Portfolio Prep Step 2


It’s time to prepare a portfolio when you are serious about studying art. Most art schools require approximately twelve to fifteen pieces of your best work.  Some college art departments will review serious work as well.  If you are a high school student, work from your junior and the first semester of your senior year are the best examples to include*, but start to collect work as early as your sophomore year. You can replace weaker work with stronger as you grow.

Most schools want to see breath and depth in your work.  That means a variety of subject matter, materials and techniques.  You should however, include only your best work, so if that limits the breath, so be it.

Once you begin the process of putting together a portfolio, there are two important things that will help guide you through the process:

1.Put together a list of schools you might like to attend. The internet is your best tool.  Each website will contain all sorts of information about the nature of the school, mandatory portfolio requirements**, and deadlines to be sure to meet. Keep a list or chart to keep this information organized.  If you live close by, go see the school.

2.Attending National Portfolio Day (in the US), is an excellent way to get opinions about your work and for understanding the admission expectations of particular schools. Watch the Video.. Portfolio day is really helpful early in your process, so attending early in your junior year is ideal.  You will be able to speak with representatives from a variety of schools, and show them your work.


Just between us:

About important thing #1

Art schools are somewhat different.  Some have more mandatory academics than others. Some offer more scholarships than others. The culture of the school differs from one to another. If at all possible, visit as many schools on your list as you can. Plan to interview with schools that want to see you. Talk to the students.

About important thing #2

Portfolio Day can be nerve racking.   There are crowds, it may feel competitive, even though it isn’t.  It feels weird to unveil your work and to take criticism.  BUT, if you want to make your living in the visual arts, this is a good way to get used to situations like this.  Crits are part of art school. They are part of the art world.  Subjectivity is also part of the art world. One table at Portfolio Day could openly dislike what you do and tell you so.  The next table may love what you do and tell you so.   The ONLY thing YOU can do is to stand strong.  Listen to constructive criticism and try not to take criticism that is unflattering  to heart.  Then go home, take a little time to absorb the experience, and get to work. (The dates and locations for portfolio days will be available online early fall)

Extra tips:

Many art schools and colleges with good art departments offer Saturday and summer classes. Some are for AP credit, some are portfolio building and some are just for you to grow as an artist. Some of these programs offer scholarships but only if you apply early. Some schools will tell you that they draw a certain percentage of freshman students from these programs. Some say that participation in their program does not help you gain admission as a freshman, but it shows interest in their school..just so you know.  There’s also NOTHING wrong with staying home, reserving time to work and following through.

All schools want to see work that is original.  That means not copied from a magazine. It also means that they want you to draw from life not photos, whenever possible.  And they DO want to see drawings, even if you are a photographer or performance artist.

All schools love to see sketchbooks. Keep a sketchbook.

*That doesn’t just mean work you made in art class. It definitely includes your independent work.

**Some schools ask for specific mandatory pieces above and beyond your portfolio pieces. The summer before you apply is a great time to get these started!


Portfolio Prep Step 3

Congratulations, you’ve got your list of schools together, know all the requirements for each school and have been to at least one Portfolio Day!  Well, that’s the ideal.  At least you know what to shoot for while you work on your portfolio;)

Let’s talk about your portfolio:

What does the work say about what interests YOU?

For instance, are your still life studies dynamic? Are they composed of elements that YOU find interesting? Are you thinking about why and where you are placing elements?  Maybe you use humor in the work? Maybe the work is deadly serious. Is it your intention to concentrate on values and representing three-dimensional form? Do you find the contours more interesting?  Are you depicting your family’s dinner table? Is it a view after the meal?  Are the shapes abstracted?  Do you choose to portray ordinary objects rendered in outrageous color? Is your pet sitting in the middle of the table? Maybe it’s your uncle? 🙂

In other words, are you thinking?  Are you feeling? Are you observing?


*Copy -someone else’s style because you think it looks cool, because they got a 5 on the AP portfolio, or because you don’t think you have one.  Let inspiration guide you and experiment with an element of something that you’ve seen, but make it yours.

*Worry -about competition.  No one can see through YOUR eyes. No one else has access to YOUR hands.  No one else thinks through YOUR brain. This fact guarantees that your portfolio will be unique. It should be.

*Assume-that you have to know it all already.  Remember, this work allows you to get into school. You’ve got years of work ahead to learn and refine (it simply never ends;)

*Forget about the essays and the specific mandatory pieces for the various schools to which you are applying.  They count. Some of the mandatory pieces may help to challenge and stretch you, so don’t save them for last.

*Jump at advice and take it as the only truth. Even this post. Change and consideration are is the words of the day.  But..clearly, you have to start somewhere.  This post hopes to get you moving in your own direction.


Include varied media/mediums. Even if you are burning to study photography, most schools insist on a foundation*, freshman year. That means you’ll get your fingers covered in charcoal, paint, and glue while taking classes in figure drawing, 3-D work, and heaven knows what else. …(it’s a good thing). Schools want to understand that you can make it through.

Think contrasts;show off your technical skill  but also show off your daring-maybe all in the same piece, or in different pieces  Show work that is personal but also show work that is steeped in tradition.  I know this all sounds off the wall, but the constant is YOU. It’s you work,  your ideas, your take.

Get Feedback?  Yes, indeed, do ask your teachers and friends, people whose aesthetic you respect, for opinions on what to keep in and what to weed out.  Ask them why they think a piece should stay or go.   But, ultimately, YOU must weigh all of the opinions and present what you think is your best work.

Ask yourself questions-constantly, about your artistic choices. Writing and talking about what you do will eventually (even in your interview), be a part of your work. You probably think in a visual way first, but you will be called upon to use words, even a concise few to talk/write about your art.  Words also help you to push yourself and explain to yourself some of the artistic choices you are making in your work.

Believe in you. No matter where you are in your journey as an artist, understand that the only person you need to please with the work is ultimately YOU. Be brutally honest with yourself. Be patient with yourself. We can talk about admissions committees, art directors, and critics another time;)