your subject selection will torment you. Art will become your demon: the subject you resent with a passion, instead of enjoy.

Taking too long to begin

Some students are struck with a fear that they don’t have an original starting point or that they haven’t interpreted their exam topic in quite the right way. They spend weeks fretting over their topic selection and worrying whether it is good enough. Here’s the truth: it’s not the idea that matters – it’s what you do with it. Even the lamest beginnings can become draw-droppingly amazing if they are developed in the right way, with reference to the right artist models (visit our Pinterest Boards for artist ideas). Delaying your project in the hope of stumbling upon a ‘perfect’ topic rarely works: instead it results in panicked, last-minute submissions that are a pale shadow of what they could have been, had the full allotment of time been used. Great high school Art portfolios (in almost all cases) need time. Do yourself a favour and begin.

Producing weak or uninspiring compositions

Compositional errors can be broken into the following four categories:

  • Cheesy: Surprisingly, there are still students who attempt to create artworks containing hearts; glitter; prancing horses; leaping dolphins or bunches of roses. Overly ‘pretty’, cliché and/or unimaginative subjects are rarely successful.
  • Boring: Those who select appropriate but common subject-matter (i.e. portraits) but make no effort to compose these in an innovative way, do themselves no favours. Even highly able students sometimes submit projects that make an examiner want to yawn. (A less able student, on the other hand, with exciting ideas and clever compositions, can make an examiner sit up and take notice).
  • Simple: Another common compositional error – usually evident in weaker students – is to avoid complex / challenging arrangements and/or choose a scene that is completely ‘flat’ or formless (i.e. an enlarged detail of a brick wall or a cloudy sky). This is unlikely to give you sufficient opportunity to render complex three-dimensional form and runs the risk of limiting or stifling your project.
  • Unbalanced: Every image, page and preparatory component of your high school Art project should be arranged in a well-balanced, aesthetically pleasing way. This can be a challenge for some, but certain principles – and directing conscious attention to composition – make this easier. (More on composition in an upcoming article).

Flaunting poor skills

Struggling with a practical aspect of Art is not a mistake (no one is perfect; everyone is in the process of improving their skills and becoming better) but flaunting your weaknesses to the examiner is. Remove weak pieces and ensure that you present your skills in the best light. If you are messy and struggle to control paint, choose an artist model that allows you to apply gestural, expressive brush strokes, so it appears that your lack of control is intentional (this will allow you to continue practising with wet mediums, rather than avoiding them completely). If you struggle to draw realistically, Read 11 Tips for Creating Excellent Observational Drawings and consider embracing gestural drawing, distortion, manipulation or semi-abstraction. Showcase your strengths and use these as a distractive mechanism, while confronting your weaknesses head-on.

Failing to show development

Many Art qualifications (i.e. IGCSE, GCSE, NCEA and A Level Art) ask students to develop ideas from initial concept/s to final piece. Difficulties with development usually present themselves in two forms: submitting a body of unrelated work OR submitting work that doesn’t develop at all. We have written an in-depth article about development to to help those who struggle with this (it was written for A Level Art students, but it applies to other Art qualifications also): this is one of the most important articles on this website.

Continually restarting work

Those who take Art are often the perfectionist type, wanting every aspect of their portfolio to be perfect. This ambition is great – in fact, most teachers wish this was a more widely-held attitude – however the mechanisms for achieving this are often flawed. Continually restarting pieces of work is not a good idea. It is rare that a drawing, painting or mixed-media piece cannot be worked upon and improved. In almost all cases, initial ‘bad’ layers give an artwork substance, resulting in a richer final piece (see this article about working over grounds for more). Those who habitually restart work have less time to complete the second piece and often end up with a folder of semi-complete pieces, none of which truly represent their skill in the best light.

Drawing from second-hand sources

Drawing or painting from images taken by others is one of the riskiest strategies a high school Art student can use. It sets off alarm bells for the examiner, as it can indicate a lack of personal connection to a topic, a lack of originality, plagiarism issues and result in superficial / surface-deep work. Using images sourced from magazines, books and the internet screams of one thing: a student who cannot get off their backside long enough to find something of their own to draw. NOTE: This is a guideline only. There are certain art projects – some of which are featured on this website – in which drawing from second-hand resources is acceptable. In general, however, this is something that should be approached with extreme care.

Spending too long on annotation

For some students, writing comes naturally – they enjoy pouring words onto a page. Others use annotation as a form of procrastination, to avoid working on the visual material. There is nothing wrong with annotation. It is an excellent mechanism for refining ideas, evaluating work and communicating concepts and ideas. But students should remember this: it is usually possible to score perfect marks with little or zero annotation (except, of course, in artist studies where written analysis is required); it is never possible to score perfect marks with annotation only. Spend your effort creating outstanding drawings and paintings. Use annotation as and when is necessary, but put your fullest energy into creating artwork. Put the art first and the annotation second.

Presenting work poorly

Whether you admit or not, presentation is important. Art and Design is a visual subject. Those who assess it are highly sensitive to visual cues. The way artwork is mounted, arranged and put together speaks volumes to the examiner about your attitude as a candidate: your enthusiasm, your commitment and work ethic. Scrunched, dog-eared, smudged works can (if you are lucky) communicate the idea that you are a insane, artistic genius, but they are more likely to communicate the idea that you are a disorganised, slovenly student who couldn’t care less about the subject. When someone has a few minutes to assess or moderate your entire year’s work, first impressions count. Let your work shine. (We will have detailed presentation tips in an upcoming article – stay tuned)!


The ultimate downfall of an Art student is procrastination. This is the number one barrier to success. Leaving things until the last minute can work in some subjects (especially the kind where knowledge is absorbed and regurgitated on cue) if you have an excellent memory, excellent grasp of the subject and a have a refined cramming technique – but it almost never works in Art. Even skilful, highly able students need time to produce a great Art project. Why do Art students procrastinate? How do you stop? Please read our article: How to stop procrastinating and get your art homework done.

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