War: A Personal Connection (A Level Art)

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

This A2 Art and Design Coursework project (Unit 3) was completed by Ruth Beeley while studying A Level Art (Edexcel) at St George’s School, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England in 2011. She was awarded 100% for this component.

A Level Art Edexcel
A Level Art Unit 3: This sketchbook page is the result of a visit to the National Gallery, during which Ruth documented war art from a range of time periods. Competent, controlled areas of painting trail away into gestural background layers, over which critical analysis is written.

Ruth’s work is particularly notable for the way she approaches a challenging topic – one which most high school Art students have little first-hand experience of: War. Her emotion-filled sketchbook pages and skilful final works investigate different aspects of this theme (combat, injury, loss, grievance, war games and media propaganda) finding connections with her own life, such as displaced emotions, ostracised feelings and concepts of ‘the Other’ (as explored while studying Othello in her A Level English class).

We were lucky enough to interview Ruth about her project. Her responses are below:

Students can sometimes be unsure how to work from first-hand sources when a topic doesn’t have an immediately obvious practical connection to their life. Your project is an excellent example of how to approach this. Please describe the first-hand sources you found or created while exploring your War theme. Ruth: It was difficult obtaining first hand resources for this topic, so I partly found and adapted images from war books; for example I colourised the iconic photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral and used a dip pen to replicate an image of a line of soldiers. I referred to the work of James Nachtwey who, unlike myself, has travelled to countries at war in order to document and present to us the realities of it. When it came to creating my own pieces I obtained a WW1 helmet and clothes that looked similar to an army uniform. I took a range of photos of people close to me, and tried to imagine what it would be like if they were at war, provoking emotion in myself and hopefully in my work.

James Nachtwey war photographer
Here Ruth studies the work of war photographer James Nachtwey, looking at wounds and scars: permanent reminders of battle. Her A Level Art sketchbook pages are well-composed, seamlessly integrating image and text.
A Level Art unit 3 sketchbook
This page in Ruth’s A Level Art Unit 3 sketchbook looks at prisoners of war and is drawn using biro pen upon an ink and acrylic background. Biro is a surprisingly effective medium for high school Art students to use. It can be applied over paint easily: adding detail, sharpening edges and strengthening tonal variation.
A Level Art sketchbook ideas
This is a powerful and striking sketchbook page. It has been featured our ‘sketchbook ideas’ article. Please see the link at the bottom of this page for more information!
A level sketchbook architecture
A dark, moody scene showing a famous scene from WWII: St Paul’s Cathedral. This work contrasts finely detailed architectural drawings with rich, smudged, painterly backgrounds.
war art
Ruth drew inspiration for her project from a range of sources, including the works of writers and poets (in addition to war art). This sketchbook page depicts is inspired by Wilfred Owen’s poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’.
drawing of soldiers
Ruth continues to demonstrate an ability to select media wisely for the task at hand. She uses Indian ink (using a dip pen) to draw soldiers landing at Arzeu in WWII. Note the beautiful pale washes used to create ships in the background.

You have used a large range of mediums within your project, resulting in rich, layered, textural sketchbook pages. How did this approach benefit your project? Ruth: Where I used dense, uncoordinated materials, I was trying to replicate the destruction and confusion of war. Whilst the theory of battle is mathematical and planned, the reality is not and is instead clouded with blood, dirt and emotion. For example for the ‘Uncle Sam’ piece, I took the classic Uncle Sam propaganda poster and covered it with acrylic, sand, wire, coffee, lentils, porridge, biro, scrim (strips of loosely woven fabric), Modroc (fabric coated in Plaster of Paris) and created a solution of ink, water and PVA for blood. I intended to highlight the irony of propaganda posters which glorify war without showing the destruction of it.

Edexcel A2 Art and Design
Here Ruth’s Edexcel A2 Art and Design coursework begins to take on a more personal connection. The graphite pencil portrait on the left shows her father; symbolic of the battles and conflicts that ‘ordinary’ humans often endure in everyday life. On the right Ruth has used a range of mixed media, such as wire, coffee, lentils, ink, biro and scrim to modify the well known Uncle Sam ‘I want you’ propaganda poster.

Which artists did you study as part of your project? How have these influenced and shaped your work? Ruth: When creating my ceramic piece I looked at Penelope Batley’s twisted sculptures and Robert Arneson’s war-related pieces, such as ‘General Nuke‘. I liked the way General Nuke has the ability to make the viewer uncomfortable, and certainly depicts a negative image of war. Similarly I wished to create a sense of unease, however where Arneson did this through sculpting an evil-looking general, I sculpted one of the victims of war. The soldier’s face is a picture of pain and anguish and the back of his head is caving outwards as if shot. As there is no ‘entry wound’, the piece could be a visual representation of the psychological damage that war inflicts, as well as the physical. I looked at war memorials, noting how the lists of killed soldiers induce feelings of loss in those who view them and put the number of killed into perspective. Finally, wanting to create a cinematic, realistic painting, I looked at war photographers, such as James Nachtwey. Whilst Nachtwey captured images that I do not have the opportunity to capture, I also considered his composition and lighting, thinking how I could apply it to my final piece.

war themed art paintings
Inspired by the clay sculptures of Robert Arneson, Ruth begins to design her own ceramic piece, painting a victimised soldier. Exploring War in three-dimensions gives Ruth’s Coursework project added variety, morphing from painted to sculpted form.
soldier sculpture exploring war theme
These images show analysis of ceramic sculptures by Penelope Batley and Ruth’s own sculpture in progress.
clay sculpture a level art
The finished ceramic sculpture shows a soldier with his face screwed up in terror / anguish / pain, with the back of his head blown open as if shot.

What advice do you have for other high school Art students who wish to gain excellent grades? Ruth: I achieved my grade by simply covering all areas of the brief; I included plenty of research, first looking through magazines for inspiration, moving on to artists, photographers and articles. I used a range of media and worked both in sketchbooks and on A2 sheets, producing a large body of work and therefore ensuring that all areas were covered. The ceramic sculpture was a side project that again ensured a range of materials were used and brought me into the third dimension. The concertina sketchbook was good in presenting a thought process and a constant stream of work.

war theme in A Level Art
There are many benefits to experimenting with different artwork sizes and formats. This image was completed on an A5 fold-out concertina sketchbook, pieced together from multiple war-themed images, forming a single horizontal composition.
A Level Art Unit 3
In this phase of her A Level Art Unit 3 project Ruth studies war memorials. Note how drawing over the black and white images helps to integrate these within the sketchbook page.
A Level Art composition development
Over the next few sketchbook pages, Ruth develops the composition of her final work, exploring first-hand imagery (a young man dressed to look like a soldier).
Edexcel A Level Art sketchbook
The last page in Ruth’s Edexcel A Level Art Unit 3 Sketchbook shows composition plans for her final work. The figure has been carefully positioned within the frame and lighting and colour manipulated to help convey a sombre mood.
final piece, soldier painting
Ruth’s final piece in her A Level Art Coursework project is a striking, well-composed image, with strong contrast and careful balancing of positive and negative form. She demonstrates an excellent command of acrylic paint, working with a high level of precision and control. The image depicts an apprehensive / expectant soldier, perhaps soon to be marred by the mess of human suffering ahead.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like view 20 Creative Sketchbook pages – an article in which Ruth’s work has also been featured!


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