How To Make An Outstanding Art Portfolio

How To Make An Outstanding Art Portfolio

June 15, 2017

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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 an acceptance. 


I should preface, that I have in fact been to a great art school and had the gruelling task of applying to schools. 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. Now, as a teacher I’ve helped prepare students for success by giving them great art projects to be used in an awesome portfolio. Here are a few ways to consider how you can make an impact with a great portfolio that has the best chance at being accepted.



Firstly, what the heck is a portfolio anyway?


A portfolio is 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.   - The University of London


What goes in it?


Each organisation has a set of requirements that each applicant needs to follow or strongly consider. Check them out with a thorough read-through and see what it is you need to include in your portfolio.



Most college applications require you to send original hard copies of you art. Make sure you scan or take pictures of these 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).


Sending originals is a good idea, 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 get represented correctly in digital format.


Ideas and processes

The requirements may ask for incomplete or works in process, if you’re unable to do this, consider including some sketchbook pages, or a visual of your experimentations and idea process. They just want to get a sneak peak into your creative process. 


 What about digital art?

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 card stock using a laser printer. It should give a professional look and feel. If you are printing photography, then I recommend a glossy card stock. You want the paper to bendable, but not flimsy, and you’ll want the printing to be at the highest quality. 


Make sure you know what format is required for sending. If they ask for a digital version of your pieces, make sure your image size and pixels are large enough to be clear, but not too large to send. Be sure to save the images in the correct format JPG, PDF, PNG etc. 


Don’t include pieces that are too big to send! Double check the mailing restrictions and don’t go over the maximum - unless you are also allowed to send digital pieces or slides. You may be able to send it as an image instead. 


Just the good stuff

Don’t put artwork you’re not proud of. It’s okay to show pieces that are open for improvements, but in general you should be proud of your entire collection.


How many?

If you are asked to show a specific number of pieces, make those your best work. Well, you should make your portfolio your best work anyway, but you don’t want to pack it with work that doesn’t represent you, or isn’t representative of the skills you have. 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.  



Squeeze out your creative juices


Remember, the art world is a competitive one and your organisation is likely to received hundreds of portfolios. Make yours stand out by taking those requirements and letting your creativity fly. If they ask you for one drawing of a hand for instance, 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! Then create an interesting piece around that.


Follow their prompts

Sometimes you are asked to submit works based on a particular assignment or outline. Some organisations allow you to choose from a selection of 3 or 4 assignments. Other times you’re free to select any one of your best pieces. 


If you’ve read the organisations 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 really 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.


To sign, or not to sign?

Signing your pieces is always a good idea no matter what format - originals, digital, photographs, sculptures… I prefer to sign everything I make on the back. If you can’t do that then find a discrete place on the front to write a small signature or initial. 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 on Earth to 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. 


Here are a few drawing ideas to consider putting in your portfolio. Remember, stretch you creativity!


  • An observational drawing or painting. 

  • A nude figure

  • A human portrait

  • An animal portrait

  • An object or still life

  • A landscape

  • An interior

  • Something with fabric


Try using subjects that are usually overlooked or considered mundane. Be original, anything can be made into a beautiful work of art. 

Make your art about something

You don’t necessarily need to have every piece 'make a statement', you just want 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. But only if they ask. It shows that your piece was strong enough win and already had great recognition by others.


Don't Copy

If you are looking for reference photos, don’t use google images. There is a blurry line between what you can use and not use, so just to be safe and leave it alone. Using some Google Images may be considered as copyright infringement and you really don’t want to get involved in that stuff.



Try Free Stock Images for drawing references

If you need some beautiful FREE reference images my ultimate favourite sites are


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.


KaboomPics - Gorgeous free photos for anyone to use. And this website is life!


Look at some portfolios


It’s a good idea to take a look at other accepted portfolios to get some ideas on how can you improve yours and to help you with selecting the pieces you’ll include. 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.


Here are some talented young artists who have beautifully presented their accepted art portfolios









Be yourself.

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!


Putting it all together


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. 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.


Here's where to get the goods *


Organisation is key


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. 


Shake it off

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. 


Label everything

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.


Be Positive!


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!


If you found this article helpful, share it with others who may also find it useful in creating a great portfolio. 


Sign up to our mailing list and look out for new posts and art opportunities. 


Do you have art you'd like to share with us? Expose your winning portfolio? We’re on a featuring frenzy over on Instagram! We feature new artists everyday on @DarkYellowDot, so give us a follow and tag your art posts with #darkyellowdot OR you can submit your art here to be featured right on our website.


I hope this helps. Good luck! 





Lauren Little

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


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