Perceptions of Identity: IB Visual Arts

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

This article features the International Baccalaureate artwork of Iris Cheung, completed as part of the IB Visual Arts Diploma Programme at Sha Tin College, Hong Kong, 2012. Throughout her Investigation Workbook and Studio Work, Iris challenges perceptions of identity using paint and photography.

We were lucky enough to interview Iris below:

Your IB Visual Arts project contains rich and varied subject matter that has been investigated in depth. Talk to us about the ideas that you have explored in your work.

My work aims to examine and challenge perceptions of identity through paint and photograph. Using people as the predominant subject matter of my work, the idea was to create ‘distorted’ or ‘off’ portraits that work against our normal expectations of someone of a particular age or gender. The portraits that I did of my grandma are my favourite – she’s animated, lively, and bold, contrasting how the elderly are often perceived. Although I wanted the pieces to be as dynamic as possible, it was important to retain her age in the painting process; following the likes of Lucien Freud, I focused on emphasizing the wrinkles on her face through demonstrating the cooler undertones in her flesh and creating texture.

The best part of the project was getting creative! I loved exploring a range of ideas before focusing on one issue. I was interested in reflecting Hong Kong’s ‘cosmetics culture’ and unhealthy obsession with beauty, and did so though examining the visual effect of repetition in creating an overwhelming (and near sickly) sense of affluence. (In the painting process, however, it was a massive technical challenge for me to get all the objects identical). I also tried painting from photographs of crumpled editorial portraits, which was inspired by Nigel Tomm and a fascinating way of distorting the face.

Your project contains a range of highly personal, exciting portraits. How did you ensure that you approach a common subject matter in an innovative and fresh way?

Whenever I began the process of creating a new portrait, it felt natural to begin with photography. It was important to use people I knew in real life as my subject matter, and building a rapport with whoever I was going to paint really helped me to encapsulate their identity on a deeper, more personal level. Taking photographic portraits prior to painting enabled me to explore a wide range of poses and facial expressions before choosing the most visually compelling images to work from.

Your workbook contains excellent annotation and analysis of artwork. What advice do you have for others who are struggling in this area?

A useful tool for art analysis is having a structure that can be followed regardless of the work. Having a structure ensures that you cover all aspects of the work, and that you are really scrutinizing the details. Analysis was much easier when I could split up my observations into components: composition, colour, and form, for example. If you struggle with accurately applying art vocabulary (as I did!), it might be helpful to develop a list of art-annotating terms that you can keep referring back to.

It helps to remember that good analysis is not necessarily positive; being critical of artwork enables you to develop your own stance and style as an artist. Where historical or social context has influenced the artist’s decisions, try to explain how it has impacted the art work.

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

For me, art is really about getting inspired. It’s important to be exposing yourself to as much art as possible, and the type of art that you want to see in a gallery is potentially the type of art that you want to be creating. Student life can be hectic, but make time to go to the galleries and exhibitions. It helps to be learning from accomplished artists because seeing their talent and energy helps to pitch a high standard for when you’re thinking about how to develop your own work.

Be open to both ideas and criticism. Listen to your friends and teachers!

observational drawing of plants
This investigation page is a lovely example of observational drawing that explores a range of related forms (plants in this case). This page focuses upon surface textures and planes, which is very much part of her later work.
Inspired by Ian Murphy drawings
In this mixed media study Iris has referenced the work of a contemporary artist that visited her school, Ian Murphy. It is the personal interpretation of his work in her own drawing that is exciting here. The combination of tonal structural drawing and more worked areas of colour draw you into the page and help you to see her thought process as she learns from the work of an artist model. In her choice of subject matter you can see that she is starting to think about her own environment in Hong Kong and exploring ways of using this as a source for her artwork. It is always good to use personal experience as a basis for your work.

More information about Ian Murphy can be found on his website.

Artist study: IB Art journal
In these investigation pages Iris starts to think about the function of a portrait, exploring how other artists have approached this genre and explore what she wants her portraits to capture about the person. Again, she not only learns about the artist work by drawing from it, but also applying what she has learnt in a study from her own photograph.

The journal pages above reference work by Lucien Freud and Chuck Close.

urban environment: IB Art
A very interesting photo essay observing her own local environment with a focus on surface, texture and line (all elements that are important in her portrait works) held together by the accent colour red. You can see that there has been some careful selection of what to photograph, as well as which images to include here.
portraiture study: IB Art
In this bold portrait study we see clear evidence of purposeful decision making again. The inclusion of the set of photos at the top of the page exploring view point and subtle changes in expression helps us to see how she is selecting an image to work from. In this page it is also clear that Iris has used her study of Lucian Freud’s work to inform her own work.
photographic investigation: IB Art
In a small series of photos Iris explores how a young girl interacts with her environment; being both part of it and isolated within it at the same time. The idea of both belonging and feeling like you don’t fit are really interesting ideas when exploring identity. This is a very relevant theme for many students to explore in the context of an increasingly global society where traditional ideas of culture do not necessarily fit any more.
crumpled portraiture: IB Art
Iris mentions in her interview that she likes to play with distortion of the portrait and to challenge stereotypes. Through these studies of crumpled photographs, she turns a beautiful young woman into something almost grotesque. The folds and wrinkles in the paper also refrence the wrinkles in her studies of her grandmother’s face. This is an interesting way of challenging the obsession with youth and physical beauty. It could also be see as a comment on the way women are seen as less important as they age, the crumpled image thrown away like trash.
makeup and identity: IB Art
Here Iris focuses on developing a composition in a systematic way; not just one idea, but a series of ideas from a range of artistic sources, to refine the idea. She has looked at both compositional and technical models to help her develop her work. It is an excellent idea to use different artists to help solve problems in your work.
development of ideas: IB Art
In these pages we see a clear development of an image. The in-depth compositional exploration is very strong and something that students sometimes underestimate the importance of in Investigation Workbook pages. Here Iris has looked at a range of expressions and gestures in a systematic way, before working on the more finished studies. We can see a very clear link and progression from her ealier portraits. She has learned from these and the artist studies to improve her work.
repetition/multiples and development of ideas: IB Art
The theme of multiples is explored again in this page, but rather than the still life of make up, here she looks at the idea of repeated portraits. The idea of multiple aspects to a person adds another facet to her exploration into perceptions of identity.
final painting IB Art
The idea of using a repeated pattern in the background clearly links to the investigation of Pop Art Iris made with her makeup series. It is nice to see it reinvented in this portrait as a pattern of a culturally significant symbol.

What is so successful about this investigation is the way that Iris is able to explore her concept in a broad ranging way that connects and develops ideas in a genuine process as the ideas have grown. She has not stuck with one successful formula; instead she has pushed her ideas around and taken risks by exploring different possibilities. You can see her learning from her experiments and building on her successes in this thorough investigation.


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