1 aargh

Answer: Aaargh!  NO!

This is one of the most common questions that visual arts students ask and is also one that many DP art teachers get wrong.

The simple answer is NO – there is absolutely no need for students to have a theme and when they do have a theme students sometimes fail because their approach to their theme is too restricted and blinkered. In effect the theme prevents them from doing very well.

The more complicated answer is still no, but sometimes a theme makes for a more coherent exhibition, and ‘coherent’ IS mentioned in one of the higher markband assessment descriptors (“The coherent body of work has been reviewed, modified and refined as it has progressed, resulting in an accomplished resolution of ideas and medium“)

(Coherent: Sticking together; cohering; marked by an orderly, logical, and aesthetically consistent relation of parts).

HLA Studio Markband descriptorsHaving a theme will not get you a good mark; and having a theme may lead to you getting a poor mark – if the work you produce is still weak, predictable, boring, lacking in skill etc.

If you still want to have a theme, remember that assessment is based on the assessment descriptors.

I have attached the HLA Studio assessment descriptors – no mention of theme.

Finally, I’m not saying that you can’t have a theme – just that

a)      You definitely do not HAVE to have a  theme , and

b)      As an examiner I frequently find myself giving low marks to students who have a theme: low marks because the quality of the studio work is between mediocre and satisfactory, and has not been helped by the ‘theme’.


  • Marilyn
    July 29, 2013

    Really? I am surprised. Since my first workshop, it was strongly recommended to use the thematic approach.

    May I know the history behind your vehement post and your confidence as an authority?

    I only want to do the best I can for my students, so am open to new ideas.


  • Andrew Vaughan
    August 11, 2013

    Hi Marilyn,
    I’m afraid it’s not a particularly new idea, just an attempt to clarify an issue that has been sadly misunderstood and misinterpreted by teachers/students for many years: the idea that ‘students must have a theme’ is a misconception that has resulted in some needlessly poor results for quite a few students over the years.

    I’m not at all vehement – as I wrote, I’m not saying that students can’t have a theme – sometimes it’s a route to success.
    But it can also hinder and limit their success. If it works, great – but students certainly don’t HAVE to have a theme.

    As for the ’history’ behind my post and confidence in my authority, just click on ‘meet the bloggers’

    I’m a Workshop Leader (face-to-face and online) and IBDP visual arts teacher. I’ve been a visual arts examiner for 24 years, and I’m referring to the IBDP visual arts guide and in particular the assessment criteria (no mention of theme in the criteria), and of course the twice-yearly visual arts Subject Reports.
    Also regular discussions with senior examiners at Grade Award meetings.

    We may meet in one of my workshops – I’ve had some great discussions with workshop participants and indeed other art teachers about the theme!


  • Samantha Erck
    January 3, 2017

    Thank you! I’m a new teacher and I can use all the help I can get!

    • Andrew Vaughan
      January 5, 2017

      Hi Samantha,
      Great – I’m pleased that you found this post helpful.
      Don’t forget to check out the OCC Visual Arts section – there are lots of useful ideas and guidance there.

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