Posted in art school advice

How to Art School Part 2: The Portfolio

originally published on thestudioblrcollective here
So, you’ve decided to go to art school. Now what?

You make a portfolio.

Okay, how do you do that?

  1. Research the specific portfolio requirements for all the schools you’re interested in. Do they require you to draw a specific subject (e.g., the famous RISD bike)? Do they only allow traditional artwork? Do they want a sketchbook? How many pieces do they want? What do they REALLY NOT want? (Some schools specify that they don’t want fanart in a portfolio, for instance.) Put all this information in one place (I used a google spreadsheet, but you should do what works for you.)
  2. Write down:
    1. How much time you have before your first deadline,
    2. How many pieces you must make by that deadline,
    3. What artwork do you already have that works for your portfolio and
    4. What ideas you already have for those pieces.

Writing stuff down is magical. It immediately makes you feel in control of your life and focused. Write down everything you need to do, always.

Okay. You did all that. What sort of stuff should you have in a portfolio?

A college portfolio is NOT the same thing as a portfolio for a potential employer. Employers are looking at your work to determine if you will draw something that fits their aesthetic and ideas. Colleges are looking for your potential– do you have original, creative ideas? Are you willing to experiment? Are you at a technical level that you won’t lag behind other people in the class?

So, while an art director or animation studio may be looking for how well you work in one specific style, a college would be more interested in seeing how well you work in many different styles. If you’re a photographer, do some collage work to demonstrate your understanding of design principles in a different way. If you love to draw cartoons, do some realistic paintings to show your understanding of anatomy. Have both drawings and paintings in there. There’s a ton of traditional materials that you can work with– pastels, graphite, watercolor, acrylic, oil, printmaking, ink, marker, charcoal. Choose three or four you like and do a variety of work with them. EXPERIMENT!

You’ve figured out what you should be drawing with. But what should you be drawing? The answer is, obviously, whatever you want! And also some other stuff.

Draw. From. Life. If you intend to major in anything requiring even a little drawing skill, draw from life. At least half your portfolio should be observational drawing,, and the pieces that are more imaginative should have you putting what you’ve learned from observation into practice. Still lives are great- better if they’re personal and unique to you, and better if they tell some kind of story. A detailed graphite drawing of your messy desk is so much more interesting than some fruit on a crumpled up cloth. One of my favorite portfolio pieces is a pastel still life of a bunch of white objects, that I then lit with two different colored lamps to create an interesting effect.


Other great things to draw from life include people, landscapes, interiors, and animals.

Speaking of drawing people, if you can, get yourself to a figure drawing class. Colleges love figure drawings. Nothing can teach you anatomy, posing, and people better than drawing real people doing things. It also shows colleges you’re committed to studying art and improving your craft. Include both short poses, of 3 minutes or less, and long studies of 20 minutes to an hour in your portfolio.

So now that you’ve got all those great observational pieces ready, what else should you put in?

Include at least a couple of pieces that indicate your chosen area of study. Architecture students could include drawings of buildings or blueprints (disclaimer: I am not an architecture student). Design majors could include examples of design work they’ve done in the past, like posters or logos for school events.  Animation majors could include storyboards, character designs, a short reel if the application allows. Some schools (such as Calarts and Art Center) have major-specific portfolio requirements. Take these into consideration.

The most important thing to remember, though, is to include pieces YOU like, and that represent YOU as an artist. Don’t go with something if it doesn’t feel right. Art is subjective. Go with your gut.

Make sure the work in your portfolio is recent. You really shouldn’t have anything from freshman or sophomore year of high school in there. If you’re not in high school, anything older than two years doesn’t really represent you as an artist today. You grow and develop a lot in a year or two, and you want your work to reflect who you are now.

If you’re having doubts about your portfolio, try to go to a National Portfolio Day event. These happen all over the US throughout the year. They’re kind of like college fairs, where representatives from tons of art schools look at your work and give you feedback. They tell you what they like and don’t like about your work, what pieces you should and shouldn’t include, and ideas on how to move forward. Some schools might even accept you on the spot!

If you can’t get to a portfolio day, a lot of colleges will have the option for you to come down to their campus and get an informal, in-person review there. Some colleges will even let you email your work to a counselor and receive feedback that way!  Ask your art teachers, your friends, classmates with artistic backgrounds for portfolio feedback, too. Other people may notice stuff about your work that you missed. Maybe you tend to use the same color schemes over and over, or have a habit of hiding people’s hands from view. Feedback is an important part of the creative process. Make art friends.

Look at your work together as a whole. Is it both varied and cohesive? Is it the best representation of your artistic abilities? Does it show both what you can do and what you want to do?

You can also look at accepted portfolios other people have posted online from the year before, but for me, this only served to make me more anxious and panicky about my own work, so I wouldn’t really recommend it.

Good job! You made a portfolio. You’re like, 80% of the way there. You’ll have to write an artist’s statement, probably, and send your standardized test scores and transcripts, but the most important part of the whole thing is done and you did it. Go have a cupcake.



cartoonist, illustrator, reader, writer. SCAD 2020

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