Oct 29, 2013

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What Makes Great Art, Great?

High school students are capable of producing some amazing artwork. Every art teacher has encountered a student that produces this kind of work, work that is sometimes even better than the teacher’s. Yet, other students produce only average work. It’s good, but it’s not great. Their work is lacking that something, but what is it? Achieving the following five things will ensure that a work of art is not only good, but great.

This is the most obvious. If the artist is above average in the skills used to produce a work of art, that work with stand out. An extreme example would be photorealism. However, technique doesn’t always mean the artist needs to produce realism. Monet and the impressionists used their technique to capture light and in turn, captured the world.




A dead shark is not art… unless you are artist, Damien Hirst. The concept is something the artist relates to the audience. If the audience is intrigued by the concept, the work of art can be instantly transformed from an ordinary urinal to the infamous Fountain. The idea is important.

Hirst Shark



Perhaps the opposite of concept, emotion is how the audience relates to the artist’s work. A work of art can generate the feeling of happiness, sadness, anger, pride or patriotism. Consider Norman Rockwell’s stirring image of Ruby being escorted to class by US marshals while a recently thrown tomato runs down a wall. This image elicits anger and outrage by people on both sides (unfortunately) of that issue of the day.




If it is new, it will pique interest. Whether it be the use of perspective in the 1400’s or stencils in the 21st century, finding an innovative way to produce art generates excitement from those who say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”.



Non-traditional art materials have boomed in the last few years. Artists are seeking new materials to not only create new art, but recreate old works. The Mona Lisa is nothing new, unless she is recreated out of thousands of coffee cups using varying amounts of creamer for value. Using new materials to create art, or simply finding unique ways to work with traditional materials can breathe life into a project.

Coffee Mona


Before your art students begin their next project, review these five simple ideas. Ask them to consider which they will incorporate to make sure their art is not only a good work of art, it’s great.

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Which of the five things do you think is most important in taking a work from good to great? 

How do you define a great work of art? 



IanThis article was written by AOE Team member Ian Sands. Ian is the incredibly creative HS Art Teacher from Apex High in North Carolina. Ian is originally from NYC where he received a BFA from the School of Visual Arts.

About Ian | Ian’s Articles

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  • Hilary

    Thanks for this article. I used this information with my middle school students today and had some great conversations.

    • iansands

      Wish I had been a fly on the wall.. would love to hear those conversations!

  • erica

    oh Ian how I love your posts! Another great one.

    • iansands

      Thanks Erica! That is so nice to hear!