There's no denying it - art is a tough a-level. It's demanding on pretty much everything, your time, your energy, and sometimes it feels like your mental state too! But at the same time, it can be enjoyable - it's a creative subject after all. I completed my art a-level in May/June 2014 so I won't know what grade I achieved until August, I did however survive the a-level and I feel confident that I gave it my all. More importantly, as I went along the two year course I learnt some tips that are pretty much essential if you are pushing to achieve the grade you are capable of. Bear in mind, different courses have different requirements (if you're interested, I took Edexcel's A2 Art & Design Unendorsed course), however I have tried to create tips that are appropriate to whichever specific a-level course you are taking. These tips can even be translated into other art courses...
1. Choose Your Subjects Wisely
This tip only really applies if you have not yet started your art a-level (or AS level). When it comes to a- levels, it is really important to pick your subjects wisely whether you choose to do art or not, but I feel when it comes to art there are a few more things to think about in terms of your subject combination. A classic example of this is simply choosing art for an 'easy ride'. I guarantee you this will NOT be the case. Art is an intensely demanding subject and needs to be taken seriously, only take art if you truly love it. I suspect however that most people reading my blog are genuinely interested in art, so the real issue is what other subjects to combine with it. It is always my belief to do whatever you enjoy, but make sure to bear in mind that a-level art is heavily weighted on coursework. Even the 'exam' element of the a-level feels very much like coursework. For this reason you may want to consider balancing it with an exam focused course so you are not bogged down in coursework all year. I personally paired my art a-level with English Literature (which had both coursework and exam but the main focus was on exam) and Business Studies (which was entirely assessed by exam). In short, do not consider art an easy option, and think carefully about the workload compared to other subjects.
2. Show Your Development
A-level art asks students to develop ideas from initial concepts into a final piece. If you are told that your work must show development, your tutor is telling you that your work must change a little (e.g media used, composition) from one piece to the next. An a-level art portfolio must tell a visual story of where you began, where you ended up and everything in between. The use of artist influence often helps (and bags you extra marks) when deciding how to develop your work from one piece onto the next.
3. Avoid Second Hand Sources
During the course of my a-level I realised that you should pretty much consider second hand sources as some kind of evil force. Drawing or painting from images found, for example, on Google Images sets off alarm bells for the examiner. It can indicate a lack of personal connection to a topic, plagiarism issues, a lack of originality and even laziness. It is often assumed that if a student purely uses images taken by others, they are simply too bone idle to take images of their own. This tip should be taken as a guideline, sometimes secondary sources taken from books, magazines etc. can add weight to your project but in general, avoid relying on them too heavily as it often results in superficial / surface-deep work.
4. Say What YOU Think
It is all too easy to fall into the habit in your sketchbook of simply writing factual, surface information about, for example, an artists work. 99% of the time it is not in the examiners interest where the artist you are studying was born and what their parents did for a living. They are interested in what you think about their work and how they are influencing your project. You need to demonstrate a carefully considered opinion - WHAT do you like about the work and WHY? The same goes for your own work in your project, you must continually evaluate your process: what's good? what do you like and why? what needs to be improved? And then go and improve it! Your PERSONAL opinion is key, it does not matter if your opinion is in line with some major art critic, the key is that it must be YOURS.
5. Don't Procrastinate!
I would go as far to say that procrastination is the number one barrier to success for art students. Of course, procrastination is never recommended for any a-level subject, but when it comes to art it is simply not an option if you want to achieve the grade you are capable of. Even skilful, highly talented students need time to produce a great art project and so leaving things until the last minute is simply not an option. You need to immerse yourself in the project from start to finish to produce the best result possible. Often the reason art students begin procrastinating is that they become overwhelmed by the quantity of work they have to get through and it just becomes a chore rather than a joy - I have written a post about how to overcome this here.