A Sense of Place

Where am I now?

A comprehensive teaching idea for Year 1

The title of Gauguin's painting above Where have we come from, where are we now, where are we going? asks a marvelously complex question, one that a lifetime of art making can only begin to try to address. However, the middle part of the title, Where are we now? poses a rich topic for investigation and the source of multiple possibilities for visual exploration. A Sense of Place is a broad and open ended IB art assignment that is intended to teach a variety of visual skills as well as encourage independent and original thinking.

Open ended framework

Providing a structure for students to investigate their surroundings using many different visual approaches, this teaching idea is a way of opening to a new environment or exploring a familiar one through new eyes. It is also a way of generating ideas for meaningful, personal work that is grounded in direct experience, observation, and reflection. Although the lesson is teacher guided to an extent, it is intentionally open- ended and encourages a range of individual responses from the students.

This framework offers a structure and sets specific goals for students to work towards, while allowing each one to ask: what is interesting, what is important to me and what do I care about in the world around me?

Wide choice of media

The project encompasses a range of visual approaches: drawing, photography, mapping, collecting and assembling objects, but you can choose to focus only on one or two of these or expand to include film, animation, or 3D work, depending on the facilities you have available. This presents opportunities for teaching about different media and introducing artists as references.

Time frame for project

A Sense of Place could be done over a period of a month or expanded to cover a period of several months if studio work is developed from the investigation. There is enough material here for the entire first semester. Look at how it might fit into the context of your yearly Course Planning , and also generate other work including site specific work.

Visual Exploration

exploring the environment through a range of different visual approaches


Take a walk with your sketchbook and a pencil, looking around you with curiosity. Sit down and make a sketch, whatever captures your attention, a tree, a building, a face. You can focus on a tiny architectural detail or a sweeping view. Move around. After at least 5 sketches of different views or aspects of your environment, have a good look at your sketches and reflect on what you most enjoyed drawing and what is most visually interesting. Return to this spot to do a more sustained drawing, really developing the qualities of the drawing, bringing it beyond the “sketch”.


Take your camera with you and look for interesting viewpoints. It may the physical qualities or material in your site- be it cityscape, landscape, or interior space. Try a combination of close- up, medium and long shots. Can you find some unusual way to frame your vision? Lying on your back, using a reflection, an opening? Take as many pictures as you like but at the end of the day you will edit your photos and select only 5 for your Journal. It is important to be able to edit and critique your work and be able select your best images. These 5 images should evocatively capture a “sense of place” and be varied rather than several shots of the same object or viewpoint.

Collecting Traces

Over the course of several days or more collect small objects, natural and manmade, scraps of paper, a bus ticket, a leaf, things that tell stories of the place. If it is a new place, this will have a quality of discovery, maybe writings in another language, a foreign coin. If the place is familiar, the objects you collect may tell a personal story, your own path through the landscape, traces of your footsteps. Assemble these objects into a kind of order, draw them, attach them on a support (like a collage) or arrange them in a container, string them on a string, make a mobile, sew them onto your clothes, anything really- just create a context for the objects to be together.

Think about the story objects tell when placed together in a certain way. Look at artists Joseph Cornell and Kurt Schwitters. Use this opportunity to introduce your students to the complexities of Collage.

Mapping your path

Make a map of your journey through this space that you have been exploring, it can be a simple journey from your house to the school or even from a tree to the bus stop. What do you encounter along the way? What are your landmarks? A landmark can be an actual bridge or street corner, but it can also be a memory of something that happened there. Make this map as real or as symbolic as you like. (An opportunity to introduce map making as an art form)


Stepping back, look at all the information you have gathered about your place. It might not be enough to guide a tourist but it is your own guide. What words come to mind when thinking about your observations? Write a list of these words. Is there a particular focus that comes through your work? Are you more interested in architecture and design or is it the soulful qualities of the place and it’s inhabitants that interests you? Write a summary of your observations and what you think your individual focus within this environment might be. ( also see site page on Self-Reflection)

Developing Studio Work

Consider everything up to now merely an experiment. Now you are ready to think about making a more developed piece of artwork based on your explorations, your reflections and your understanding of what interests you about this place. Which of the visual exploration activities did you enjoy the most? Taking pictures? Assembling objects? In that case maybe you want to combine those media and create a photo essay of your objects placed in the environment. If you liked drawing buildings you could find out about the indigenous architecture and support your art work with more knowledge and information. Whatever you chose to explore in your Journal is the key to understanding what aspects you would like to develop in your studio work.

Your own interests will lead you to make your best work, no one else can decide what is exciting to you.

Download the guidelines for students Where are you now? A sense of place

or see a revised version of this for students in chapter 5, Culture and Place of my textbook Visual Arts for the IB Diploma

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