A contemporary approach to still life: A Level Art

Last Updated on January 5, 2022

This exemplary Painting and Related Media project was completed by Jiwon Im, while studying A Level Art and Design (Cambridge/CIE) at Macleans College, Auckland, New Zealand. Jiwon was awarded Top in the World for her 99% AS Art and Design submission and 96% for A Level overall (2012). She also gained NCEA Level 3 Painting Scholarship for a separate project completed using the same theme.

Two of Jiwon’s sketchbook pages are included 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!

Jiwon’s project is an excellent example of how personal ideas can be developed and extended with the use of appropriate artist models. Using acrylic and other creative mixed mediums, such as collaged patterned paper (created in Photoshop), lined paper covered with acrylic or watercolour wash, masking tape cut-outs that are pasted on, and gel medium to create texture, Jiwon works with the sophistication and confidence of a mature artist.

A Level Art project Cambridge (CIE)
Jiwon’s A Level Art portfolio (Cambridge International Examinations / CIE) consists of 4 x A1 sheets of preparatory work (a maximum of 10 are permitted), a sketchbook, plus a final piece.

We were lucky enough to interview Jiwon about her A Level Art project. Her responses are below.

Your project begins with drawings of an intriguing interior space and still life items arranged on shelves. Please talk to us about the ideas behind your work and why you chose this subject matter.

observational pencil drawing interior
Jiwon’s initial observational drawing shows the interior of The Apothecary cafe. A detailed scene that includes overlapping, depth and complex three-dimensional form, this image provides an excellent starting point for her project.

Jiwon: I started by going to The Apothecary (an antique cafe in Howick, Auckland) and taking my own photos. I chose this subject matter because I was more confident drawing and painting still life objects and I found them more interesting than landscape or portraiture. I also dealt with still life objects in AS level so it helped me to develop some of the ideas I discovered in AS level and explore them in more depth. I studied both Painting and Graphic Design in high school and so I was very interested in exploring the boundaries between design and painting. Do these fields even exist as entities? It is this interconnection of approaches that informs my own work.

I looked at many other ideas throughout the year. These include: order, categorising (shelves and objects aligned in rows); containment (within spaces – jars, cans, bottles); labelling (bottle label text, stamp design); and history/past (antique objects) as a decoration in present world. Another major theme within my work was old vs. new. I incorporated old objects into my work that were influenced by modern design. This idea developed towards the end of my preparatory work, where I started to combine parts of objects together to make new objects.

I started the project by exploring the interior space of the cafe, then focusing on particular objects that were interesting. As I progressed through the boards, I ended up with a set of objects from the whole space. This was the result of my development of ideas and also ideas from artist models.

A Level Art still life
As her first preparatory sheet progresses, Jiwon narrows and refines her selection of still life items from the original cafe scene. She begins to contrast the symmetrical, curvaceous bottles with the strong horizontal lines of the shelf – elements which become more dominant as her work develops.
examples of A Level Art coursework
This image from Jiwon’s A Level Art Coursework project demonstrates a superb understanding of tone: careful attention to the way light and shadow falls upon reflective surfaces and complex three-dimensional form. Note the addition of the labels, adding an element of intrigue and visual interest.
A Level Art prep work
Jiwon’s first A1 preparatory sheet contains a comprehensive investigation into her subject matter, showing both whole scenes and enlarged details, drawn and painted using a range of different mediums. Colour has been introduced gradually, moving from monochromatic to full colour.

Aside from your superb technical skill, your work stands out for the intelligent way that you have used artist models to inform and influence the creation of original compositions. This is something which many students struggle with. Please talk to us about the artists you studied and how these influenced and shaped your work.

Jiwon: I was encouraged by my teacher to look for artist models and refer to their ideas or techniques to develop my own work. This really helped me. Most ideas came after artist model research using books, with some from the internet. The first artist models that I used were David Salle and Seraphine Pick. Their work helped me to break away from just painting things as they appear and encouraged me to start rearranging spaces and make them my own. Their work showed me ideas like preparing a background first and painting objects over it so that objects float in space. David Salle divides his work in sections and uses inserts as well as various other techniques like outlining, use of patterns and text.

Other artists I studied included Lars Henkel (repetition, changing parts of objects – e.g. scale, some outline, some silhouette, some monochrome, some full colour), Susanne Kerr (use of patterns) and Emmanuel Polanco. Emmanuel Polanco’s work is design-based and his influence is visible from the start of the second A1 sheet of preparatory work. This graphic design approach, combined with my antique subject matter, shows the coexistence of old and new; and painting and design. The works show various ways of sectioning, silhouettes and using mixed media.

From the end of the second prep sheet, I introduced new ideas influenced by the artist Camille Rose Garcia. I learnt to apply layers of colour to create depth in my background. The dripping shapes came from the same artist. This helped me to explore the idea of Alchemy and Art (the bottles reminded me of magic and chemicals).

Banksy’s black and white painting technique was used to reinforce the idea of coexistence old and new; painting and design. The dripping idea was developed in the fourth preparatory sheet using the influence of the artist Fuco Ueda who uses ‘stained’ texture. I used watercolour for this technique.

Artist models were crucial for the development of my work throughout the year.

A Level Art artist study
This example from Jiwon’s A Level Art sketchbook shows analysis of the work of New Zealand artist Susan Kerr, with a quote, colour photocopies, compositional studies, imitations of technique and short, clear annotation, using subject-specific terminology. Note the important top-right section of the page, where Jiwon relates the analysis to her own subject matter.
examples of A Level Art sketchbook pages
As has been highlighted in many of the A Level Art sketchbook examples featured on the Student Art Guide, quality sketchbooks do not contain unnecessary ornamentation, ornate lettering or decorative elements. Here we have sketchbook presentation at its best: artist work surrounded by informed analysis and media trials, with connections made between the artist work and the student’s own project.
Artist analysis in an A Level Art sketchbook
These sketchbook pages show analysis of work by New Zealand artist Seraphine Pick alongside analysis of Jiwon’s own subject matter (broken into visual components such as shiny surfaces and wooden surfaces. Note that analysis of the student’s own work is an important component of an A Level Art sketchbook.
composition planning, A Level Art
This A Level Art sketchbook page shows the planning of composition, alongside media experiments. This is sketchbook use at its finest: a tool for experimenting, visual exploration, playing with ideas and clarifying thought processes.
coloured pencil drawing, A Level Art
The second sheet of preparatory work shows the obvious influence of artist models, as Jiwon moves from the investigation phase (where subject matter is explored in detail using a range of mediums) and begins to develop her ideas.
A Level Art portfolio examples
Artist analysis is an ongoing part of an A Level Art project. It is important to note that artist work isn’t mimicked in entirety; rather small snippets of ideas from each artist are merged with Jiwon’s own ideas (and those from other artists) to help develop and move the portfolio forward.
A Level Art prep work
The second completed sheet of A Level prep work shows the integration of ideas from a range of the artists studied: line drawings; rectangular panels; black and white imagery; an absence of tone (except for selected, highly realistic elements); flat background areas and strong horizontal lines.
A Level Art artist analysis
It is important to note, as in this example, that an A Level Art sketchbook should not contain ‘dry’ artist analysis on its own, but be integrated with rich, media experiments and visual exploration. Here Jiwon begins to create detailed patterns using Photoshop and includes these as collaged background elements in her work.
planning A Level sketchbook layout
Another useful exercise within an A Level Art sketchbook is to plan the layout of the preparatory sheets themselves. Students benefit immensely from taking the time to think through how work can be ordered and arranged within their preparatory sheets.
mixed media painting, A Level Art
This enlarged image from Jiwon’s third preparatory sheet shows the beautiful combination of traditional realist painting with line drawings and mixed media backgrounds.
mixed media A Level artwork
Line drawings, silhouettes and floating objects that drip away over mixed media grounds: Jiwon’s A level Art project results in highly personal outcomes.
prep work for A Level Art
The third A1 preparatory sheet in Jiwon’s A Level Art project.

What did you find most challenging about the A Level Art course?

Jiwon: I had difficulty in exploring different perspectives and views of the objects because the photos I took at the start were limited (I was not able to move objects from the shelves and rearrange them) and this made my work seem repetitive. But my teacher went to The Apothecary antique cafe and they kindly allowed us to borrow some of the chosen objects (bottles, scale, stamps) so I had additional photos of these objects in interesting perspectives. This really helped in developing my work, especially in the fourth sheet of preparatory work.

Having to think about both CIE A level and Scholarship (see below) was also challenging sometimes because the due dates weren’t far apart. But the up-to-date journal work and documenting of artist models throughout the year really helped to get the 8 Scholarship pages done.

A Level Art development
The sketchbook continues to support Jiwon’s preparatory sheets for the duration of her A Level Art Coursework project. Here Jiwon produces composition studies, media trials and plans the layout of her fourth A1 sheet.
prep work A Level Art
Jiwon’s final preparatory sheet combines accomplished painting with carefully resolved compositions. Continuing to strike a balance between light and dark; detail and space; and line and form, Jiwon now begins to merge antique objects together at different scales, inventing new, imaginative forms.
final A Level Art painting
Jiwon’s final A Level Art piece (on the right) is glowing painting, rich with multiple layers and textures. The focal point is a stunning arrangement of antique parts, disassembled and rearranged. A beautiful, luminous depth surrounds these objects hanging in space: historic items travelling through the vastness of time.

For those who are not aware, NCEA Scholarship is a separate examination taken by the very top candidates in New Zealand. It has different requirements and deadlines than CIE A Level Art and Design and entering both qualifications has several challenges, particularly for Painting students. Talk to me about the challenges you faced when submitting work for both qualifications and how you overcame these.

Jiwon: I think Scholarship is something most students in New Zealand aim for in their last year of high school. I was worried about the outcome because I knew the NCEA working process is different from CIE, but my teacher helped us from the start of the year to plan ahead so that we could finish both CIE and Scholarship work. We used our AS work for Scholarship entry and at first this worried me, because I would be competing with NCEA Level 3 students. Students who did Scholarship at our school were encouraged to choose a similar subject matter or ideas as their AS work so that we could easily replace or add some paintings as colour copies. Many students (including me) chose to use their AS Controlled Test for Scholarship, but as we only produce 2 preparatory boards and one A2 final painting, we needed to add more work to make 3 full boards required for NCEA. For the 8 pages of journal work that are needed for Scholarship, I had to scan pages from my CIE journal and rearrange them into the 8 pages. They included: brainstorm of ideas and final proposal, artist models and experimentation, composition plans (layout of paintings) and accompanying notes. I included many of my CIE A level paintings in the sketchbook that I was not able to include in the 3 Scholarship boards. The teachers really helped us a lot throughout the year. It wouldn’t have been possible without them!

NCEA Level 3 Painting exemplars
Jiwon’s NCEA Level 3 Scholarship Painting submission explores similar, but not identical subject matter to her A Level Art project. This means that some images can be duplicated – as in the image on the right (speeding up the process), but the work retains an element of difference, so remains interesting to complete!
NCEA Painting scholarship submission
Following a similar pattern of development, the conclusion to Jiwon’s NCEA Scholarship board includes modern still life items (peach cans and mustard bottles). This allows Jiwon to follow a similar pattern of development as her A Level Art project, but avoid the work becoming too repetitious and arduous!
NCEA Painting scholarship
Completing two complete bodies of work for different qualifications within the one year – especially to this standard – is a staggering feat for a Painting and Related Media student. Here is Jiwon’s superb NCEA Scholarship submission.

What advice do you have for other high school Art students who wish to gain excellent grades?

Jiwon: Always start with research and refer to the artist models if you struggle with developing ideas. Most of the time books have much more information and variety of artists than the internet. Just flip through them and note down any artists you like and refer back to them. I would also advise other art students to keep their journals up-to-date with their new ideas or artist models they find, as well as plans and trials/experimentation. Lastly, don’t hesitate to ask your teacher for advice and help!

This is the second superb high school Art project we have featured from the Art Department of Macleans College. If you would like to view more outstanding student artwork, please view our Featured Art Projects!

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