25+ Ideas and Tips for GCSE Art Sketchbooks

In GCSE, General by Think Student EditorLeave a Comment

Students often struggle with heavy coursework in subjects like GCSE Art. For such a broad portfolio, it can be hard to manage with the limited time students have, and it can also be hard to find inspiration. Additionally, students often struggle linking the artists they choose to a final idea, which is also usually unclear to GCSE students at the start of their modules. Fear not! This article is focused on finding subjects of interest that can be incorporated into a portfolio that can make any student shine, as well as some tips on expanding your work to really get the examiner’s attention.

While GCSE Art may seem like an easy subject, it really is a lot of work to get a high grade. With that in mind, here are some ideas to help students, as a student who got a grade 9!

1. Flowers

Flowers are something that’s recommended often by art teachers, but it isn’t without merit. Not only can this show off your knowledge of natural form, there’s also a lot of symbolism that can be drawn from it.

For example, you can use the Victorian flower language to develop your work: cultivating a unique message that shows the examiner that you’re aware of messages in art. You could also do flowers in stages of their life cycle to convey tone within the art – for example, decaying flowers can be used to show mourning or death.

Some examples of artists who do flowers include Georgia O’Keeffe and Claude Monet. You can find more information about Georgia O’Keeffe at the O’Keeffe Museum by clicking here.

While Monet focuses on a range of subjects, you can incorporate both his style of flowers and techniques into your art. If you would like to read more about Claude Monet, you can find more information at Claude Monet Gallery here.

2. Animals

If you like creating art of living beings that aren’t humans, animals are a creative way to express messages and deeper meanings. While there isn’t a codified set of meanings for animals, some animals are commonly associated with different emotions and settings.

Animal symbolism featured heavily in the Renaissance: ermines for purity, birds for sacrifice and resurrection, to name a couple. It’s useful to think of what you want the viewer to feel when planning out a piece of artwork. Do you want them to feel troubled, sad, happy, or angry?

This can be a good choice for those who are fond of their pets, or those who like animals in general. Some people might even go for a touch of surrealism and give human bodies animal heads or vice versa!

An example of an artist who paints animals is Marcia Baldwin, a fine artist who paints colourful oil paintings of animals and nature. To read more about her work, check out this page from her website!

3. Robots

If you’d like to lean into futurism and technology more, then robots might be the way for you. Personally, I found that robots allowed room to show examiners technical skill and detail, such as reflective surfaces, mechanical parts, and reimagined body parts.

Another interesting thing was taking organic forms and making them into metal structures – for example, I drew metal and robotic hearts and lungs to explore anatomy while keeping it on theme. By expanding on a topic, you can give yourself a lot more to work with when it’s time for your final piece. Additionally, there’s a lot of symbolism to be found with robots; themes like control, being similar to humans, and detachment. It’s definitely a theme that stands out.

The artist I chose to study for robots was Hajime Sorayama, an artist who uses airbrushes to make extremely detailed images of robots. Another good example is Makoto Kobayashi, an illustrator who focuses his work on mecha robots – more information can be found on Sabukaru Online here.

4. Childhood toys

A great way to show the passage of time and have interesting subjects is by focusing on toys and other childhood memories. Not only does this subject convey a lot of symbolism, it can also be very versatile to fit with different themes.

For example, with ‘Reflections’ it can mirror someone’s childhood or aspirations (lost or not) – and the condition of the toy can create a more emotive piece. With ‘Lock’, for example, you could also show toys being locked away as time goes on.

The artist I selected to study was Margaret Morrison, a realist and surrealist painter who explores the wonders of childhood through brightly coloured toys. Her smooth use of techniques also makes her work a valuable reference to study – check it out at Woodward Gallery by clicking here.

5. Sweets and food

Food and sweets are often underappreciated during GCSE Art as many students discredit them as ‘easy to draw’; on the contrary, it takes a lot of skill for food to be captured on paper. Food drawings can show the examiner technical and observational skill – just keep in mind to develop your art over a series of drawings of food, rather than just one!

Different foods can also contain a lot of symbolism: in different religions, cultures, and countries. For example, tangerines during the Chinese New Year represent good luck and abundance. Eating can also be representative of many things: jealousy and love being just a couple.

An artist who does still life of various foods and sweets is Sarah Graham – more information on her and other artists who cover food can be found here on The Art Teacher website.

6. Sculptures

There are many interesting statues that students can recreate on paper – one that might not be terribly common. If you’re interested in working in 3D mediums, sculptures are a great way to show the examiner a range of techniques that aren’t just limited to a page.

By focusing on various sculptures, you can incorporate various subject matters as sculptures cover a wide range of styles. If you’re into abstract art, there are plenty of interesting sculptures to cover.

3D mediums like clay, wood, or even metal can be used to develop your coursework and show a broader range of skill. If you’re interested in a Classical style of sculpture, you could check out Michelangelo’s sculptures like the Pieta and David.

Alternatively, you can check out some contemporary sculptors at Contemporary Art Issue here.

7. Woodwork

This ties into sculptures, but woodcarving is a great, ‘softer’ medium than stone and can show the examiner that you can utilise a range of mediums to achieve a result. If carving a whole statue isn’t your thing, you can try woodblock carving – either to stamp paper with or keep as a piece of art in itself.

An example of a cubist sculptor who works in wood is Ossip Zadkine, with an example of his work being Prometheus in 1930. More information about him and other wood sculptors can be found here at the Artsper blog.

8. Buildings and cityscapes

If you’re interested in architecture, looking at buildings and cityscapes can be a great way to explore that. Not only is there a range of building styles – Gothic, contemporary, modern, etc. – but focusing on buildings is a great way to show reflections of the time period.

Additionally, showing technical skill in things like perspective drawings and models is a great way to explore and develop your coursework further. An example of an artist is Catherine Yass, a photographer who creates colourful photographs focusing on the inside of buildings.

More information on her can be found here on the Cristea Roberts website.

9. Household objects

A great way to explore your surroundings and skills in observation is to focus on household objects in order to convey a personal connection to your art. By using objects personal to you and your household, it might be easier later on to decide on a final piece that’s personal to you.

Sketching and creating art of household objects can increase your proficiency in observation but also the different arrangements of objects can help your eye for composition. Additionally, everyone’s household objects are wholly different; this is a chance to show what represents you

An artist who does clay sculptures of pantry products is Mechelle Bounpraseuth – information on her can be found here on The Art Teacher. Another artist who does various products in a colourful and highly textured style is Raymond Logan – more is found here on his website.

10. Portraits

Looking at portraits and studying humans is a great way to show your understanding of art for natural form. Portraits are a great way to develop technical skill but also to develop a personal style. Examiners value portraits a lot as it can very distinctly show progress.

You can really explore with portraits as you can display a range of emotions, but also positions and forms that you can develop for pages and pages on end. For example, I explored various forms by looking at various reference websites and did double pages on them to bulk up my books.

An example of a photorealistic artist who does his portraits in biro is Oscar Ukonu – more information about him and other portrait artists can be found here on The Art Teacher website.

11. Insects

Insects are chock-full with symbols and allow students to capture natural forms while also boasting a wide variety of species and colours. As a subject matter, insects are definitely an interesting option that students can use to showcase a range of skills and technical knowledge.

When choosing subjects, it’s important to be able to expand on the topic. Insects come in all forms, so there’s definitely room to expand on any work! For some examples of further ideas, you could try studying just the wings of bees, or exploring the shine of a beetle’s carapace!

An artist who creates fascinating metal sculptures of insects is Mike Libby – more about him can be found on his personal website, linked here.

12. Reflective surfaces

Reflective surfaces are a great way to explore emotion and lighting – this applies to things like mirrors, lakes, glass, and more. While it looks cool, it can also allow you to develop important skills like being able to include depth in drawings.

Mirrors are a good way of expanding on ideas of deeper meanings – such as retrospection, or someone’s inner self. One of the key word themes for a past exam unit was “Reflections”, and while it’s not always literal, mirrors are a good place to start.

An surrealist artist who focuses on reflective surfaces and interesting reflections is M. C. Escher – you can read about him here on the National Gallery of Art website.

13. Nature and landscapes

If you like the outdoors, natures and landscapes is a good way to explore natural form and scenery. Looking at nature is extremely broad as it encompasses a wide range of terrains: cliffs, trees, leaves, lakes, etc. There’s certainly a lot of room for developing ideas!

Run wild! Looking at nature can help develop composition skills and also observational skills. As the subject varies a lot, you can look at different animals, natural monuments, and anything else that piques your interest.

14. Birds

Birds carry a lot of symbolism that can easily be used in your artwork. Not only can you develop your sketchbook with studies of wings or feathers in various medias, but you can also specifically look at certain birds that represent various things.

For example, doves represent peace and reconciliation, while crows bear ill omens in some traditions. One of the artists you could look at is Mark Powell, someone who not only does stunning images of birds in biro, but also portraits – check out his work at The Art Teacher here!

15. Skeletons and anatomy

Skeletons and anatomy can be a great way to show examiners that you understand form and the technical aspects of humans. For example, one of the artists I did for my art unit looked at hands – I developed my understanding by painting the skeletal components, then the muscular ones.

Looking at skeletons and anatomy and linking it to your artist (even if it isn’t someone who does look at skeletons) can help deepen your understanding for anatomy and how motion in humans works.

Some famous artists who looked at anatomy include Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo!

16. Storyboards

If you like telling stories visually through art while conveying messages more directly, why not try storyboards? Storyboards are what they sound like – drawings that map out a story. If you’re working with animals, humans or even objects, you can definitely tell a tale with them!

Storyboards are a great way to translate mediums into other uses. For example, when I did puppets and marionettes in Year 10, I included a story about a marionette’s journey to gain its freedom in the outside world.

Additionally, if your story has a cyclical structure (meaning it begins and ends in the same way), you can translate it onto a strip of paper that loops into a circle. This creates an infinite story!

17. Surrealism

If you like surprising people with your art and making them question it, why not try surrealism? Surrealism can be used to perplex people, while simultaneously being engaging for the viewer!

For example, when I was painting a traditional English breakfast, I decided to create a character made completely out of it: fried egg eyes, bacon hair, a mushroom nose etc. Placing elements meaningfully with the intent on creating questions is definitely something examiners notice!

Some examples of artists who use surrealism to convey various ideas are Rene Magritte (who can be found here at the Museum of Modern Art) and Salvador Dali (found here at the Museum of Modern Art).

18. Sewing and fashion

If you’re into clothes, looking at fashion is a great way to explore time periods and ideas through fabric. Not only does this show the examiner exploration of different mediums if you decide to actually do some sewing, but if you’re also drawing it shows technical skill through fabric folds and design!

Fashion helps reflect culture and ideas of different times. It can easily be developed by looking at similar fashion, or even trying your hand at designing your own! Additionally, you could expand on your work by doing studies on fabric folds and different weave and pattern types!

19. Light and candles

Lighting is definitely an interesting subject to study – it covers photography and many other disciplines you can easily explore. Lighting is very important in art as it plays a big role in things like composition and depth, therefore it’s a valuable thing to focus on.

This can be explored through many ways – using candles, ordinary lamps or even just a flashlight to take photos of various forms. You can use those photos to draw from or paint from – different mediums for the same photo shows development as well!

20. Hands

Hands are a fascinating way of looking at organic forms and engaging in expressive art. You can easily reference your own hands for drawing – something that makes it easier to observe how different positions convey different moods.

There is also a lot of weight carried in someone’s hands – clasped could indicate anxiousness or worry, whereas open palms could represent shock or joy. When paired with other elements, like an object with personal meaning, a whole message can be conveyed through hands.

An artist who focused on hands later in his life was Henry Moore, a 20th century artist who believed feelings of an artist were conveyed through their hands. More about him can be found on the Tate website here.

21. Emotions

This is a topic that is pretty simple to develop – looking at various emotions and how you can represent them in your art. It encompasses everything from expressions, colours, subject matters, and composition.

It can be worthwhile to look at as it can help establish an even deeper message in your final piece. It can also help develop understanding in colour theory, expressions, and other aspects of art.

23. Instruments

Instruments are a great way of adding liveliness and engaging in various culture and music. If you’re a musician, or even just a fan of how instruments look, then this might be an interesting subject for you.

With a wide range of instruments available around the world, there is plenty of material to observe and develop. Some instruments also play heavy roles in various cultures, which can be something you can lean on if you’re from a particular culture.

Certain instruments may also be personal to you! If you would like to see some various illustrations of instruments in art – and also the artist – you can check out the Google Arts and Culture page here to see different representations of music.

24. Family and friends

Often, people choose to draw their family and friends as they have a deep connection with the subject – it usually makes things easier when thinking of a final piece. Friends and family can be readily available to use as references if necessary.

Additionally, studying people you know and see in real life can improve your anatomy perception and increase your understanding of planes of both the face and body. Having a live model will certainly make understanding 3D bodies a lot easier!

25. Fantasy creatures

If you’re interested in mythology or fantasy creatures in general, it’s entirely possible to translate that as a topic in your book. You can use already-existing interpretations of creatures, or even fashion your own out of source material.

Not only is this a cool way to express yourself, but if you’re using traditional figures from mythology, then it’s a form of visual language conveying hidden messages. For example, an interpretation of Athena (maybe as an owl or olive tree) can be used to indicate wisdom.

If you would like to see some artists inspired by mythology, you can check out this article from the Tate Gallery to read more about them!

26. Ships and the sea

Looking at the vast sea and tools of navigation can be used to showcase the might of the ocean and humanity’s attempts to make a little bit of the unknown known. There’s plenty to explore – the fish, the beach, the depths, light in the water, and many others!

Some artists who paint the sea include Winslow Homer and Katsushika Hokusai, both of whom can be found on the Art Wolf website here!

27. Technique pages (various techniques)

Showing thought processes and progress is a vital part of GCSE Art. By not constraining yourself to a single medium and technique, the examiner can see a clear variety in your work that shows development.

Some examples of different mediums include watercolours, acrylics, pencils, biro, lino printing, oil painting, chalk, oil pastels, woodwork, clay sculpting, photography, ink drawings and monoprint.

A good way to showcase developments and bulk up your book is to make several double pages on different techniques. For example, I used about six pages to make lino prints in a range of colours, with various comments on the colours and how they affect the piece.

Another way to bulk up your book is to experiment with textured surfaces – I was a fan of using cardboard and sticking it in with paintings on them! You can use newsprint, sugar paper, card, and even fabric! Showing a large range of mediums shows examiners your dedication and proficient skills.

How to annotate

One of the most important things you can do in your sketchbooks is annotating. With every piece of art you create, you should write about your process.

This can tackle things like thoughts while creating, challenges you overcame, techniques and mediums used, as well as the intended effect on the viewer. For each exam board, annotating is part of the Area Objectives; this means you get graded on your input in this area.

When choosing an artist, make sure to annotate at least one of their artworks: discussing various techniques and effects on viewers. There should be writing with each piece talking about each process – planning, during the process, and thoughts after.

You should also include artists when writing information about your own pieces – such as if they inspired you, what elements of yours and theirs are similar, whether there were any techniques of theirs you tried out.

If you would like to read more about planning and other tips on getting a 9 in GCSE Art, check out this article from Think Student on the topic!

Final piece tips

It’s perfectly normal to not have thought much about your final piece when first starting each GSCE module. What matters most during this time is cultivating various ideas that you could possibly use later on when planning it out.

You can’t use a subject in your final piece if you’ve never linked it to your main theme before. For example, if your focus was on sweets and food, you can’t decide to suddenly include butterflies in your piece without first linking the two.

With that in mind, if you know you want to go down a certain direction for your final piece, make sure you have a variety of sources to choose from. Choose your artists based on what you’re drawn to and want to incorporate eventually, and link as many topics with your artist as you can.

For example, from a single Van Gogh painting on angels, I explored that theme as much as possible even though it was only a single artwork. I translated the painting, studied wings, biblically accurate angels and explored ways of depicting them. Link all you do back to your artists!

What should you do if you’re struggling with ideas for a piece?

If you’re struggling to find any sort of idea of what you want to do, you could start by thinking about how the theme makes you feel. For example, our theme ‘Lock’ seemed gloomy, so that’s what I chose to make the examiner feel by creating a tragic story between my subjects.

Think of subjects you’ve been collecting in your sketchbook – are there any you could link together to create that feeling? If you feel like it’s missing anything, you could try link those things to your artist so you’ve got them in your sketchbook.

Maybe it still doesn’t feel like enough to you. If that’s the case, try creating a little story of things that are personal to you. Compile a list of objects you’d be interested in including, and make sure you’ve developed them in your book and linked them back to each artist.

If you’re still extremely stuck, you could look around online galleries and exhibitions for ideas – you can get inspiration for techniques, compositions, and subjects! You could also try talking to your art teacher, who can help with finding rough compositions and subject ideas!

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