It’s September, so some of you will be just starting the bright and shiny adventure that is IBDP visual arts, while others will be returning for your final year.

So (unless you have already completed it) part of the visual arts coursework that you will be/are engaged in is the Comparative Study.

Examiners have now seen work uploaded for three examination sessions (May 2016 and 2017, and November 2016), and some issues and patterns are beginning to emerge.

This blog is not intended to tell you everything about the Comparative Study, but I am offering six aspects of reminders and/or advice based on what has been seen in student responses so far.

Some may seem obvious, but Comparative Study examiners tell me that they have encountered all of the things referred to here…

So –


1 Don’t compare artists!

My three artists are Rembrandt, Picasso and Andy Warhol. I chose these artists because they each call out to me. My favourite artist is Warhol, but the other two also lived exceptional lives. Rembrandt was born in 1606 and was an innovative and prolific master in three media, being a draughtsman, painter, and printmaker…!” etc etc etc.

No! It’s not a biographical essay and you do not need to compare the lives of different artists.

The formal requirements say “examine and compare at least three artworks, objects or artefacts, at least two of which need to be by different artists”. There is no reference to examining and comparing artists.

This is a common fault: a number of students actually compare artists rather than artworks. You have been warned.

2 Discuss your selection with your teacher!

Some students chose seemingly random, little known and/or anonymous images found online, primarily based on the initial visual impact. “I found this amazing artwork online. I love the way the artist has used colour. I think it’s a fantastic painting, really awesome. I wish I was able to do something like this!”

Given the nature of the task it would be extremely difficult to create a successful Comparative Study based on these kinds of image. Before going any further, check with your teacher that your choice of artworks addresses the criteria, and consider how this choice will lead to meaningful comparisons and effective analysis of function and purpose.


3 Avoid repetition!

Some students list the ideas and information that relate to each artwork, and then repeat the same lists when comparing the artworks, so the screens dedicated to comparing and contrasting often simply repeat earlier points.

Since you have a limited number of screens, this is wasting space. More importantly, the whole study is a comparison and this discussion should be developed from the start in the manner of a well-argued presentation of ideas.

4 Make use of the allocated space/screens

If the IB is offering you at HL 20 “screens” in which to show evidence of achievement, you might as well use them.

OK, it may be possible to submit only 13 screens and still do well, but I encourage my students to use the available space.

Some students even use fewer than the minimum number of screens – 10 or 11 – so are unlikely to meet the criteria well.


5 “…at least three artworks, objects or artefacts…

Some students seem to take the “at least” phrase in the formal requirements to mean “the more the merrier”.

Attempting to successfully examine/compare eight or ten artworks is not a good idea. It can be helpful to include appropriate reference to other art when discussing the context of the main selected pieces, but a lengthy sequence of works all analysed at the same level will not help to provide evidence of depth of understanding. It is advisable to concentrate on three – or at the most four – clearly defined art works.


6 Know the aims and how its assessed!

This may seem obvious, but it’s clear that some students are not aware of the assessment criteria. For example, some students do not appear to understand the importance of research or how to apply new knowledge. The Comparative Study is not a general art history essay. Some student just presented portions of art history or cultural context without linking or applying this to their analysis of the selected works.

Check that you know and understand the component objectives, formal requirements and assessment criteria before you start your comparative study.


I am working on a similar list of issues relating specifically to HL criterion F – more things that students do (or don’t do) that can hinder achievement.

I’m planning to post this in October.

Stay tuned!