The Formal Elements of Art

I’m sharing this as an entry point to looking at the formal elements of art with your students. Feel free to refine and edit

You could look at all the elements with all year groups. I will probably, do an overview with all years and focus in on making work that focuses on one or two of the elements with each year group.

The artworks included provide good inspiration for discussion and perhaps practical work.

Art resources for blind and partially sighted art students

A quick post to share some resources I have found – I will definitely be using some of these resources in my lessons. I love the idea of listening to an audio description of a piece of art with a class and having them interpret it into a piece of visual art. Also, using audio clips as inspiration for making art is a great idea, you could even record your own sounds around school and create art based on those.

Art UK have created 25 audio descriptions of sculpture pieces around the UK

Tate have a similar resource here, including primary school classics such as Matisse’s The Snail

Another great resource from Tate, using sound to inspire artwork!

An organisation called Living Paintings have a lot of content and some great resources – including these touch to see paintings

One for the iPads or phones, this is an app where users can play with sounds and patterns in creative ways

Benin Bronzes FREE lesson

I am sharing a slideshow that I used recently in a Year Six lesson. It provides opportunities for some rich discussion about the Benin Bronzes and whether they belong at the British museum or not. Students are also introduced to exploded drawing as a technique. I am working on lessons that encourage students to engage with topical art and non art related issues as well as developing their art and creativity.

Thoughts on Assessing Art and Design in Primary Schools

I have often been tempted to proclaim something along the lines of ‘in primary art, assessment is not needed’. What I mean by this is not what it might imply to the ears of the well primed teacher i.e. a badly planned curriculum with children free-falling through a mess of art activities.

However, there is an unfolding of ownership over one’s own learning and ‘progress’ that is an intrinsic part of being an artist; and therefore, should be an integral and natural consideration when planning for art in schools. What has often struck me though, in both my art teaching career and as an art education consultant, is that the act of assessment in art can often prove detrimental to many of these and other naturally occurring benefits possible in a good primary school art provision. It is not the assessment per se that can do this but more how assessment in art is approached and shared with students.

That said, most schools require some form of assessment feedback and documentation to be put in place by their art leaders.

I do not claim an in depth understanding of school subjects other than art. I do however have a sense that for subjects like numeracy and literacy, as well as teacher formative feedback, there are established methods for how assessment is carried out. These subjects, have a predefined structure around how they are taught and often the curricula that schools follow is fairly unified across school settings. This makes assessment a straightforward tool for gauging progress, informing planning and moving the students on to the next stage of their learning – or revisiting prior learning objectives to ‘catch-up’. Not so in art and design.

It is significant here to understand that very often art as a primary school subject, is led by a non art specialist class teacher. I do not mean to discount anyone or their artistic abilities and interests but, in my experience, the pathways into becoming a primary art lead are extremely varied and can result in individuals feeling overwhelmed and ill equipped to design and assess art experiences. The disparity in teacher experience and confidence in teaching art is not necessarily addressed by teacher training courses either, with minimal time spent on art in most PGCE and equivalent courses.

Follow that train of thought with me because, The National Curriculum for primary art is brief and non-specific, leaving a lot open to the interpretation of each school. So, in most cases, it is the job of the art leader to design and plan the entire curriculum for art and design themselves. We are talking about a minimum of 36 schemes of work for your average primary school. The daunting task of selecting the art and artists to look at and learn about, which skills and techniques to be taught and what creative outcomes are to be made frequently falls on the head of one, rather overworked already, art lead. Not to mention the expectations around school display, festive crafts and school events – and assessment.

It is no wonder then, that by the time it comes to assessment in art, most leaders hit a brick wall. I have seen and heard many times, of schools attempting to simply apply the same methods for assessing art as they do in other subjects; but these methods do not always transfer in a way that makes sense, and can lead to further art leader confusion.

Even without the pressure to use pre-existing formats to assess, there are issues. I follow art teacher forums, receive direct messages from teachers and lead CPD for schools and in all these spaces I regularly come across art leaders having the realisation that assessing art is hard at best and just plain bewildering at worst. It can be difficult to pin point exactly what to assess, how useful it actually is to anyone and whether it is necessary at all.

If you have ever delved into art teaching or art curriculum design, you will know that as a taught subject, art doesn’t always fit neatly into tangible strands that have linear progression inherent in them. This makes assessment for progress, in the way that schools and teachers are used to, challenging.

The good news is that for now, the government are not asking for art levels to be submitted or shared; and I am yet to come across a parent demanding to see grades in primary art either. It is not impossible to satisfy the assessment junkies in your school, but let’s acknowledge that we are in fact, free to do this with well thought out approaches that might look different to the status quo in schools.

Art assessment should exist only in as much as it has been designed with an awareness of your school art curriculum, doesn’t compromise the integrity of art and creativity experiences for the students and feeds into a wider ethos about art and creativity.

I will be sharing CPD around approaches to art assessment over the next few months, on The Primary Art Class Facebook page and website.

Rescue our Schools have a page dedicated to alternatives to assessment

Bold Art Leadership

Whether we talk about it or not, art as a subject sits outside some of the norms of the other subjects in schools, and if it doesn’t then maybe we aren’t doing it right. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating a total rejection of school rules or promoting anarchy, but I do want to encourage art leaders to be bold in their art leadership. This means knowing when a standard school approach to something, such as planning, marking or CPD just doesn’t work well for art and design. I have focused on the three areas that stand out to me for these reasons. I hope some of what I write might help you to defend/explain/educate others on your professional decisions.

Planning documents: If you have attended any training with me then you will already know that when it comes to planning docs, I suggest pasting in thumbnails of the (main) artwork that you will be looking at, and including thumbnail images of the artists you will cover. Selecting the art and artists you will look at with students is one of the biggest decisions an art leader makes, and has an impact on how the subject looks and feels in your school. So it makes sense to showcase this aspect in the planning documents.

I also find that visible images rather than text, is a good way to ensure balanced coverage of medium and art and artists. It makes the planning document a visual one, which is in alignment with the visual subject. In addition, any visitors who are handed, for example, a yearly overview of years 1 – 6, will get an instant impression of the fantastic range of art and experiences the children will be exposed to.

I tend to stay away from things like LOs in planning documents, I find them restrictive and they can actually have the effect of limiting outcomes. Being a slave to the planning is never a good thing in art. If teachers stick too rigidly to objectives they might miss all of the other non quantifiable learning opportunities that will happen organically in an art lesson. Yes, we need to have a plan for what we will share with the children as stimulus, which materials we will need and what we want the students to get out of a lesson (tangibly or otherwise) but with art, so much of what we do is about trusting a creative process and learning as things unfold. Whilst the children might need to learn certain specifics in art, these might not be the ‘main’ learning points and certainly won’t be the only ones.

Artists know that as we create with our hands and minds, we are gaining an embodied knowledge that will feed into future work and ideas – it is more expansion than progression that we are concerned with.

The problem is that if art teachers or leaders do not have personal experience of creativity broadly, but also specifically with the materials they are teaching about, then they might struggle to ‘trust the process’. In which case it makes sense that such teachers would try to predict the exact learning that will take place, and in measured stages. That brings me to my next issue, one of CPD.

CPD or CCD: I worked for many years and in different schools as a primary art leader and teacher, and it was often challenging to find appropriate CPD experiences. I had come from a secondary school teaching background and I am an artist, so most of the courses on offer were too introductory for me and not worth the time or money. More recently, I worked part time as a primary art teacher and wrote my book, hosted CPD courses and did some other pieces of writing around my teaching. In this time, because I was so immersed int he world of primary art education, I really found very little in the way of formal CPD to stimulate or inspire me, any more than I could source for myself on the internet or in books.

I came to realise that the ways that I engaged with art were actually CCD in themselves. I have replaced the P for Professional with a C for Creative. Here are some suggestions for Art Leader CCD – an hour or afternoon well spent!

Related to art, artists and art movements:

Watching documentaries

Listening to podcasts

Visiting exhibitions

Reading books – not necessarily about teaching art!

Making your own art – follow a book, video or just play with materials and see what happens!

Talk to a practicing artist about their processes and ideas

Of course, there are some brilliant, more traditional CPD offerings available too. I have online options and a session coming up in January,


Marking and Assessment: This comes up again and again…and again. In late Feb 2021, I will be sharing an online CPD (or should I now be changing this to CCD?!) session that will go into this in more detail. If you would like to know when that is ready to see then please follow my FB page.

Generally though; There are no national levels for art, no specifics we must follow for curriculum content and in my experience, parents don’t ask for grades in art. Senior management ask though, and that is why art leaders feel obliged to develop ways of delivering data around this – and also why when you embark on trying to deliver this, it can feel like trying to place a round peg in a square hole, blindfolded.

In levelling art or logging end of year grades, we must question who is it for? Assessment in other subjects is there to run alongside set bits of knowledge or specific tasks that come via the planning, through the teaching and lessons and hopefully are then seen in the work of the children. We test to see whether the child needs to revisit or move on and extend. In art we do not begin with a clear or specific set of objectives, more often than not teachers have planned the curriculum content themselves, so we have to be really clear on which bits we decide to assess and why. Perhaps the assessment ‘procedure’ needs to be thought out at the planning of the curriculum stage, and will therefore be as varied as planning itself is in different schools.

Generally though, formative feedback is perfect in the art classroom. As the children are working the teacher should be giving feedback to move work on and/or support curiosity and self led learning – balanced with time for the children to be in creative flow. It is a good idea to teach the children ways to review and refine their own work and give peer feedback too, cultivating an environment where the children trust their own opinions and can offer and take useful criticism.

Sketchbooks certainly are not a space for teacher’s marking. If you are an art leader who has never used a sketchbook, then part of your CCD should be to learn about them. The culture of sketchbook use has to be built and nurtured. They are a space for exploration and developing ideas and often they are very expressive and unique to each child (although you might want some basic guidelines). To look at, sketchbooks are similar to scrapbooks and can be very personal objects. I suggest looking at actual examples of GCSE sketchbooks with the children and discussing what makes them different to the books they work in for other subjects. There are also Youtube videos that will help, if you can’t get your hands on an actual sketchbook. When you familiarise yourself with these art books, you will soon see why writing in someones sketchbook is not okay…and you’ll probably want to start using one yourself!

As art leaders we should feel bold enough to defend the fact that art is not about fact learning or attaining levels. It’s about nurturing a visual language (yes there might be some specifics around how to use materials and techniques), being enriched and inspired by creativity, expression of own ideas, multi disciplinary approaches and exploring new concepts and connections…. for starters. These things are not necessarily quantifiable, but part of the art leaders job is to facilitate environments and cultures that are conducive to them. The freedom from competition and trying to do the right thing, often found in quality art provisions, can be an important ingredient.

With all three of these examples, if you have experienced difficulty in getting them to work for you, there is probably a good reason. Trust your instincts and professional judgement. Please don’t waste your time and energy trying to squeeze your subject into frameworks that are not useful to the art learning experiences of the children. It might be that, because of the bespoke nature of your art curriculum, you have to design your own approaches from scratch. Which may seem like extra work, but will probably prove more satisfying than box ticking work.

I am here to support you in leading art, boldly!

The Primary Art Class Educator Prompts FB group

Join us over on Facebook for weekly creative and uplifting prompts – they are lighthearted and not too time consuming!

See all prompts on the FB page and do them at any time in any order…

This was week 4 and I am reposting here as well as on the FB group so that I can include some useful links below. – Art UK

Made with Padlet

Artisteacher/ fused Portrait Project

SHIFT, is a weekly IGTV series by @_artisteacher_ a network instigated by the Freelands Foundation (instagram to follow for more). Artisteacher invited artists and educators to share their varied practices each week during the 2020 summer break. Emily kicked of the series with this video.

‘In today’s IGTV, Emily Gopaul, an artist, art teacher and founder of @theprimaryartclass, discusses ways to celebrate diversity and inclusion within the classroom and suggestions of how to engage children with other forms of culture without diminishing their own.’

Free slideshow – Skulls, Leonardo da Vinci and Observational Drawing

Hi All, Free slideshow – Skulls, Leonardo da Vinci and Observational Drawing

I have been sorting through years (17 years!) of teaching resources – slideshows mainly, some of which are a bit cringe, some pretty good and some need a bit of refining to be useful. I came across this slideshow around skulls, Leonardo da Vinci and observational drawing and as someone on a FB group had asked for something similar, I realised it might be more useful ‘out there’ as it is, instead of on my hard drive. It is not my best slideshow but it is a good start for your planning and there are brief teaching pointers in the ‘notes’. It could be developed into a whole terms work or used as a one-off lesson. I am offering this for free and will likely share similar slideshows as they come up – especially if they help you art leads at all!

Don’t forget that if you are refining or planning your art curriculum then there is a special offer on online CPD.

All the Art I Loved Before

I am starting to question all the art I ever loved before. This has been a slow unfolding consideration alongside the realisation that I, like most of us, have been fed an art diet of predominantly white men. The problem is, I love so much of it. Although now, like many others, I am questioning whether I really love it or whether this like so much else, is learned behaviour heavily influenced by the status quo I grew up with.

I was taught by education, galleries, books and documentaries that artists like Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Kandinsky and Gauguin to mention just a few, are the epitome of master artists. My naïve younger self believed that they were the artists that had attained fame simply because we live in a world where, if you are good at something or the best at something, you rise to the top and attain recognition for it; above others who are probably less good. I now know that this is not true. I understand, like many of us are starting to, that there are other reasons why some people (mainly white men) have been centred on most platforms and above others for many years.

However for a long time I assumed that this gang of artists were the best of the best. I was not just enthralled by their paintings but also by the stories of their lives. Lives which in some cases sounded like a romantic struggle against the status quo in order to remain loyal to the creativity within them. I identified with that struggle, I often felt on the peripherals myself and found I could make sense of the world by exploring my emotions through art. So somehow, as much as I would like to say that I was always fundamentally aware of underrepresentation, I (think I) did see my young, female, brown self in them and their identification as artists and outsiders; Reflecting on issues of race and racism is not straight forward. The truth is that looking at images in books or actual artworks by those artist’s felt as if I was looking at jewels created by marvellous minds, they held magic for me. When I reflect on my lack of curiosity about ‘other’ artists at that time, I have to remind myself that the internet was not an option then. There were not the handheld means of self-led learning that there is now. I didn’t have the option of ‘following’ people who would offer me alternative perspectives, and perhaps resonate with me in a way that felt a much better fit. Although I have to wonder, up until now how hard have we really tried to include art by historically underrepresented artists in any of the existing forums.

I recall being introduced to Rachel Whiteread at college in the 90’s during my art foundation, but at the time I was interested in paintings and the physicality and conceptual nature of her work evaded me. I also lovingly remember coming across a book about Frida Kahlo’s work on my home bookshelf – it wasn’t a shelf brimming with art books but this one had found its way there. When ‘I discovered’ Frida something in me clicked, I felt validated in my own emotion-driven style of working. Frida remains one of my biggest inspirations. I had long been using art as an outlet for my feelings and suddenly there was a legitimate artist who also did this (and her sense of style was incredible).

I resonated with art and the world of the artist so much that I left secondary school and pursued art at A-level and at degree level, all the while with not much more exposure to ‘alternative’ art than the two female artists I mention above. It was enough for me though; I had the bug.

During my art foundation and degree years white tutors would encourage me to make work specifically about ‘my heritage’, often without going to any lengths to understand the nuances of my heritage for themselves. In fact often assumptions would be made based purely on my appearance and surname, but without the proper understanding that only comes through genuine conversation (cut to montage of me explaining why I am not necessarily the person in the staffroom/meeting etc. to represent or authenticate something Indian). I did produce some installation pieces that referenced my Indo-Guyanese ancestry but I feel the work lacked depth. I was still relatively young then and I was not strongly identifying as anything ‘other’– having spent most of my youth simply trying to fit in to predominantly white spaces. I didn’t understand what about my heritage/identity I was supposed to be making art about; At that time I was quite immersed in seeing and feeling through through the same lens as everyone else. Also, I hadn’t encountered examples of others like me who had made art about their heritage or cultural influences. Furthermore, even outside of the art world there were very few people who were like me anywhere on television, in magazines or as characters in books. It felt like my brownness was being superficially cited as a resource to be drawn on to make my work more interesting; What are the chances that my fellow white students were encouraged to do the same? In this climate of new anti racist approaches we need to be mindful about the provocations we are offering in an attempt to be inclusive.

I also often encountered an assumption that I had stories and resources associated with my ethnic and cultural background to hand, by nature of just being brown, which I didn’t. In an earlier blogpost I talk about the pattern that I have witnessed and experienced, for children of immigrants to be somewhat disconnected from their roots. This can happen as a result of trying to ‘fit in’, keenness to assimilate the dominant culture of a place, loss of information due to movement – forced or otherwise, or deliberate erasure. (In fact it is with this in mind that during Lockdown, I shared my home learning video prompt Home School Rebel. The video invited parents to ditch the official home learning schedule and spend some time sharing family stories).

I completed my degree having never really found my own voice in my art work, I could draw and paint but my concepts were underdeveloped – by my own judgement. Fortuitously though, my degree was Fine Art with a minor in Community Art, which meant that I spent a portion of my degree working with groups of children, older people, teens and other sub groups making art. I loved it. I found that I could work well with others to create art. Art and creativity had meant so much to me and I enjoyed seeing others realise it as a powerful tool for connecting with feelings and expressing oneself. I still enjoyed the ‘high’ art world through regular visits to galleries but I had also opened up to creativity as a tool for everybody. I started to believe that art should be for all and that creativity was not a gift bestowed on the few but actually alive in all of us. As my journey continued, I came to know a few more female artists; Georgia O’Keeffe, Niki De Saint Phalle, Shirin Neshat to name a few. Yet still I did not question, with any real urgency, where the black or brown artists were. I completed my degree and went straight on to complete a secondary art PGCE course, to become an art teacher.

My first teaching experience was in a ‘challenging’ secondary school that had just been given the result of ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted. I was dedicated to finding ways to engage those young people with art and creativity in exciting ways, and with art and artists they could identify with. That said, I still had the western art history canon fixed in my mind as the crème de la crème. I, like many others, created lessons and resources that referenced the usual art gang with a sprinkling of women, people of colour and ‘edgy’ young people themes like ‘graffiti’ or ‘street art’. I continued to visit all the top gallery exhibitions, consuming and through teaching, relaying the art that I was presented with.

Hosting a year 1 class in Tate Britain

Looking back it never occurred to me to question with much fervour why much of the art I saw was by men, and certainly not why they were all white men. That was just the world I grew up in. I am now 39 and I am slightly embarrassed that I never thought to question; I remain fairly confused as to why my eyes did not open to this earlier. Did I think that there just weren’t many other artists who were good enough to have made it? Did I assume that in other countries they were learning about different art? Did I internalise that whiteness and high art were something to aspire to? Maybe.

I started this post by saying; I am questioning the art I (thought) I loved before, but maybe it would be more accurate to say I am expanding upon. I am so grateful to the abundance of content that we have now and how easily accessible it is. There are individuals and organisations who are actively trying to change the way we define art and culture – maybe they were always there but since May 25th I hear and see them more. I think educators in schools and galleries have a big responsibility here – to self reflect and to listen to and work with relevant individuals and organisations. I hope that moving forward we can co-create a type of change that is deeply aware of being untethered to ideals of the dominant culture, and does not perpetuate it.

For some time now I have advocated for more diverse selection of art and artists in education, this has to start with curriculum design. My BAME artist resource is open to contributors and growing and is one of the ways I support this. Through my work with schools, teacher training events and CPD videos, I invite curriculum designers to actively centre artists of colour, rather than adding the odd few for diversities sake. I have also championed the use of art in classrooms as discussion stimulus, not just practical inspiration. I want all children to confidently engage with and critique the art on offer around them so that they share their opinions and challenge the status quo. More recently I have spoken and shared around the theme of Cultural Capital (and the 2019 Ofsted focus on how schools support it in their pupils). I advocate a reclaiming of the term so that it does not merely mean increased access to the existing cultural institutions. Those institutions do not hold the one answer to what is or isn’t art, they often aren’t representative of the children we teach and sometimes they actively offend with the art they display. I want children to know that whatever cultural background or mixed cultural influences they hold are valued and valid. That they do not need to aspire to be another person, colour or culture. They can engage with other cultural forms without diminishing their own. I have spoken about this at the NSEAD 2020 conference and for the Artisteacher network. I am set to speak on anti racist approaches to art and craft education at the upcoming Crafts Council event and am currently working alongside the schools and teachers team at Tate, on various projects that centre inclusivity and definitely seem to reflect a commitment to positive change.

The combination of Covid and the killing of George Floyd, and subsequent speaking out of people about race and inequality, has hurled 2020 into a strange yet somehow more hopeful (?) place. It is time for change and I am committed to doing what I can from my art education corner. I am curious to see how genuinely committed our galleries, schools and leaders are to anti racist approaches and for how long.

Meanwhile, I continue to delight in creating (sometimes inspired by my heritage and sometimes not) and learning. I seek out and feed myself with new art, art forms and artists to broaden and nourish my own idea of art and who artists are. The truth is they are everywhere in all corners of time and place. There is no lack of inspirational work or people. This is so because being an artist means that you likely find a way to create, whether you are famed or not, whether you can afford the time and resources or not. The work exists, we must find it and celebrate it and make sure that all future artists have a better chance at making it.