I haven't had a student do an extended essay in art in almost 1o years. An extended essay in visual arts provides students with an opportunity to undertake research in an area of the visual arts of particular interest to them.

The outcome of the research should be a coherent and structured piece of writing (with appropriate illustrations) that effectively addresses a particular issue or research question, appropriate to the visual arts (broadly defined also to include architecture, design and contemporary forms of visual culture). 

The research may be generated or inspired by the student’s direct experience of artwork, craftwork or design, or interest in the work of a particular artist, style or period. This might be related to the student’s own culture or another culture. Personal contact with artists, curators and so on is strongly encouraged, as is the use of local and/or primary sources.

Absolute reliance on textbooks and the Internet is discouraged and no extended essay in visual arts should be based exclusively on such sources. Textbooks should be consulted only insofar as they may stimulate original ideas, provide models of disciplined, structured and informed approaches, and encourage direct and personal involvement with the essay topic.

Choice of topic

Topics that are entirely dependent on summarizing general secondary sources (such as universal art history textbooks, and encyclopedias), and topics that are likely to lead to an essay that is essentially narrative or descriptive in nature, should be avoided. Biographical studies of artists must address a relevant issue or research question and arrive at a particular, and preferably personal, conclusion. Choosing a topic that covers many aspects of art history and/or a long period of time is also unlikely to result in a successful essay. Restricting the scope of the essay will help to ensure a clear focus and will provide opportunities for demonstrating detailed understanding and critical analysis.

The following examples of titles for visual arts extended essays are intended as guidance only. The pairings illustrate that focused topics (indicated by the first title) should be encouraged rather than broad topics (indicated by the second title).

“How did Wassily Kandinsky use color?” is better than “The Pre-Raphellites”.
“An analysis of African influences on Henry Moore” is better than “20th-century British sculpture”.
“What is the artistic significance of recent poles raised by the First Nations of Haida-Gwai?” is better than         “The art of Native North American people”.
“Klimt’s use of gold” is better than “Sezession in Berlin”.
“Robert Ntila’s etching techniques: a critical investigation” is better than “Contemporary East African art”.

It may help if the student defines the topic chosen for study in the form of a more specific research question, followed by a statement of intent that indicates which broad process is going to be used in answering the question. In this way, the approach to the topic chosen may be even further clarified.

 Some examples of this could include the following.

Topic Cultural influences on Pablo Picasso’s work 
Research questionPicasso: individual genius or cultural thief?
ApproachAn investigation of the extent to which selected images in Picasso’s work may have been appropriated from other cultural sources.

Topic The influence of Renaissance architecture in Montreal 
Research questionCathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, Montreal: a replica of St Peter’s, Rome?
ApproachAn original investigation into the stylistic similarities in the architecture of these two buildings.

Topic The impact of immigration on an artist’s work 
Research questionWhat is the impact of transcultural experience on the art of Gu Xiong?
ApproachAn investigation into the effects of migration on a selected artist’s work.

Treatment of the topic:

It is essential that the topic chosen is clearly and directly related to visual arts. If the connection is only incidental, students risk introducing material that is of only marginal relevance, and will confuse the inquiry and weaken the argument. Students should be encouraged to formulate a research question of personal interest and to draw on a variety of sources to support their arguments, such as textual analysis, study of original artworks or designed artifacts, and interviews with practitioners or authorities on the subject. Students should be helped to identify and choose appropriate sources, both primary and secondary, and appropriate methods of research. Research questions that do not allow a systematic investigation that demonstrates critical artistic analysis and detailed understanding are unlikely to be suitable. In some instances, it may become clear at an early stage in the research that too few sources are available to permit such an investigation. In such cases, a change of focus should be made.

The inclusion and discussion of appropriate visual reference material is of particular importance in visual arts extended essays. Such material must, however, be directly supportive of, and relevant to, the analysis/argument. It should be neatly presented, properly acknowledged, and should appear in the body of the essay, as close as possible to the first reference.

In order to promote personal involvement in the extended essay, the use of local and/or primary sources should be encouraged wherever possible. However, it is appreciated that, in certain situations, students may not necessarily have access to primary sources. In such situations, reproductions, videos, films or photographs/Internet images of a high quality are considered acceptable sources. An argument should be well substantiated, with comments and conclusions supported by evidence that is relevant and well founded, not based simply on the student’s preconceptions.

Students are expected to evaluate critically the resources consulted during the process of writing the essay by asking themselves the following questions.

Which sources are vital to the support of my ideas, opinions and assertions?

Which sources do not contribute to the analysis?

Many different approaches to the research question can be appropriate, for instance:

use of primary sources (artwork and artists) and secondary sources (material about the visual arts) in order to establish and appraise varying interpretations

analyzing sources (primary and secondary) in order to explore and explain particular aspects of the visual arts

using primary source material for an analysis, with emphasis on a particular aspect of visual arts

collecting and analysing reproductions of artwork, possibly leading to a comparison of similar or different images.

Students should also demonstrate awareness of other issues surrounding the art studied.

Do I show an awareness of the value and limitations of the art I am studying through analyzing its origin and purpose?

Do I show a consistently good artistic understanding in setting the research question into context and addressing it fully and effectively?

Relevant outcomes of this analysis should be integrated into the student's argument.

The argument should also be well substantiated:

With what evidence do I support my comments and conclusions?
Is this evidence relevant and well founded, and not based simply on my preconceptions?

Finally, an extended essay in visual arts is a formal essay, so students must pay very careful attention to the requirements of the assessment criteria.

Frequent reference to the assessment criteria by both the supervisor and the student will help keep a sharper focus on the project.