Art Topic Extended Essay Introduction

What makes a good essay?

A good research question

What makes a good research question?

  • It is clearly focused
  • It addresses a topic that is genuinely interesting to the student
  • It takes an original angle or point of view
  • It provides ample opportunity for research

From 2016, the EE  must be formulated as a Research Question, not a statement.

Choosing the research question is perhaps the single most important factor in determining the success of the EE.

The process of writing the essay is a journey of discovery; the student doesn't necessarily know what the outcome will be. This is why we call it a Research Question. As an EE examiner the most frequent problems I encounter when marking EEs is the lack of a focused research question, or a topic that is to general or broad in scope.

Examples of some generic research questions and how they became focused, specific ones

Food in Art becomes What is the Allegorical role of food in 17th Century Dutch Still Life Painting?

Graffiti, Art or Crime?becomes a site specific investigation of graffiti in the student's own city, with examples of artistic graffiti and graffiti as vandalism. ( with good use of primary sources) How does graffiti in xxx contribute to the visual culture of the city?

Andy Warhol's Pop Artbecomes How is Andy Warhol's Factory a Model for Art Production?

Rembrandt's Portraits becomes How do Rembrandt's self portraits reflect a Changing View of Self?

Brainstorming Activity

A good way to come up with an interesting and focused research question is to start with the general topic of interest and make a mind map. Once you've made a mind map, you can begin to look at the possible areas of investigation and hone in on a specific aspect of the topic. It also helps to do this in pairs.

1.Choose a topic of interest:Surrealism ( this is by the way, a very popular topic among this age group)

2.Mindmapping to explore the different areas of possible focus: history, symbolism, illusionism, dreams, individual artists

3.Narrowing down the topic, forming a working research question, for example:

Was Frida Kahlo a Surrealist?

Go to Successful Topics for more examples of great research questions.

Don't worry about the wording of the RQ at this stage, it can be modified and refined over the course of the research. The important thing is to have a clear idea of the path of investigation to follow.

Download Teacher notes on Formulating the Research Question

Turning the pages

A stack of extended essays is piled high on my desk..this is my reading this month. I try to pace myself, reading only a few each day so that my approach remains fresh and curious.

Although there are inevitably some essays that disappoint, there are many more delightful surprises this year. Some essays astound with their clear lucid writing, others with the sheer dedication and passion for the chosen topic. I have read engaging essays on topics as diverse as handmade artist books, cult performance art, site specific architectural decoration, Picasso's muses and many more.

The best essays have a very focused research question or topic and thus a real incentive to research; having a clear focus also helps to build up a convincing argument or thesis.

Essays driven by strong personal interest and meaningful contact with an artist, or work of art are often very successful, especially if guided in the early stages by a wise teacher who can help the student to formulate an angle or research question. Supervisors can help to point the student in the direction of appropriate resources and research methods and a good supervisor can make a big difference.


As would be expected, the weakest essays are those without a clear focused topic. Essays with topics that are too broad and general such as “the role of women in art”, or even “the role of women in abstract art” are difficult to build up a convincing argument or point of view. Much better to take a narrow approach such as “Joan Mitchell and Agnes Martin; different approaches to abstract painting in the late 20th century”.

I find It is always beneficial when essays refer to examples of specific artworks, which in turn allow for detailed visual analysis. An essay without these specific examples misses the opportunity for analysis and for using art terminology.

On the whole, it seems that students from schools all over the world are producing mostly high quality essays that show a genuine interest and sensitivity to the visual arts in a broader context.

The Extended Essay teaches so many important skills: not least how to research, structure, and write an essay. If students can succeed at this in high school they will be well prepared for higher education, and for any occasions in their lives when they encounter the need for formal writing skills.

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