Subject Matter

Subject matter is used to define how learning is set in a context.

Subject matter provides the context for creating art and design.

The work produced will be informed by and will reflect the subject matter.

Subject matter may be taken from a range of sources:

  • Personal Memories
  • Firsthand hand observations
  • Issues of importance (to learners)

The subject matter should provide valuable opportunities for the development of ideas and creativity.   

Teachers and learners have an immense choice when selecting a subject matter. 

It should be carefully chosen giving due consideration to the depth of the learning opportunity and relevance for learners.

If teachers ask learners to recreate artists’ work or engage in tasks to support learning in other subjects they should critically think whether such lessons will enable the development of the thinking processes that artists and designers use, such as developing their own ideas.

Some subject matter will provide much better opportunities for learning and progression in art and design than others.

Subject matter that is relevant to the lived experience, interests and aspirations of learners is fundamental for meaningful learning. 

Types of subject matter frequently featured in exam contexts include:

  • Landscape
  • Seascape
  • Environment 
  • Figurative
  • Life and Still-life
  • Nature 
  • Narrative
  • Descriptive
  • Historic
  • Representation
  • Non-Representation 
  • Decoration
  • Pattern
  • Ornamentation 
  • Expressive
  • Responsive
  • Interpretive 
  • Abstract
  • Conceptual
  • Symbolic
  • Issue-based
  • Meaning
  • Satire
  • Comic
  • Street art 
  • Cultural
  • Social
  • Humorous
  • Existential 

Subject matter can take many forms and themes.

It can involve a critical appreciation of three-dimensional or two-dimensional art or design.

Subject matter can involve stories, fictional or factual from contemporary life or the past.

The directions that subject matter can take are innumerable but from the teacher’s perspective of planning, it is important to ensure that there is a progression in both art and design, that the curriculum requirements are met, and that subject matter is varied, providing the opportunity for meaningful creative work that builds skills, expressive abilities and most importantly develops learners’ potential.  

Subject matter when carefully chosen provides a rich context for creating art and design.

When learners can investigate subject matter of interest it enables them to work in the self-motivated and well-informed way that artists and designers do, bringing their personal experience to bear on the work.  For example, in painting a portrait, the subject may be a well-known member of the local community.

The work may be informed by what they have found out about the person for example their early life; their recent achievements and interests.

The portrait may be informed by meeting the person in real life and admiring what they are doing for the community.

  • It may be informed by taking photographs in their working environment or collecting information from the media.
  • It may be informed by their knowledge of painting styles used by certain portrait artists and the compositions they used.

Overall, their creative intentions will be informed by many things arising from the choice of subject.  

It is advisable for teachers to select subject matter which has meaning for their learners rather than for convenience, such as work that is a focus for history this term, or because the school does it every year with this class.

The teacher should apply their own critical thinking and creative thought when choosing subject matter to take account of the opportunities it provides, preferably in association with learners.


  • See NSEAD Cultural Capital here 
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