Behind the Scenes of AP Art
“I liked grading the AP because I got a broad overview of what’s going on in the country… it puts what I do in perspective” says Barbara Thomason, a Los Angeles based artist, educator and former judge of the Advanced Placement Art Portfolio. Barbara was a master printer at Gemini G.E.L. where she worked with influential artists including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, and David Hockney. Barbara has taught in the art departments at UCSC, Cal Poly Pomona, Otis College, and The University of Redlands. As a former student of AP Art, I was eager to get a behind-the-scenes look at the review process and a few tips from a judge’s perspective.
What is the AP Art review process like?
AP Art Judges are mostly teachers at colleges, art schools, and high schools. When I was there, there were about forty-three of us and we did thousands of portfolios a week. Now there’s about double that. We’d look at sheets of slides (now they’re on computers), and we’d do a set of slides every three minutes. They’d train you with the rubric really tight. And then if there were any discrepancies, let’s say two people give it a 5 and another person gives it a 1, they would re-grade them. It was actually really fair.
Do judges agree most of the time?
Most of the time. You know, there were occasional discrepancies, but the rubric gives a straightforward guideline of what you’re to look for. There’s subjectivity, but within the parameters of the rules—the rubric they give you, and the rules of art—it’s pretty clear what score a portfolio should get. I was always surprised by how much consensus there was. But when it comes down to it, you’re looking at the same things: the composition, the value, the light source…
So what does a 5 look like?
Looks pretty good! (Laughs). A portfolio that gets a 5 would look about as good as the work my students in college produce.
What advice do you have for students who plan to complete an AP Art Portfolio?
Presentation is really important! If you see work that is crumpled at the edges, you’re going to give it a lower score. If you don’t care about your work, why should I? Take good photographs: make sure they’re square, make sure they’re clear and not fuzzy, make sure there’s enough light. Take chances: I think it’s better to see someone who sort of fails taking a chance than someone who’s playing it safe. Be thorough and spend the time you need to spend, because we can tell how much time you’ve spent on your work. Most importantly, do it because you want to do it, and not because someone is forcing you into it, because that shows.
Any advice about what not to do?
There have been major plagiarism issues lately. The Internet has made all kinds of images readily available, but don’t copy stuff! See what something looks like and then go away from it. When I was a judge for the AP Art we used to get hundreds of tree frogs because students would copy from nature books. It’s important to avoid copying because in the real world, it’s a $500 to $100,000 dollar fine depending on the violation. They now have image base software that can tell you whether something has been copied. You can’t just make x, y, and z changes to something—that’s not original.
You’ve recently completed a series called “100 Not So Famous Views of LA,” which is a pretty cool concept. Do you have any tips on how to come up with a good AP concentration topic?
Do something that means something to you—don’t just take something randomly out of the air. Make it a broad focus; don’t just do the same thing over and over again. For example if you’re doing a series of soda cans, don’t just do the same composition in a new medium—do something new, go somewhere new and make it your own. It’s also a good idea to focus on something that relates to your life… you know, when’s the last time you saw a penguin in real life? Try to do something that is meaningful on your own level.