Comparative Study Starting Points

face sIf you are taking the new visual arts course by now you will probably have heard about the three components and learned some of the details.

One thing you’re going to do is write and submit a COMPARATIVE STUDY. It counts for 20% of the final mark so does not contribute massively to a final grade, but it’s still worth taking seriously – 20% is still 20%.

The examiner will be looking for analysis of formal qualities, interpretation of function and purpose, evaluation of cultural significance, making comparisons and connections and presentation and subject-specific language. And if you are Higher Level, he/she will also be looking to see how effectively you made connections to your own art-making practice.

But before you even think about all that, you need to decide what you will compare: you need to select at least 3 artworks (or objects/artefacts) from different cultures.

Two can be the work of one artist so it could be the 3 artworks by two artists, but either way they have to be from “differing cultural contexts*.

The options are huge, to put it mildly. Even if exclude drawings on the walls of caves and just go for, say, the last 2,000 years, you will still have many thousands of possible artworks to choose from. Ideally you will be able to see the work up close and personal in a gallery and not be dependent on the Internet or books.

face 6 sIf you are lucky enough to live near or in a major city then I strongly suggest you visit the main art gallery and/or museum and choose at least one of your three artworks/objects from their collection.

The images shown here date from Italy around 1370, more than 600 years ago: the instructions to choose art/objects from “differing cultural contexts” means that you can really explore differences in location, time, scale, role. purpose, impact, etc.

But maybe you have a personal preference for a specific type of art and want to analyse and discuss? This is fine providing your preference is broad enough to include a range of cultural contexts

For Higher Level students the single criterion that offers the most marks relates to making connections to their own art-making practice. Specifically, the question is “to what extent does the work analyse and reflect on the outcomes of the comparative study investigation, and how this has influenced the student’s own development as an artist, identifying connections between one or more of the selected works and the student’s own art-making processes and practices?”

Personally, I think emphasis on doing something creative with what you have learned is a great addition to the component, and in practical terms makes the analysis, interpretation, evaluation and comparison even more useful and meaningful.

*SL students submit 10–15 screens which examine and compare at least three artworks, objects or artefacts, at least two of which need to be by different artists. The works selected for comparison and analysis should come from differing cultural contexts.

altarpiece sHL students submit 10–15 screens which examine and compare at least three artworks, objects or artefacts, at least two of which need to be by different artists. The works selected for comparison and analysis should come from differing cultural contexts.

HL students submit 3–5 screens which analyse the extent to which their work and practices have been influenced by the art and artists examined”.

(Guide page 39)


The photographs are taken by me and show elements of the main tier of the high altarpiece of San Pier Maggiore in Florence (1370-71), now in the National Gallery, London.

The work is attributed to Jacopo di Cione.

  • Shruti
    January 9, 2015

    What do you mean by differing cultural context, is it historic and contemporary?

    • Andrew Vaughan
      January 9, 2015

      Hi Shruti,
      Not necessarily – for example, it’s possible that a student would select to explore and compare art/artefacts from the 15th, 17th and 19th century (although I think that most students will want to choose at least one example of contemporary art).
      And ‘context’ includes different geographical locations, of course, so its not just about the time – its also about the place.

  • Gunjan
    February 18, 2015

    Are all three supposed to be from different cultural contexts?

    • Andrew Vaughan
      February 18, 2015

      Hi Gunjan,
      Basically yes (but it can be more than three artworks).

      Students should explore artworks, objects and artifacts from differing cultural contexts (local, national, international and/or intercultural) – although it is possible to look at two artworks by the same artist as part of the selection.

      Part of the instructions at HL say, “HL students submit 10–15 screens which examine and compare at least three artworks, at least two of which need to be by different artists”.


  • nanda
    July 20, 2015

    Is tribal art a good choice for comparative studies? for example tribal art of India and that of Africa?

    • Andrew Vaughan
      July 20, 2015

      Hi Nanda,
      My personal feeling is that although the general focus could be tribal art, the student would have to really narrow it down to a detailed examination/comparison of a few specific examples – perhaps two examples of Indian and two examples of African tribal art.
      The examiner is looking for specific examples (“artworks, objects or artefacts”) by different artists/different cultures.

      As I said in the blog I think it also helps if your student can see actual examples of the things they are analysing.



  • vinza
    July 19, 2016

    Hi Andrew.

    I’m Vinza, a new comer in IB Diploma Programme Visual Art. I really need your guide in construct course outline and unit plan of this subject. I still confuse about comparative study. Is it every forms of art (ex: 2-dimensianal forms; 3-dimensional forms; etc) required 1 comparative study or only 1 comparative study for whole 2-years programme?

    • Andrew Vaughan
      July 19, 2016

      Hi Vinza,
      If you are teaching in an IB school you will have access to the IB Online Curriculum Centre.

      The visual arts section of the OCC is fantastic – there is a real wealth of information, ideas and guidance. In particular, look through the large TSM (teacher resource material) but also look at the teacher resource exchange. The forum also has a lot of questions and answers and you can also post your own questions there.
      And it’s all free!

      You could also consider attending a visual arts teacher training workshop, either online or face to face. These are not free, but again would be able to provide answers to all your visual arts questions and give you confidence in teaching this course

      Thanks and good luck!

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