Improving critical writing and visual analysis in art and design

We are all aware of the problem – “art students enjoy making art, not writing about it”.

So the main question is how can we make our students engage with visual analysis, and enable them to write with clarity and depth?


Many GCSE and A level students don’t achieve the grade they are more than capable of due to a lack of depth in their critical writing and visual analysis, as their writing tends to be overly descriptive with limited vocabulary. Therefore, we need to find ways to help them to better communicate and articulate connections with their resources so they can achieve their full potential.


student art analysis example


The latest National Curriculum, together with the revised GCSE specifications and reformed A levels, have put a renewed emphasis on written annotation and critical contextual understanding in art and design all the way through. Ofsted highlight this in their 2012 report “making a mark: art, craft and design education”:

“In the outstanding departments, teachers designed and shared strategies to develop students’ knowledge and understanding of art, craft and design and their literacy skills simultaneously.”


So what’s behind the new emphasis? In order for art and design to be regarded as an academic subject, and recognised by UCAS, the importance of written aspects has been increased, enabling candidates to demonstrate strong academic rigour in their studies.


Students who understand the purpose of writing in art and design often engage more with this aspect of their work and view it as an integral part of the practical creation. In order to make this happen, we should be supporting this aspect of work from the beginning. Encouraging children to investigate and talk about art and design from an early age means it becomes a natural activity for them. They can be remarkably good at it, and when fostered there will be no restraints to their abilities by Key Stage 3 and beyond.


student art analysis example


Rod Taylor’s “Content, Form, Process, Mood” tool for visual analysis can provide a useful base for students of all ages, as it encourages them to break down their analysis into manageable and focused chunks.

  • Content: What is the artwork about? What is the subject or concept?
  • Form: How are the visual elements used in the work? Line, colour, shape, tone, texture etc.
  • Process: How was the work made? What materials and processes did the artist use?
  • Mood: What message is the artwork communicating? What is being expressed? What is the intention of the work?


A more playful and collaborative tool for visual analysis is De Bono’s “Thinking Hats”. Students work in groups of 5, each responding to the same artwork in different ways.

  • Student 1 wears the red hat and responds only with instinctive hunches and gut reactions.
  • Student 2 wears the white hat and gathers contextual information about the artwork provided in resources from the teacher.
  • Student 3 wears the yellow hat and considers only the positives, benefits and aspects of the work that they like.
  • Student 4 wears the black hat and thinks only in creative terms, looking at the new ideas presented or provoked by the artwork.
  • Student 5 wears the green hat and only looks at the difficulties or problems within the work and highlights what they don’t like in the work.

The group then pool their responses and present them to the whole class. This is a great activity to use in Year 7, helping them to identify the range of perspectives required to fully analyse and understand a piece. The collaborative nature of this approach enables a really effective use of peer support.


student art analysis example


But the fun doesn’t have to end in Year 7! This is an equally effective analysis tool for 6th form art and design students, as they step into researching and exploring more conceptual and contemporary artworks, such as installation and time-based media. Encouraging them to work collectively not only supports differentiation, but also maximises the knowledge base of the group.


Students need to understand how their visual analysis and critical investigations help to inform and enrich their practical studies, using them to drive their practical work rather than being a reluctant afterthought! This key aspect of any art and design course at A level is critical in ensuring your students achieve their full potential.


Get more tips and learn how to engage your students with visual analysis and the written aspects of your courses by booking onto:

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Sara Dudman

Sara enjoyed a fulfilling career in art education, including Head of Art at schools in Somerset and Devon and leading the secondary art and design PGCE course at UWE in Bristol. She is a professionally exhibiting artist, regularly showing work across the West of England and in London. Since leaving full time teaching 5 years ago, her work has included extensive work with Gifted and Talented Art and Design education, including leading The Beaford Academy in Devon. She has led courses for students and CPD for art and non-specialist teachers and worked with individual schools to raise standards in art education.

Sara works with Galleries, Museums and The National Trust to create education resources and interpretation materials for exhibitions. Sara jointly researched and wrote “Making Art 16+”, an investigation into the best teaching and learning in art and design at 16+ in Devon and Cornwall and led a research project investigating art education enrichment in Devon. She is an A Level moderator for Edexcel Art and Design and continues to work with South West regional Arts Education Organisations to plan and lead school and extra-curricular enrichment projects including Arts Award. Sara curates exhibitions for the hospital art project in Taunton and other exhibitions in the South west of England.