Entrepreneur and former art student SARAH MUYSOMS recalls the highs and lows of trying to produce informative and inspired projects with limited research tools

Any student, past or present, will be all too familiar with the many and varied challenges involved in trying to carry out research for an important paper or essay.

In fact, most of us have probably, at some point, sat squinting at photocopies of handouts, trying to decipher blurred words, or spent the evening hunched over a laptop trawling through the internet in search of an elusive quote, or maybe gone to the library, only to be told that every copy of a book described by a lecturer as essential reading is already out on loan.

While these and other scenarios encountered by students make for common topics of complaint, the lack of good-quality research resources seems to be something felt even more acutely by those studying the visual arts.

For the Belgian entrepreneur Sarah Muysoms, who studied International Economics and History of Art at Pablo de Olavide University, Seville, the clue to the problem is in the name of the course category: visual arts.


Short on visuals

“We had to contend with all the usual problems that students face, such as a dearth of easily accessible content,” she told The Net Gallery. “But what made it more challenging was the lack of visual learning tools. Much of the research available simply didn’t reflect the nature of our subject matter. It was primarily one or two-dimensional, which made it uninspiring and flat.”

Research has long shown that students learn better when they are able to engage visually with their chosen topic, yet Sarah believes the hurdles she came up against were commonplace and remain so today.

“Of course, there was plenty of essential reading required, like biographies and Janson’s History of Art, which we all knew was the bible for students, but these word-heavy research tools simply weren’t backed up by the visual props that would’ve made studying so much more uplifting and less tedious,” she explained. “It’s not easy to stay motivated by looking at a couple of photos in a book or on the internet for every 10 pages of words.”

Even the papers that students have to trawl through when looking for quotes or a specific angle of an artist’s life or work can be uninspiring, she admitted.

“Students tend to use Google Scholar, since the work has been authenticated as that of academics,” she said. “But while the papers are excellent for fact-checking and referencing, they don’t give you a real feel for the artist or their work – that motivational edge which can take your research to the next level or help you to remember minutiae or details in the way a visual prop can.”

Foreign students, in particular, can find word-heavy tools a challenge, since many of the major reference works have not been translated from English.

Sarah also pointed out that students were, at times, told which subjects to study by their professors, meaning the availability of research was out of their hands.


Information overload

“You might be lucky and have the opportunity to choose a subject, in which case checking what research is available will probably in part determine your decision,” she said. “But not everyone gets to make that choice. And in all fairness, lecturers themselves are weighed down by the overloaded curricula they’re having to teach, so sometimes they have no option but to send students off to source their own research.”

One way of getting a real feel for a subject is to visit a gallery and view the artwork in question firsthand, something Sarah acknowledges is invaluable, but not always possible.

“Yes, I went on fieldtrips whenever I could and the experience of walking through a gallery was hugely beneficial, but for some students, the cost makes them unaffordable,” she noted. “There are also some instances when it’s simply not a practical option, when the work in question is inaccessible, maybe because it’s over the other side of the world, not on show or simply because you have a tight deadline.”

Asked whether online visual tools, such as the scanning services that The Net Gallery provides, would have helped her, Sarah’s answer is a resounding yes.

“These detailed and accurate pictorial references can make a huge difference to students, enabling them to really relate to a work or a show and engage with it, or perhaps watch an artist being interviewed or at work and observe their technique, anytime and anywhere,” she said. “Aside from being visual, it makes the entire process more dynamic, interactive and fun, which is a tremendous help when it comes to learning or memorising facts. And by making art and artists accessible to students who can’t afford to go on fieldtrips, it’s also levelling the playing field, which is fantastic.”


Better grades, promising futures

Sarah believes that improving research tools is a win-win for art students and their tutors. “It makes everyone’s life easier and paves the way for a more enjoyable learning experience, which, in turn, is likely to lead to better outcomes and reduce drop-out rates and low grades,” she said.

She added that students were also likely to want to take these more sophisticated and value-added tools with them into their professional lives.

“Research doesn’t stop when education finishes, as many professionals know all too well!” she said. “By giving students access to good tools, like 3D scans, we’re laying solid foundations for the next generation of professionals, whether they’re artists wishing to showcase their own work or architects and designers wanting to explore buildings, textiles or fashion garments in the most accurate and realistic way possible.”

In conclusion, Sarah pointed out that it’s easy to underestimate the part that art plays in our lives. “It’s bigger and broader than we realise – art really is everywhere,” she said. “And when something is so ever-present, it’s vital we have the right tools to hand to do it justice.”


Sarah is situated in the front middle, alongside fellow students.