This article contains tips, examples and guidance to help students produce an A* grade GCSE or A Level Art sketchbook. It outlines best practice in terms of annotation, content and page layout, and gives ideas and recommendations for students of any discipline (including Painting / Fine Art, Graphic Design, Sculpture, Printmaking, Photography, Textiles and Fashion students). It is likely to benefit those studying under a range of examination boards, as well as those producing sketchbooks for other high school qualifications, such as IB Art (the Investigation Workbook / IWB) and NCEA Level 3 Scholarship.
What should an A Level or GCSE Art sketchbook contain?
A sketchbook is a creative document that contains both written and visual material. It is a place for researching, exploring, planning and developing ideas – for testing, practising, evaluating and discussing your project. It is the place where you learn from other artists and express and brainstorm ideas.
The sketchbook is an important part of your Coursework project. It shows the journey (or development) towards your final piece and usually contains:
- Drawings, diagrams, thumbnails, composition plans, paintings and/or designs (particularly those that are incomplete or experimental)
- Practise and trials of different techniques and processes
- A range of mixed mediums and materials
- Evidence of first-hand responses to subject matter and artworks, demonstrated through observational drawings, photographs and annotated pamphlets and sketches from exhibitions or gallery visits. (Note: the sketchbook must NOT be used as a dumping ground for fliers and pamphlets. If you are going to glue something in, evaluate it, discuss its relevance and explain how it helps to inform your own work)
- Digital printouts of relevant artist work
- Annotation (see below)
Note: The sketchbook should NOT be used as an all-purpose journal for doodling cartoon characters or scribbling notes to a friend. All work contained within your sketchbook must support your Coursework project as a whole.
How to annotate an A Level or GCSE Art sketchbook
The following tips and guidelines should help you understand how to add quality notes to your pages:
- Reveal your own thinking and personal responses (rather than regurgitating facts or the views of others)
- Explain the starting points and ideas, emphasising personal relevance and your own connections to subjects
- Critically analyse and compare artwork of relevant artist models (both historical and contemporary artists, from a range of cultures). Discuss aesthetics, use of media, technique, meaning/emotion/ideas and the influence of an artist upon your own work. While it is important to conduct research into your artist models (and to convey an understanding of this information), avoid copying or summarising large passages of information from other sources. Instead, select the information that you think is useful for your project and link it with your own viewpoints and observations. Use research findings to make you sound clever and knowledgeable – to prove that you are aware of the artists and cultural influences around you – and to help you to critically evaluate artworks (by giving you background information and a peek into the mind of an artist): do not use it to fill your sketchbook with boring facts
- Demonstrate good subject knowledge, using correct vocabulary (phrases such as ‘strong contrast’, ‘draws the eye’ and ‘focal point’ etc)
- Reference of all images, artwork and text from other sources, ensuring that artists, websites and books are acknowledged (it should be obvious to an examiner which work is yours when viewing a page, so cite sources directly underneath the appropriate image. Photographs taken by yourself should be clearly labelled, so examiners know the work is yours and reward you for it)
- Communicate with clarity. It doesn’t matter whether you jot down notes or use full sentences, but never use ‘txt’ speak and try to avoid incorrect spelling, as this indicates sloppiness and can hint to the examiner that you are a lower calibre candidate
When annotating a GCSE or A Level Art sketchbook, it may benefit you to contemplate the following:
- What subjects / themes / moods / issues / messages are explored? Why are these relevant or important to the artist (or you)?
- What appeals to you visually about this artwork?
- How does the composition of the artwork (i.e. the relationship between the visual elements: line, shape, colour, tone, texture and space) help to communicate ideas and reinforce a message? Why might this composition have been chosen? (Discuss in terms of how the visual elements interact and create visual devices that ‘draw attention’, ‘emphasise’, ‘balance’, ‘link’ and/or ‘direct the viewer through the artwork’ etc.)
- What mediums, techniques (mark-making methods), styles and processes have been used? How do these communicate a message? How do they affect the mood of the artwork and the communication of ideas? Are these methods useful for your own project?
- How does all of the above help you with your own artwork?
Remember that these questions are a guide only and are intended to make you start to think critically about the art you are studying and creating. If you need further help with analysing artist work, the article about writing the Personal Study contains a section about critical analysis which you are likely to find useful.
NCEA Level 3 Scholarship Printmaking workbook exemplars, sourced from NZQA:
NCEA Level 3 Scholarship Printmaking workbook exemplars, sourced from NZQA:
Sketchbook Presentation Ideas
Layout and presentation is an area that many GCSE and A Level students struggle with – often spending hours adding decorative features to their sketchbooks that make little difference to final grades. In appearance, a sketchbook should be reminiscent of what you might expect an artist or designer to create. It should not be a tacky ‘school project’, with colourful headings and sparkly backgrounds. It does not need to be – and indeed, should not be – heavily structured or ‘over worked’. It does not need to be rigidly ordered, excessively flowery or decorative. You do not need to spend time adding borders; typing out the annotation or working obsessively over pages again and again. The sketchbook is NOT meant to be a complete a book of finished artworks and illustrations; it is meant to be creative document of exploration and investigation. A place where an art student thinks, works things out and learns.
This does not mean, of course, that your sketchbook should be unattractive. Indeed, to get an A* it must look stunning.
Guidelines for presenting an A* quality sketchbook are as follows:
- Select a good quality sketchbook and/or a collection of artist papers and found materials. The difference between work produced upon cheap, flimsy sketchbook pages that warp at the mere hint of moisture and that produced on thick, rich, ‘wet strength’ paper can be enormous. Even a garish cover design can negatively influence enthusiasm. If you have a choice in this area, buy a quality sketchbook and/or collection of paper / drawing surfaces. Begin with something that inspires you.
- Let the artwork shine. Do not distract from your practical work by using large lettering, decorative borders, or unnecessary framing or mounting. Do not spend weeks researching, preparing and reworking beautiful backgrounds – wild drips of coffee, torn paper, layer upon layer of careful speckled mediums – if this compromises the amount of time you spend on the artwork itself. Producing quality art or design work is your number one goal.
- Vary page layouts to provide variety and visual interest. Some pages should have many illustrations; some should have single, full-page artworks; others should be somewhere in between. Position items carefully on the page as you work: making sure pages are well-composed.
- Use a consistent style of presentation, so that a consistent visual language unites the sketchbook. Some students are drawn towards hard-edged, ordered presentation methods (often those studying graphic design, for example); others prefer messier, looser, gestural presentation styles. Neither is better than the other: both can be amazing. Inconsistency, however (pages jumping from one presentation style to the next), can result in a submission that is distracting, busy and hard on the eye.
- Be selective. More is not necessarily better. Although examiners look to reward candidates and have your best interests at heart, bulking up your sketchbook with poor work does you no favours. Weak work can set off alarm bells for an examiner, leading them to be on the lookout for potential weaknesses elsewhere. This does not mean that you should discard everything which is not perfect (work should rarely be thrown away, as most things can be worked over and saved for far less effort than would be required starting anew), but you must discriminate. Don’t automatically include everything. Select work which shows the journey your project has taken and presents your skill in the best light.
- Prioritise visual work above annotation. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, well informed or clever your annotation is – it cannot redeem rushed, poorly executed practical work. Only once images on a page are complete (or as complete as needed) should you fill some of the gaps with notes. Even the hurried addition of annotation can be done harmoniously – making a sketchbook page appear thorough and well-balanced. Use text as a compositional element. Write neat and small (this way spelling or grammatical errors are less obvious), and – if your examination board allows it – in pencil (so that mistakes can be easily changed); otherwise, write in black or white pen: not ink that switches colour every sentence or is ‘enhanced’ by hearts on the ‘i’s.
- Give every page of your sketchbook some love. Use each page as an opportunity to remind the examiner that you are a hard-working, dedicated student who cares passionately about this subject. This does not mean that your sketchbook must be crammed to the brim with intense, laboured work (sometimes an expressive, ten minute charcoal drawing on a page is all that is needed) but that each part of your sketchbook is produced with care and dedication.
Examples of great art sketchbooks
The guidance above contains general tips, advice and best practice for GCSE and A Level Art students. We have also begun a series of articles showcasing outstanding Art sketchbook examples for each of the following areas:
These articles contain inspirational sketchbook pages from a large number of students and a few selected artists, showcasing different approaches, techniques and presentation methods. It is hoped that they provide a motivational resource to inspire others!
A final piece of inspiration: this Youtube clip shows a brief glimpse into sculptor Paul Komoda’s sketchbook. Simply beautiful:
BTEC qualifications offer you a great opportunity to showcase your academic abilities away from the high-pressured environment of the exam room. But have you ever tried googling or looking in forums for advice on ‘How can I get a Distinction in my BTEC National Diploma?' or ‘best BTEC studying tips’? There's not a lot of help online! But don’t worry, we’re here to help with some top tips from our students!
1. Start as soon as possible
First things first, start! Leaving it all to the last minute and trying to catch up at the end doesn’t really work with BTECs. Begin working on your portfolio as soon as you’re given it. This not only means you have more time to work on it, but it also means that the information you’ve been given is fresh in your mind, so you’ll have a better idea of what you’re doing. Try starting easy and sketch out some kind of plan for what you’re going to do, and then you’ve got a framework to start from, rather than starting weeks later and having no idea what to do!
A plan is the best way of starting. Take into consideration the amount of time you have and think of a way of fitting all the assignment and portfolio tasks in that time.
Student tip: Andreea Dalia Blaga
2. Make your portfolio as manageable as possible
Stay organised by making an assignment timetable – this will keep you motivated and assure you know what work is coming up. Your portfolio should feature examples of research and the development of your ideas and projects – this should be highly presentable and well organised. Make sure you continually add work to your portfolio and don’t leave it until the last minute. It may be useful to arrange your work into themes, styles or chronological order. It’s important to meet the deadlines so that you can get feedback from your teacher(s) and understand how to reach the higher grades. Prioritise and plan - you’ll thank yourself later!
If you are doing BTECs, try to get all your coursework done throughout the year so towards the end of the year you are organised and less stressed.
Student tip Sarah Shah
3. Always stay on the ball
As there are generally no exams for BTEC qualifications and each unit is entirely coursework, you aren’t relying on last minute exam cramming like some A Level students and that’s a massive advantage for you! However, this does mean that you do need to focus all year round so it’s essential that you work to the best of your ability in every lesson to avoid falling behind with your work. Organise yourself - look after important documents and keep on top of assignments and homework. If you’re aiming for top marks you’ll need to do some more complex tasks involving independent research - this is where you will need the most focus and determination.
If you do several BTECs then make sure you keep on top of them all and not leave one or two until the very last minute as it may compromise your grade.
Student tip: Tina Kodra
4. Don’t be a copy cat
Plagiarism is a sure fire way to fail, no matter how hard you’ve worked! In order to achieve a BTEC qualification, you must produce your own work. You will not be allowed to copy any words from textbooks, the Internet or other students (past and present) without referencing the source (as a minimum and no, Grandma Pat is unfortunately not a credible source). So much information is readily available online these days it’s easy to fall into a trap of taking what’s written as literal – so make sure you use legitimate academic references. Remember Wikipedia isn’t a credible source! Make sure everything is in your own words; as you’ll need to sign a declaration stating that it’s your own original work.
And last but definitely not least….
5. Pace and reward yourself
All work and no play makes a very unhappy student! Studying needn’t be joyless. After you’ve finished a piece of work, or met one of your goals for that week, reward yourself in some way. It can be something small like getting a coffee with a friend or buying something you really wanted - did someone say new shoes? Alternatively, if you’ve finished a big goal, like your portfolio, you can go out and treat yourself to something much bigger, like a festival ticket! Did you know Eminem is headlining Leeds and Reading this year? If that isn’t a motivation for you, we don’t know what else is!