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.

1. Technique

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.



2. Concept

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


3. Emotion

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.


4. Newness

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?”.

5. Medium

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?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Ian Sands

Ian Sands, a high school art educator, is a former AOEU Writer. He is a co-author of The Open Art Room and believes art teachers shouldn’t make art—they should make artists.

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