Surviving IB: SL Art


The IB Visual Arts course at the Standard Level is not exactly a very popular subject option, and as a matter of fact for most cohorts you wouldn’t need your two hands to count all the students taking the subject.  In my year I have the privilege of being the only candidate to offer the visual arts at SL (traditionally many more offer it at HL), as well as the being the first and only candidate to take the course under the new art syllabus (first examinations 2016).

That being said, I think that it is a subject option which is under-studied and should be more widely considered, for the simple reasons that it does allow ample time for one to comfortably develop his or her own artistic style and passion, while keeping the door open to other options for higher education such as engineering or finance due to flexibility in choice of HL subjects.  (However, it is unlikely one could pursue medicine while taking art, as a double-science is required and one cannot offer a second group 4 subject together with art, a group 6.  If you don’t understand the nature of this, do go and read it up on the school/IB website).

Personally I found the course throughout my IB journey to be a very fulfilling one, as the vast majority of art students would unmistakably testify to.  Students taking art have scheduled lesson time in accordance with the school’s non-intact subject timetable, which can be used as studio time if the teacher does not have any planned agenda for the day.  I would admit it’s not a great amount of time; HL students have a lesson almost every single day while SL students have a lesson about 3 times a week, and one would definitely have to put in some hours of work outside curriculum time.  If one is comparing the subject to the ACS(I) IP Art, I would say the commitment and effort demanded is much more, though the processes are similar, as with many other subjects even at SL.  If one is coming from the ‘O’ Level Art programme, from what I know it is a very different programme although I wouldn’t be the best one to ask for a comparison.

On the more technical side, the course components are the same for SL and HL – 40% to your studio work exhibition, 40% to your investigative work book (also known as IWB – basically screens of your sketchbook/processes showcasing your exploration, planning and reflection), and 20% to a “comparative study” of artworks which is a new addition to the syllabus.  If any of this seems overwhelming, it always does seem so, but adequate guidelines/guidance is sure to be given (especially now that there are samples from our batch).  Don’t worry.

However the depth of the components is a bit lower for SL compared to HL – SL students are required to exhibit a portfolio of 4-7 works while it’s 8-11 for HL (ideally one should complete more works and choose their best for display), and there are more marking criterion for the HL IWB and comparative study components.  Additionally the new syllabus requires one to use at least 2 different media to produce art (you can’t just specialize as a painter or photographer or in one medium, although the previous batches doing the old syllabus could).

So, in essence, if one is pondering the question: to art or not to art, the best advice I would be able to give is to follow your passion.  The study of art has changed the way I see and appreciate perhaps the simplest and most complex things which life has to offer, as well as provided me an avenue to explore my passion and interests as part of the IB curriculum.  For example my own work is primarily based on photography and transfer/printmaking on canvas, on the subject-matter of how people live in cities, the visual phenomenon which occur in urban areas, and how in totality cities are sometimes much more than what they appear to be.  This has allowed to me to spend some time outside school, literally walking the streets and researching by observation to inspire my artwork, instead of, perhaps, sitting at home studying for whatever else I would have taken in place of art.  A word of caution, perhaps, is that a great amount of personal initiative and effort had to be involved (this applies perhaps to students considering the course without an art background compared to those who have taken art in Years 3-4).  I do know of a few individuals who joined the course expecting it to be very instructional in nature, and that the teacher would direct them to do something every lesson.  That is far from the case as the teacher often takes the role of the consultant – they can give you direction and teach you the technical skills required to make art, however ultimately your art can only be made when you find your own personal voice or instinct inside you, and try to express it.

There will be many ups and downs.  Things will work one day and not work the other.  You’ll taste the sweet smell of satisfaction like the air you get at the tip of a mountain, but the next moment feel the pressure in the darkest caverns of the sea.  It’s a bumpy ride, and a personal warning from me to pursue consistent work, and not let everything suddenly pile up in Term 3 of Year 6 when everything is due.  Before that, you’ll have many more portfolio reviews.  Putting up your works on the gallery walls may just be one of the proudest moments of your life, like it was for me.  You’ll then be done with art, completing one subject before doing your prelims in everything else, possibly going into November with just 4 others to worry about (or 5 if you take ab initio).  You’d have earned it.

Here’s the question a certain bunch of people have been waiting for, or maybe what your parents have been asking you all your life:

Can you get a 7?

How difficult actually is it to get a 7?

Truth be told, many have.  They haven’t all worked hard, but they have worked smartly.  Sometimes for the final push you have to look at what the IB appreciates and is looking for.  I submitted a mixed media portfolio, partly of photography and partly of painting/printing.  You may also want to pick up some skills in design to make your screens viewer and marker-friendly.  But don’t worry, you’ll learn all this in time with Year 6.  Take some cues from your other subject areas- read between the lines of the rubrics, and develop what they mean to you.  Above all, do not ever, ever let these examination parameters constrain you or your imagination, ideally they should just serve as a direction to present your artistic journey.  Not everyone understands every type of art, but that’s part of the beauty of the subject.  The teachers should guide you on this (especially for SL), so don’t worry about it too much at all.  ACS(I) has always performed very well for art – partly because it’s designed in an environment to encourage you as the thinker and maker of art while providing a lots of support in the technical side and the back-end to ensure things don’t suddenly go wrong.

I hope the above does not sound too daunting – and if one has the passion, passion will definitely pull him/her through the course to the other side.  If unsure, do feel free to make a trip down to the art room (looks like a store room next to LT1, but do venture inside) to talk to some of the teachers or students.  I do wish all prospective art students a very fruitful journey ahead!

Michael Leong (6.16) is from the graduating batch of 2016.

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