Student Resource

Habitats Coursework Guide

From art about home life to art that highlights the impact of climate change and pollution on natural habitats


What is a habitat? A habitat is the home or environment where people, animals, fish and plants live. Our planet is also a habitat. It needs to be carefully looked after to preserve plants, animals and insects – as well as ourselves and future generations!

Human habitats

Home life

What does ‘home’ mean to you? The place where you live? Your family? The objects and things you surround yourself with that make you feel happy? Domestic interiors and scenes of family life are a popular subject in art.

Look at these two scenes of family life at home. What do the paintings tell you about these habitats and the families that live in them? How would you depict your home life?

Ordinary lives: coffee, a chip fryer and bed!

Edouard Vuillard was an impressionist painter. Although now impressionism might look a little bit tame, the impressionists were a radical movement at the end of the nineteenth century. They chose to draw and paint everyday scenes of people in their homes, at work and in bars and cafes. (At that time art was supposed to show classical heroes and historical and biblical subjects.)

Pierre Bonnard’s Coffee 1915 is a familiar domestic scene – even though it was painted over one hundred years ago. Someone is having a cup of coffee (at breakfast perhaps) and talking to their dog. Bonnard made lots of sketches for this painting, capturing the details of the room and planning the composition, working out what he will include and where everything will go.

In the 1950s artists such as John Bratby and Jack Smith also painted home life and celebrated the lives of ordinary people and the places where they lived.

One critic described their work as including:

every kind of food and drink, every utensil and implement, the usual plain furniture and even the babies’ nappies on the line. Everything but the kitchen sink – the kitchen sink too.
David Sylvester

This comment led to these artists being known as the ‘Kitchen Sink Painters’.

What does your bedroom say about you? Like the Kitchen Sink Painters, Tracey Emin is interested in creating artworks that explore and reflect her life. Her installation My Bed 1998 recreates the mess and clutter of her room at a time when she felt her life was a mess.

Tracey Emin
My Bed (1998)
Lent by The Duerckheim Collection 2015

My Bed provides us with a glimpse into the artist’s very personal habitat as well as a glimpse into her feelings and emotions.

In 1998 I had a complete, absolute breakdown, and I spent four days in bed; I was asleep and semi-unconscious. When I eventually did get out of bed, I had some water, went back, looked at the bedroom and couldn’t believe what I could see; this absolute mess and decay of my life.
Tracey Emin

Captured on camera

Photography is perfect way of capturing fleeting glimpses of human habitats and home life. In his series of Television Portraits Paul Graham shows people doing something very familiar – sitting or lounging on the sofa watching TV.

Wolfgang Tillmans chose the most humble and unlikely details of the human habitat for his series of domestic still lifes – including a pile of socks and clothes drying on a radiator! Captured on camera these boring details become somehow important.

Jeff Wall also often photographs apparently ordinary things. But by presenting them on a big scale, lit up by lightboxes, they look like scenes from a movie. A view from an Apartment 2004-5 shows an ordinary living room. An ironing board, a television set, piles of magazines and a pot of tea are amongst the objects of everyday life contained within it.

Jeff Wall
A View from an Apartment (2004–5)

The room is dominated by the view from the window of an industrial cityscape. The minute detail of enclosed home life contrasts with the vast urban scene outside, a depiction of a broader human habitat – the city. The vertical and horizontal lines inside the apartment are cleverly echoed in the network of lines that make up the scene outside.

Making a point: narratives and messages

Home life isn’t always conventional or happy. Sarah Jones’s photographs show young women in interiors. What do the photographs suggest to you?

On one level these look like conventional pictures of upper middle-class homes. But the detached expressions of the girls and the contrast between their casual poses and the pristine interiors, create an unsettling effect. There is a mood of unhappiness and boredom.

Cathy Wilkes Untitled 2013 Installation view

Cathy Wilkes Untitled 2013 Installation View

Cathy Wilkes also creates unsettling domestic environments. These are suggested by hanging cloths and collections of objects from daily life. Mannequin figures inhabit these spaces. The habitats seem fragile and temporary. They suggest stories that are both mysterious and unhappy and reflect wider issues in society.

Richard Hamilton also uses the theme of human habitat to comment on society. His collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? is a remake and update of an iconic pop art collage Hamilton made in 1956. The original collage is made from images taken mainly from American magazines. It uses humour and irony to comment on consumerism (people’s desire to buy lots of things). In the updated version he swapped the contents of the 1956 habitat for images relating to issues and themes that were high profile in the 1990s. These include the AIDS epidemic, hi-tech gadgets such as computers and microwaves, and fast food.

If you were creating a collage representing people’s homes, and important issues today, what would you include?

Explore more artworks about life at home

Buildings, streets and structures

Alex Katz’s City Night 1998 and David Hepher’s Albany Flats 1977-9 show blocks of flats. Although depicting huge buildings, the artworks suggest the individual lives of the people who live there. There are lights in the windows in Katz’s painting, and different coloured curtains in the Albany flats.

Katz and Hepher have painted communities of people living on top of each other (literally!). Ivor Abrahams creates a very different view of our habitats in his series of prints Privacy Plots. He shows the structures of suburbia, the houses, fences and neatly clipped hedges people put up to guard their privacy. The brightly tinted prints suggest a lifestyle that seems perfect – but also fake, slightly chilling and isolated.

Mario Merz’s igloo is inspired by the basic structures built by ancient nomadic cultures. It explores the theme of shelter and the relation of humans to their environment and community. Merz was part of the Arte Povera movement. Arte Povera artists were against consumerism (people’s desire to buy lots of things) and made their work from humble materials. Merz’s igloo is constructed from metal and slate.

Life on the street

Human habitats aren’t just homes and houses. Habitats can include other places where people live or spend time.

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen
Kids with Collected Junk Near Byker Bridge (Byker) (1971, printed 2012)

Photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen captured the life of people living in Byker, a deprived area of Newcastle. In this photograph the children seem to be at home in an area of wasteland. Surrounded by old prams, discarded bits of furniture and broken TVs they have created their own habitat of sorts.

With his sculpture Gate (We don’t meet here. We are always together first.) 2004, artist Martin Boyce wanted to symbolise the habitats that people hang out in.

The gate is the sort of ordinary boring gate you might see at an entrance to a park. But to the people that visit and make use of the park it is important. Boyce said that when he made the sculpture he ‘wanted to have that same feeling, of a space that you might have occupied as a teenager, that place you find for yourself’.

Markéta Luskačová’s photograph shows homeless people in London. They gather round a fire while flakes of snow fall around them. Their habitat is the street.

Artist Boris Mikhailov’s At Dusk is a powerful series of photographs documenting his hometown Kharkiv in Ukraine. The photographs document life on the streets and capture the poverty that many of the inhabitants face.

Homelessness is a big issue in the UK today, with thousands living on the streets or in temporary accommodation. How could you use art to draw attention to homelessness?

Animal habitats and marine life

It is not only the habitats of people that have inspired artists. Explore artworks that depict animals, birds, fish and marine life in their natural habitats.

Blue-striped tigers? Red antelopes? Spencer Gore’s brightly coloured painting of a forest or jungle scene was inspired by the Tahitan paintings of Paul Gauguin. Gore designed his jungle scene for a mural in a bar. Rather than depicting a realistic animal habitat, his aim was to create a joyous, decorative picture that would be escapism from real life. He said of his design:

We want surroundings, which after the reality of daily life, reveal the reality of the unreal.

To create this sense of unreality, the colours are abstracted and the forms of the animals simplified. Although not a realistic representation the bold colours and shapes suggest the vibrancy of the jungle.

Sea world

Mary Kessell and John Piper have created very different images of marine habitats. John Piper has used collage and gestural marks to make his beach scene. The focus of the image is a rock pool with starfish, fish and coral. The collage suggests the rich and varied textures and surfaces that you might find on a beach.

Mary Kessell has also used gestural mark making to create her underwater scene. Diluted washes of paint and marks made with a sponge give the impression of a blurry underwater world. The lines and shapes suggest seaweed and rocks of the seabed, and the darting forms of tiny fish.

Bird life

Artist Cedric Morris has painted a pair of Peregrine Falcons with their nest high on a craggy cliff. The birds and their habitat have been simplified. He has used thick paint and dabbed it on to the painting creating a flickering, textured surface. He said he wanted to put across the mood of the birds, and if he painted them with painstaking accuracy, he might destroy their character.

John Wells has taken a very different approach in his painting of a seagull flying over its habitat – the sea. He has abstracted the gull to a series of shapes that suggest wings, arched body and beak. The painting conveys a feeling of the movement of a flying bird. The pale greys of the bird harmonise with the pale blues, greys and whites of the sea an sky. This makes the gull seem at one with its habitat.

More art about animals, birds and fish in their habitats

Out of place

Because we expect to see animals in their natural habitats, when we see them in unusual places or situations, we question what we are looking at. Artists sometimes depict animals in unlikely settings, to surprise or shock the viewer or to make a point or put across a message.

Surrealist artists often put unlikely things objects and images together to explore the hidden thoughts buried in our subconscious or to re-create the unreal world of dreams. By placing a lobster with a telephone Salvador Dali has created a weird, slightly disturbing object.

Christopher Wood was inspired by surrealist art. His decision to place a zebra on the terrace of a modern concrete building creates an equally strange, unexpected image.

Artist Damien Hirst also often takes animals out of the context of their natural habitats. Away from the Flock forces us to focus on a humble sheep. Hirst transforms the sheep from the everyday into something special. Although dead the sheep in Hirst’s work seems to be prancing with life. By preserving the sheep in formaldehyde it will ‘live’ forever.

Much of Hirst’s work is about death and mortality. Forms Without Life is an arrangement of shells inside a glass cabinet. The cabinet makes us think of the tradition of collecting and classifying natural specimens.

Hirst has commented that ‘you kill things to look at them’. With this work he seems to be commenting on the irony of removing plants and animals from their natural habitat, killing them in order to ‘preserve’ them as a beautiful display.

Pollution, climate change and our impact on natural habitats

Humans and human habitats – the way we live our lives – can have a huge impact on the environment and natural habitats. Some artists have chosen to explore these issues in their art to draw attention to them.


Photographer Keith Arnatt photographed areas of the countryside and beauty spots where rubbish and waste have been dumped. The contrast of the beauty of the natural habitats with the ugly mess of the rubbish from human habitats creates a powerful anti-pollution message.

Terry Setch and Cedric Morris also make art about pollution and the damage this does to animal and bird habitats. Cedric Morris’s Landscape of Shame shows dead or dying birds in a desolate landscape. He made the work in response to the devastating effects of crop-sprays and pesticides on the bird population.

Terry Setch’s Once Upon a Time There Was Oil shows the destruction caused by oil washed up on a beach. The gestural, thick grey marks suggest the skeletal forms of plants and sea life, smothered by the mess of oil.

Ai Weiwei
Tree (2010)

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei often explores and highlights issues affecting contemporary China. His sculpture Tree is made from the branches and trunks of different trees from different locations in China. These have been attached together to create a fake, composite tree. The wood used to make Tree is dry and dead. The work draws attention to and comments on the damage to the natural environment caused by the country’s industry and the rapid growth of its cities.

Climate change

Artist Olafur Eliasson is deeply interested in social and environmental issues. His 2018 project Ice Watch, created along with geologist Minik Rosing, involved transporting 24 huge blocks of ice from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland to the River Thames in London. As a result of global warming the ice blocks had become detached from a larger ice sheet. The aim of the artwork is to highlight the reality of climate change. Warmer climates have caused the Greenland ice sheet to lose around 200–300 billion tonnes each year, a rate that is expected to increase dramatically. By bringing the ice to London Eliasson and Rosing have provided people with the chance to engage with the ice directly and see for themselves the devastating effects of climate change.

Put your hands on the ice, listen to it, smell it, look at it – and witness the ecological changes our world is undergoing.
Olafur Eliasson

Have a go!

Impressions of home life

Impressionist artists often painted the people in their homes. The paintings provide intimate, quiet glimpses of ordinary lives. Kitchen sink artists such as John Bratby also painted ordinary interiors. These focus on the less glamorous aspects of ordinary home life such as chip fryers!

  • What aspects of your home life would you capture?
  • Pierre Bonnard made lots of sketches for his domestic scenes. Have a go at sketching things and people around your home. These could be as simple as someone watching television or playing computer game, or clothes on a radiator.
  • You could photograph your own home life. Choose unlikely details, and think how you frame these details. Look at Wolfgang Tillmans’s still lifes of ordinary objects for inspiration.
  • Use your source material as inspiration for a painting. You could use different elements from your sketches and photographs. Or you might decide to use one image. Make drawings to work our what to include and where things will go.

Personal spaces real lives

Tracey Emin
My Bed (1998)
Lent by The Duerckheim Collection 2015

Tracey Emin used her messy bed to reflect a time in her life when she was feeling down.

  • What does your bedroom say about you?
  • What’s on your wall? What’s on your floor? What’s on your desk or chest of drawers? Have a look around your room and photograph or draw details that say something about you. What reflects your character? What reflects your interests? What reflects your mood or how you are feeling? (Are you listening to that sad song again?!)
  • Use these as a starting point for an artwork. This could be a painting, a collage, a video or a digital image.

What are we like?

Pop artist Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? is a collage of a room. It reflects what he felt about society and culture in the 1990s.

  • What things do you think reflect society today? Think about what people like doing, what they eat, which celebrities they are interested in.
  • Use Hamilton’s collage as a starting point. See if you can find equivalents from life today.

Explore animal habitats

You don’t have to visit the jungle – or even the countryside to explore animal habitats.

  • Think about animal habitats that are close to you. Do birds, or foxes visit your garden or street? Are you lucky enough to have a city farm near you? There can even be animal life under a stone if you look closely!
  • Record these habitats. You could photograph or sketch the animals and make notes about their behaviour. Use these as the source material for an artwork. Or you might decide to create an imaginary habitat. Spencer Gore made a decorative painting inspired by the shapes of animals and their habitat.
  • Visit your library, or use the internet to find photographs of animals, birds and fish in their habitats. Use the shapes, colours and patterns from these images to create a bold and decorative painting.

Making a point

Keith Arnatt
Miss Grace’s Lane (1986–7)

Olafur Eliasson often makes powerful art about ecological issues. Keith Arnatt uses photography to raise awareness of pollution. Boris Mikhailov and Markéta Luskačová took powerful and shocking photographs of poverty and homelessness.

  • Is there an issue that is important to you? Are you passionate about the environment, worried about pollution or angry about homelessness? Plan an artwork that raises awareness of the issue and makes a point.
  • Get more inspiration about different approaches you could take from our Events and Issues Exam Help resource.

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