How To Make An Outstanding Art Portfolio
Updated: Feb 15
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Artists at many points of their careers are asked to explain what it is they do. Often times this explanation is a formal, written piece. However sometimes you’ll be asked to show a physical portfolio of your artwork. You may be sending applications to schools, applying for a job, or entering contests and competitions. So make it count by successfully presenting your creative and technical skills with a collection of work worthy of an acceptance.
I should preface, that I was accepted to a great University art programme and the application process, like any, was grueling.
Actually, I put all my eggs in one basket and just applied to one school! Luckily, my portfolio was accepted and I even won the Entrance Award of £1000 which only went to one art applicant per year. That was a few years ago now, and I unfortunately no longer have my portfolio from that application to share.
But I have since then had to submit other portfolios for various art jobs, or projects. As teacher at both secondary and university, I’ve helped prepare my students for success by giving them great projects to be used in an outstanding art portfolio. Here are a few ways to consider how you can make an impact with a great portfolio that has the best chance of being accepted.
What the heck is a portfolio anyway?
The University of Arts London describes a portfolio as a collection of your work, which shoes how your skills and ideas have developed over a period of time. It demonstrates your creativity, personality, abilities and commitment, and helps us to evaluate your potential.
What should go in my portfolio?
The organisation you're applying to should outline set of requirements in the application process, that each applicant will need to follow or carefully consider. Make sure you read through everything first, to get an idea of what they're hoping to see evidence of in your work.
These might be:
Some colleges/Universities require you to send original, physical, hard copies of your art. Make sure you scan or take pictures of your pieces before you send your portfolio! Often times you may not get your portfolio back, and if you do it may not be for a long time, so be sure to make a copy for yourself first. It’s good to know what pieces you submitted as a reference for good work, for when you get accepted. (Yes, when you get accepted).
Not all organisations want or need your original art, so don't send them if they don't want them. They may ask for your originals because it can reveal a lot about your process and techniques. It’s also great if your pieces have a specific texture or certain colours to it that can only be realised in person, the type of things that may not be sufficiently represented in digital format.
Don’t include pieces that are too big to send! Double check the mailing restrictions and don’t go over the maximum.
Ideas & Processes
They may ask for incomplete or works in progress, often they'll ask for some sketchbook pages, or a visual layout of your experimentations and idea process. They just want to get a sneak peak into your creative process, and insight into how you're able to develop your ideas from concept to reality.
Can I include digital artwork in my portfolio?
Even if you’re work is primarily digital, you may need still need to send hard copies. Find a good printer shop near you and ask to see the various paper qualities they have in stock. I recommend printing on semi-gloss or matte card stock using a laser printer, or get it printed as giclee print.
It should give a professional look and feel. If you are printing photography, then I recommend a semi or high gloss print on photo paper. You want the paper to flexible, but not flimsy, and you’ll always want the printing to be at the highest quality.
Find out what format your files need to be. If they ask for a digital version of your pieces, make sure your image size and pixels are large enough to be clear.
You may even be asked to send your images over on a memory stick, or even projector slides. (Yes, I've been asked to get images converted onto old style 70's project slides!)
Only include your best work
Don’t put artwork you’re not very proud of. It’s okay to show pieces that are open for improvements, but in general you should be proud of your entire collection. Pack it with work that's representative of the skills you have.
Try and look at your portfolio from their perspective.
Do you show evidence of technical skill? Do you clearly have an eye for detail? Does your work have a narrative or tell a story? Do you show a broad range of skills, mediums and ideas? Consider these things when you decide what to include.
How many pieces should I include?
If you are asked to show a specific number of pieces, make all of them your best work.
Don’t worry too much about having 20 pieces in there if they asked for 10-20. Having 10 solid pieces that are really awesome is better than having 20 pieces that are mediocre.
Read the prompts and assignments
Sometimes you are asked to submit works based on a particular assignment or outline. Some organisations allow you to choose from a selection of multiple assignments. Other times you’re free to select any one of your best pieces.
If you’ve read their portfolio requirements, and feel that they are a little loose or open for interpretation, that’s good! Run with it and make it stand out. Don’t get overzealous with it, but have fun making it unique and representative of your personality and style.
Always think to yourself “Am I being represented in this? Are my technical and creative skills clearly, and strongly represented in this portfolio?” If not, consider making a few tweaks or changes.
Your portfolio should demonstrate a range of artistic technical skills, but should also show creative ideas, originality, your passion and commitment.
Take creative risks
The organisation you're applying to is likely to receive hundreds of portfolios. Make yours stand out by taking their prompt and letting your creativity fly.
For instance, if they ask for a drawing of a hand - don’t just draw any hand. Think about ways you can make that hand interesting. Will the interest show in the positioning of the hand? The content or context around the hand? What will the style say about the hand? What will the style say about the context of this hand? Think outside the box!
To sign or not sign your artwork?
Signing your pieces is always a good idea no matter what format - originals, digital, photographs, sculptures… I prefer to sign everything. Find a discrete place on the front to write a small signature or initial. You should always sign and write your name on the back as well.
It’s definitely worth practicing your signature or initials a few times before choosing the right one. Consider making a short-hand version of your normal signature, or design your initials in an interesting way to differentiate yourself from someone else that may have the same initials.
Keep this signature consistent. It’s ok to change your signature in the future as your work evolves, but don’t make drastic changes too often. If you decide to change your artistic style one day, it will be easier for people to recognise that it’s your work if you’ve kept your signature the same.
What should I draw?
Most schools emphasis drawing submissions, because drawing skills are fundamental and tends to be a basic measure of someones observational skills and attention to detail.
Try using subjects that are usually overlooked or considered mundane. Be original, anything can be made into a beautiful work of art. Here are a few drawing ideas to consider putting in your portfolio. This book has so many fantastic ideas too. Remember, stretch your creativity!
An observational drawing or painting.
A nude figure
A human portrait
An animal portrait
An object or still life
Something with fabric
It's not necessary for every piece to 'make a statement', but you do want to be able to visually communicate an idea, rather than just draw a scene. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Be innovative with your ideas, explore your materials and push various techniques.
If you have any pieces that won awards or publications, include them. It shows that your piece was strong enough win and already had great recognition by others.
Do Not Copy Artwork
If you are looking for reference photos, don’t use google images. Using some Google Images may be considered as copyright infringement and you really don’t want to get involved in that stuff. Just be safe and leave it alone
Use stock free images from websites like the ones below or use a drawing reference book to get some ideas.
Unsplash - Completely free, download whatever images you like. In fact, their tag line is “do whatever you want”
Epicantus - Daria uses her own photography for you to download and use as you wish. Free for personal and commercial use.
Kaboom Pics - Gorgeous free photos for anyone to use. And this website is life!
Come up with your own unique ideas and show them your individuality by approaching subjects or subject matter in a fresh way. Use your artwork to represent your strengths, intellect, and creative experiences. Do you!
Get inspo from other art portfolios
It’s a good idea to take a look at other accepted portfolios to get some ideas on how can you improve yours. It’s extremely important not to copy someone else work, simply use it as inspiration for your own work.
Copying is just not cool, don’t be that person.
How to package your art portfolio
There are many different portfolio folders you could choose from to make your submission. Often the organisation you’re applying to will have some specifics in terms of your actual portfolio casing and packaging. Some don't mind a simple card paper envelope, others want to see a professional black case. Below are a few really great and affordable options that you can chose from.
Professional style art portfolio cases:
How to organise your art portfolio
Put all your art in order. You want to make it easy for the viewer to visually read your portfolio. You can group your art by medium, style, subject, technique, size etc. Your portfolio should tell a story and be easy to comprehend.
Artwork presentation is everything
Make sure your original art work, prints, or slides are completely free of dust and finger prints! Use a clean paper towel or cheese cloth to wipe away any unwanted marks. Paper and prints should be wrinkle, fold and smudge-free.
Label your artwork correctly
Some organisations have very specific ways they want you to label the pieces, whether that is a file name, or a written list of artworks. Follow their instructions exactly.
You are a great artist, and no doubt you have great potential. You’ve probably been told a million times by now that the stuff you make is way cool and cultivates a lot of “omg that’s sooooo good!” followed by a “I wish I could draw/paint like that”
Am I right?
Trust your abilities to create great work you're proud of and trust that you have what it takes to be accepted into the school of your dreams. And if you tried your best and you still don’t get accepted, then that’s your path. Accept that and find alternatives. Try until you get in, or try something new. Keep practicing your skills and keep exploring new ones and guaranteed you’ll grow as an artist. Inspiration is everywhere, you’re bound to find it. So put it to good use, and create your best ever collection of artwork!
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I hope this helps. Good luck!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lauren was born in London, but grew up in Canada where she received her degrees with distinction in Fine Arts and Education. Now she's back, she continues her work in creative arts by making art and teaching it, while developing opportunities for early career artists by creating and running the online platform Dark Yellow Dot.