Preparing for the new A level Personal Study

There’s a new A level spec in town bearing a heftier Personal Study than its predecessor. With its own assessment grid and 18 marks to play for (12% of the overall A level) the stakes are raised and the keyboards are a-clattering.

I thought I’d join the chorus.


Typewriter Destruction, Jean Toche, 1966

This post relates to preparing for the Personal Study. For practical advice on how to structure the essay, or how to write a bibliography and so on, try here: Digging Deep: A Level Personal Study time.

But wherever you linger, don’t presume I’m the expert. The official line from Edexcel (other exam boards available) can be found here. I’ve simply cherry-picked a few points and tried to frame these with some, hopefully, helpful advice.

In short, don’t blame me.

What is the Personal Study?
Put simply it’s an essay – continuous prose of at least a 1000 words, worth 12% of your overall A level.

In summary the essay should:

  • Be a minimum of 1000 words but no more than 3000 (short and punchy is better than drawn out and draining).
  • Focus on a specific artist/photographer  or art movement (or alternatively, a concept or artifact).
  • Be related to your own investigations and practical (course)work.
  • Include supporting images (examples from your chosen focus, your own work, other artworks / wider connections made).
  • Include a bibliography (see below)
  • Be critical, analytical, personal, informative and inspiring.
  • Be a labour of love, and a pleasure for others to pick up and look at. And read, obviously.

The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915 1961-2 by William Roberts 1895-1980

The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915 (detail), William Roberts, 1961–2


Preparing for the Personal Study
Obviously writing is a very different skill to, say, drawing, painting or submitting a urinal. However, don’t underestimate the transferable skills in your art locker: Studying a creative subject tunes you to more sensitive frequencies – being discerning, questioning, managing uncertainties, challenging expectations, and so on.

And should you doubt the relevance of these, just look at the Personal Study descriptors for ‘Exceptional Ability’ from Edexcel:


But of course we are still dealing with words, specifically choosing the right ones and pinning them in the right place. Importantly still, those pesky bedfellows Knowledge and Literacy can’t be ignored in this unmade bed. And so with this in mind the tips below are at best a nudge for new Year 12 students. BUT remember: No claims of expertise here, I’m simply running on instinct and digestives. Please do add any wiser words in the comment boxes below.

Top tips for students

1. Commit to reading about art every day
Start now. Begin gently with a favourite artist or relevant arts news. Look to make connections across prior knowledge and to discover the wider contexts (more on this here). Like trying to find a glue stick with a lid on, this can be difficult but not impossible. (Talking of which, try looking in that dusty pile in the studio corner – they’re books, by the way).

2.Pay close attention to the language of art
Whether reading, listening in class, or watching artist video clips, do this with your dial set to hyper-sensitive. That is: FULL CONCENTRATION. Always question unfamiliar words, re-read tricky texts, and note down new vocabulary and quotes. And then, should you ever find a piece of writing that really does touch your heart, take it home and pull it to bits.

3. Practice the craft of writing
Most A level students write in their sketchbooks regularly, but few students use this as an opportunity to deliberately practice. Experiment away you fools!

  • Try to write concisely but not coldly, this is art not science. Read sentences aloud to see if they sound natural or contrived.
  • Avoid obvious descriptions and over-elaborating. A well-placed image, quote or question can often do the job better.
  • Vary sentence length. A sentence that cascades the reader forwards, as if perched upon a rolling assembly line, does seem to resonate most if followed by a shorter one. Possibly. (Refer to previous disclaimer). This is most likely something to do with rhythm.
  • Interleave the quick notes in your sketchbook (made direct in lessons from research etc. – always a good thing) with more thoughtfully-crafted paragraphs. These should become the building blocks for the Personal Study.
  • Concentrate your most thoughtful writing on matters of context and connection making, for here lies the richest opportunities to combine research with personal insights. Enjoyable too.
  • Use questions often. Even unanswered they can work as powerful provocations.
  • Use an online thesaurus to build your vocabulary.
  • Always remember: “highly articulate and sophisticated” does not mean trying to sound all fancy-pants. Keep it real.

picassoReading, a reoccurring theme for Picasso


Introducing students to “highly articulate and sophisticated” art writing
Finding appropriate reading materials for an A level Art class can be tricky. Literacy levels can vary greatly, and interests are inevitably diverse. Below are a few texts that I’ve been particularly drawn to through quality writing. For teachers, a suggested lesson structure is also included below (alongside additional prompts for Example 2).

Example 1: Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, with essays by Sister Wendy Beckett and Gregory Crewdson



“This is not just an image of big-city loneliness, but of existential loneliness: the sense that we have (perhaps overwhelmingly in late adolescence) of being on our own in the human condition.” Sister Wendy Beckett

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 20.47.17
Click to download PDF of texts

Why use this artwork and these texts?
‘Nighthawks’ is an iconic painting, likely familiar to students already, but one that can still provoke some ambivalence. The text by Sister Wendy is accessible and maneuvers neatly between facts, interpretations, and relationships, evoking deeper reflections along the way. The text also manages to convey the tension evident in much of Hopper’s work (alongside other reoccurring devices – framing, voyeuristic viewpoints, isolated figures and so on). By following this essay with Gregory Crewdson’s text – whose own contemporary work can hold more direct appeal to students – Sister Wendy’s offerings are reinforced, with a dash more hope; as is the power of writing to draw students in.

In addition, as a demonstration of contextual study, the possibilities here are endless: Nighthawks was likely inspired by writing itself – Hemingway’s short story ‘The Killers’. (Warning:includes racist language) – and in turn it has influenced poetry, short stories, numerous artworks and also parodies too, notably Banksy’s and this Simpsons take, (cheap hooks perhaps, but worth having in the teacher toolbox). And then, if you like a more breathy analysis, this Khan Academy video provides a great opportunity to pick out some descriptive vocabulary.

Example 2: The work of Stephen Gill, with essays by Iain Sinclair and Jon Ronson
These examples add another layer of subtlety (and challenge) and are not directed at a single image but rather a body of work.



Taken from ‘Road Works’, 1999-2003, and ‘Hackney Wick’, 2005, by Stephen Gill

“Stephen Gill has learnt this: to haunt the places that haunt him. His photo-accumulations demonstrate a tender vision factored out of experience; alert, watchful, not overeager, wary of that mendacious conceit, ‘closure’. There is always flow, momentum, the sense of a man passing through a place that delights him. A sense of stepping down, immediate engagement, politic exchange. Then he remounts the bicycle and away. Loving retrievals, like a letter to a friend, never possession… What I like about Stephen Gill is that he has learnt to give us only as much as we need, the bones of the bones of the bones…” Iain Sinclair

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 20.45.47

Click to download PDF of texts

Why use this work and texts?
Stephen Gill’s photographs tend to quietly whisper rather than shout for attention, so written explanations are helpful.  Both Jon Ronson and Iain Sinclair have collaborated regularly with Gill, writing various texts for his self-published books. To my mind both are excellent writers. However, their approaches are very different and this can make for an interesting comparison of writing styles.

Regarding Ronson’s text:

  • How is dialogue used to provide an insight into Stephen Gill’s mind?
  • How does Jon Ronson act as a link between the reader and the photographer? Consider how he switches from being uncertain (or at least pretending to be) to offering informed insights.
  • How does Ronson develop the suggestion that Stephen Gill sees things others might miss?

Regarding Sinclair’s text:

  • Consider how this is written in third person, rather than Ronson’s first person account. How does this influence its reading?
  • Consider how the writer uses various techniques to share Gill’s working methods: For example, the rhythm of the sentences, the listing, the dashes, the physicality/crunchiness of the language, the focus on small details, and so on.
  • Consider the abruptness of the last phrase: “the game is over”. What impact does this have on our experience of reading, and also on our understanding of Gill’s work?

A suggested approach to using these artworks and texts:

  • Show students the artwork(s) with no additional information or context.
  • Ask them to independently make notes in response to the work, drawing on existing knowledge.
    My baseline hopes here are that students will:

    • 1. Pause first to consider the ‘value’ of the work and where best to invest analysis. For example, considering the VISUAL, TECHNICAL, CONTEXTUAL or CONCEPTUAL (see here, again). Most students default to a basic visual analysis, possibly followed by consideration of the mood or potential narrative of the work. Making wider connections is often overlooked without prompting.
    • 2. Recall subject vocabulary and prior lessons learned.
  • Ask students to carefully consider their explanations before sharing an insight each. They should then identify the most articulate responses from the group.
  • Only now provide the text for students to read through, encouraging them to identify any difficulties or unfamiliar vocabulary. And then, to read again, identifying:
    • facts – which might include historical/personal/political/cultural contexts, or alternatively straightforward visual analysis relating to subject matter, arrangement of visual elements etc.
    • author’s opinion – be it interpretations, speculations, questions raised etc.
    • sentences, quotes or phrases that particularly appeal, for whatever reason
  • Share these thoughts together – collectively unpick the text, reflecting on where understanding develops and new thresholds are crossed.
  • Set a follow up task to write a carefully crafted, well-informed paragraph in response to their own chosen artwork.


Okay, enough. But on the to-do list now is sharing some examples of student writing, alongside some thoughts on the common problems that can arise. If you want to add your experiences, do use the comment boxes below.


Additional resources

For Photography students there are plenty of fantastic resources available on the PhotoPedagogy website.
These include:

And here are further reading suggestions, as recommended via the NSEAD facebook forum:

Perhaps not for students, but maybe for teachers of a more rebellious spirit – pirates, in fact – I’ve just finished this: Dave Hickey’s ‘Pirates and Farmers: Essays on taste’. Acerbic, astute, and marauding, it’s a biting, thought-provoking challenge to the arts. Great writing indeed.

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