Are you thinking about applying to an art program? Do you know what you should include in your portfolio? Your art portfolio is usually the most important part of your application, and having a great one can significantly improve your chances of getting into your top schools.
What Is an Art Portfolio?
An art portfolio is a collection of your work, whether that’s paintings, poetry, sculpture, or another art form. It gives you the opportunity to show off your artistic skills, experiences and interests, and it helps admissions officers decide if you'd be a good fit for their school. Your portfolio is usually the most important part of your application because it lets schools see firsthand the work you have created.
Who Needs a College Art Portfolio?
Art portfolios are often needed to apply to art school or to an art program at a traditional college. There are a number of programs that may require applicants to submit a portfolio, some of which include:
- Apparel Design
- Art Education
- Art History
- Fine Arts
- Graphic Design
- Interior Design
- Writing (usually for programs focused on poetry, fiction writing, screenwriting)
Not all students applying to these programs will need to submit a portfolio. If you apply to an art school, you will most likely be required to submit a portfolio, but traditional colleges sometimes do not require applicants to submit portfolios, depending on the program they apply to. Check the requirements of schools you may be interested in attending, and if one or more of them requires submitting a portfolio of your work, read on to learn how to create a strong portfolio.
What Do Art Programs Look for in a Portfolio?
Art programs want to admit students who create art in a skilled and memorable way. More specifically, art schools are looking for students with the following qualities:
Perhaps the most obvious component colleges look for in your portfolio is how skilled an artist you are. Technical mastery includes being able to apply basic and advanced art principals to your work, create work that shows a high level of attention and detail, and complete projects that are free of sloppiness and mistakes.
Schools are also often particularly interested in your drawing skills because many art forms require the ability to draw well. Most art programs recommend applicants submit at least drawing in their portfolio, even if that is not their preferred art form, and some schools, such as the Rhode Island School of Design, require a drawing sample.
Variety and Versatility:
While it is expected for students to have an art form they create most frequently and are most comfortable with, art schools want applicants who are strong artists across a variety of media and art forms. One reason versatility is important is because the ability to create multiple art forms, from drawing, to painting, to graphic design, and more, is a sign of a talented artist and one who can apply their skills in multiple ways. It is also rare for an artist to stick exclusively to one art form. For example, artists who work with ceramics or in fashion design often need to be able to draw accurate designs before they begin their work.
Having a portfolio that shows variety also shows an ability to think creatively and a willingness to try new things. Montserrat College of Art states on its admissions page that "Media exploration and experimentation are integral parts of your experience... Include work in your college art portfolio that shows your area of interest as well as both realistic and abstract work using a variety of materials."
Unique Style and Personality:
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) states on its admissions page that the most important thing they look for in an art portfolio is "[W]ork that will give us a sense of you, your interests, and your willingness to explore, experiment, and think beyond technical art and design skills."
Your art portfolio should show your personality and your own way of looking at the world. You want to show art schools that there is a reason they should admit you specifically, and one of the best ways to do this is by creating art that you are passionate about and that is different from what other people are creating. Technical skill is not enough if you can only copy what others have already created.
Let's start creating!
How to Create Your Art Portfolio
First of all, you want to make sure that you give yourself enough time to put your art portfolio together. Many art students take at least a year to create the pieces they use in their portfolio, so start thinking about your portfolio and preparing pieces well in advance of the deadlines.
If you know what schools you want to apply to, research their portfolio requirements carefully and early. If you don’t properly follow each school’s instructions, you risk getting automatically rejected, and at the very least it won’t help your application. This is the most important piece of advice in this article! While researching the portfolio requirements of each school, pay particular attention to the following information:
Application and portfolio deadlines
How you need to submit your portfolio (online, snail mail, or in-person)
If there are open days or portfolio days when you can present your portfolio in person
Number of pieces you should submit
Any size requirements for the pieces
- If there are any special required pieces you must submit (for example, the Rhode Island School of Design requires all applicants to submit a drawing of a bicycle)
You should also look at examples of previously submitted art portfolios. Especially when you are just starting to create a portfolio, looking at the portfolios other students have created can be very helpful in developing your own portfolio. If you are currently in an art class, either at school or outside of it, your class probably has photos of portfolios previous students have submitted, and you can also ask your classmates about their portfolios.
You can also search online. Search “art portfolio example” or “[school you are interested in] art portfolio example”. This will bring up a lot of examples, often including portfolios of students who were accepted into particular schools, such as Yale University's art program or the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Remember to use these examples only as a guide; it’s important your portfolio reflects your own talents and interests.
Choosing the Pieces
You will need about a dozen pieces of work for your portfolio. The number varies by school, but most request 10-20 examples of your work. These can be pieces you created for a class or outside of school. You should aim to create more pieces than you need, so that when it comes time to create your portfolio, you can choose your strongest pieces to include.
The pieces you include in your portfolio should also have been created fairly recently. Most schools request that your submissions be work you recently completed, and some require the pieces to have been completed within the past year or past few years. Hopefully your most recent work will be your best anyway, since you have been learning more and improving.
The strongest art portfolios will have the following qualities:
Show the Breadth of Your Skills
Different schools have different rules in terms of the number of art forms you should submit. Some want you to focus on the art form you plan to study in college, while others want to see your work in a variety of art forms (such as including some drawings and paintings, even if you are applying for a graphic design program). If you are submitting multiple art forms, unless otherwise specified, the most common art form(s) in your portfolio should be the one(s) you plan on studying in college.
However, even if you are only submitting work from one art form, you can show a great deal of variety within it, both in technique and subject matter. An example of variety in subject matter is if you are submitting 15 photographs for your portfolio, those pieces can include photos of people, landscapes, still life, interiors, etc... You can make sure your portfolio shows variety in technique by using multiple mediums within one art form. For example, if you are only submitting drawings, you can include color as well as black and white work, as well as drawings made with different tools, such as graphite, pastel and charcoal.
As mentioned earlier, having a portfolio that contains a lot of variety shows that you possess multiple skill sets and will be more likely to succeed in the different classes you will be taking in art school.
Include Pieces From Direct Observation
Many art programs require or highly recommend including pieces created from direct observation. These are pieces created by observing real things around you. Direct observation work can include portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, still life, rooms in your house, really anything you can see. Direct observation does not include work you created by looking a photograph or a copy of another artist's work. Direct observation is more challenging and requires more skill, so art schools are more interested in it. They also want to see how you depict the world around you.
Many students don’t include direct observation pieces in their portfolio, so doing this can really help you stand out. Clara Lieu, a professor at RISD says that including pieces from direct observation "[W]ill distinguish your work from the crowd, and put you light years ahead of other students."
Unless the submission requirements state otherwise, you should try to include at least several examples of direct observation in your portfolio. Most of these pieces are done as drawings, but other art forms can be used as well. Try to make these pieces as true to life as possible.
Show Your Originality
The art you produce should not just be copies of another artist’s work. It should reflect your interests and talents. You want your portfolio to show what makes you special and to convince schools that they should accept you over other applicants. Producing original work is a great way to stand out from the many portfolios art schools receive.
There are multiple ways to show your personality and uniqueness in your portfolio. One way is to have your work showcase a theme or technique that you are passionate about. Hopefully by now you have completed enough pieces that you know whether you prefer creating abstract sculptures, collages that depict landscapes, portrait photography, or something entirely different. Not every piece you submit has to follow that theme, but having a particular style will help your portfolio be memorable.
You should also try to think outside the box while you create your portfolio. As a creative type, this is probably something you are used to, but remember to continually push your boundaries when you are creating your portfolio. Taking a common subject and portraying it in a unique way is a great way to show your originality. Below are some examples of creative interpretations of the drawing of a bike all students applying to the Rhode Island School of Design must submit.
Source: Anna Maria
Before you submit your portfolio, you want to be sure that all your pieces are finished. Each piece should appear neat with no smudges, rips, or wrinkles. The piece should also go all the way to the border of the canvas or paper it is on. You generally do not want to include a lot of white background unless you are submitting a rough sketch. Also be sure to include your name, school, date of completion, and title of the piece on the back, as well as any other information the school requests, such as a short description of each piece.
Once all the pieces are ready, prepare them for presentation. Most art schools require you to submit images or videos of your work online, but some schools require applicants to mail slides with images of the pieces or present their work in-person.
If submitting your portfolio online:
If you are submitting online, this will likely involve taking photos or videos of your work, unless you are submitting work created on the computer, such as graphic design pieces, or are submitting pdfs of written work like poetry. Spending time to take quality pictures and videos of your work is almost as important as creating quality art itself. These pictures or videos will often be the only images admissions committees have of your work, and if they are poor quality, they may assume the work itself is poor quality as well. If the piece is a stationary work of art, a photo, as opposed to a video, is usually sufficient.
Follow these guidelines to take high-quality pictures of your work:
Use a high-quality camera and natural lighting to ensure your photos resemble the original pieces as much as possible. It’s not necessary to hire a professional photographer to do this, but you shouldn’t be taking the photos from your phone either. If you don’t own a high-quality camera, ask your art teacher if they have one you can borrow.
Make sure the lighting is even ( there should be no shadows in the background).
The picture should be cropped appropriately, so that it shows the entire piece, but without a lot of extra background space. Some schools require you to show the edges of each piece in photographs, so again, read requirements carefully.
The background should be a neutral color, such as black, white, or gray.
The picture should be in focus, and the detail of the work should be visible. (Some schools allow a few additional detail shots to be included if there is a detail you particularly want to highlight.)
No glare should be visible (remove works from frames if necessary).
The colors in the picture should look like the colors of the original piece.
If presenting your portfolio in-person:
- Make sure the work can be transported without being damaged.
- Make sure paintings are completely dry before transporting them.
- Remove any frames so the artwork can be viewed more easily.
- Use clear covers to protect artwork, if needed.
If mailing artwork or slides
- Mailing original work is a less common option, and is generally only used if the school requires you to create a piece specifically for them (such as RISD's bicycle drawing requirement).
- If the school requests this, follow the above guidelines for ensuring pieces can be transported without damage, and make sure you understand if and how the pieces will be returned to you.
- If mailing slides, always leave yourself a master set that you can duplicate later if you need to, and follow the above guidelines for submitting work online for tips on how to take the best pictures of your work.
Asking others for feedback is a great way to improve your portfolio
Asking for Feedback
Your portfolio can benefit greatly when you ask others for their opinions on your work and the pieces you have selected for your portfolio. You should ask for feedback throughout your portfolio-making process. Two of the best sources for getting feedback are listed below.
Your Art Teacher
One of the first people you should ask for their opinion on the pieces you should include in your portfolio is your art teacher. They often have a lot of experience developing portfolios, and they can help you choose the pieces that will best impress admissions committees. The questions you ask can range from having them look over the pieces you’ve chosen for your portfolio to having them make suggestions on the type of work you should create in order to finish your portfolio.
National Portfolio Days
National Portfolio Days are events held around the country where art students can learn about different art programs as well as bring their work to receive feedback on it from representatives of top art schools and colleges. No admissions decisions are offered on National Portfolio Days; instead, they are a way for schools to look at your portfolio-in-progress and give advice. They are an excellent opportunity to get feedback from schools you are considering applying to and to ask them specific questions about their portfolio requirements.
It is a good idea to attend first as a junior and get some early feedback on your work, then attend again as a senior when you have made more progress on your portfolio. You should definitely stop by the tables of schools you want to apply to, but consider stopping by the tables of other schools as well, as a review from any school gives you valuable feedback.
Points to Remember
Read application requirements carefully for each school you plan on applying to.
Ideally, give yourself at least a year to develop pieces for your portfolio.
Make sure your artwork is original and represents your skills and personality well.
Try to attend a National Portfolio Day to get valuable feedback on your work.
- Take time to produce high-quality photos or videos of your work if submitting your portfolio online.
How's your contour line drawing skill? Learn the basics of how to draw without shading with this guide.
Now that you know how to create a portfolio, are you wondering what art programs you should apply to? Check out our guide on the best art schools in the United States!
For a complete overview of the college search process, read our comprehensive guide on how to choose a college.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.