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How to Prepare an Art School Portfolio: Art Prompts

Updated October 27, 2019

By Clara LieuAdjunct Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design

How do you begin to think conceptually as an artist?

Unfortunately, many art students are taught to learn technique and content separately. They are instructed to first focus exclusively on mastering technique because they are told that they are “not ready” to address the subject matter of their artwork. The consequence is that students develop technical proficiency, but in terms of content, their artwork is vapid and meaningless. This is a common problem that many beginning artists face.

Where will I find ideas for my artwork?

Everyone finds inspiration in a completely different way, in contrasting places. I can’t provide an answer for every single person out there, but I can tell you how to alert yourself to seeing possible ideas.

So much of this process has to do with the mindset you take to this process.  Students are always saying to me: “There’s nothing to draw” or “I don’t know what to draw.” If that’s the case, change your approach and start noticing things you previously dismissed.

Essentially, everything in the world has the potential to turn into an idea for art. What seems dull and boring to one person could be infinitely fascinating for another, and vice versa.

Creature Design Illustration, Julie Benbassat

In this Creature Design tutorial, Prof Lieu’s 3 guinea pigs were the inspiration. You would think that to come up with an engaging creature design, you would need to look up some iguana that feeds on kangaroos or something strange like that.

Actually, it’s through Julie’s and Cat’s careful observation and interaction with Jub Jub, Wheat, and Fluffy that inspired them to invent their unique creature design.

Sometimes, it’s the simplicity of what’s right there that can get your creative juices flowing!

In this chipboard sculpture tutorial, Prof Lieu works with Annelise Yee to brainstorm an abstract sculpture based on her personality traits

Start with yourself and your own personal experiences

Many artists think that they have to search extremely far and wide and come up with an immensely complicated subject for their work to be interesting. You don’t have to travel across the globe to find your subject, it might be right at home.

I’m frequently surprised that the best subject matter is simply what’s sitting there right in front of us, something that we commonly experience but don’t generally recognize as being special. A subject doesn’t have to be a deep philosophical concept to be engaging!

Don’t take any experience in your life for granted.  In my opinion, the most effective ideas are the ones that are personally driven, as they will have an authentic quality to them that cannot be achieved in any other way.

Artists are much more than their technical skills

As an art student, it took me many years to figure out exactly why the content of my artwork mattered. I devoted all of my energy towards learning how to paint realistically.

I didn’t spend any time thinking about my subject matter because I didn’t think at the time that was important in my studio practice.

There will always be someone out there who will have stronger technical skills in drawing than you

At art school, I had always been confident in my drawing and oil painting skills. However, my senior year at art school, there was a student in my oil painting class who created breathtaking paintings which were incredibly vibrant.  Her oil paintings made my jaw drop.

That year in art school, I felt extremely discouraged because no matter how hard I worked, my paintings just couldn’t compare to hers in terms of technique. (I will admit that I still feel like I have a bit of an inferiority complex about my oil painting skills, but I haven’t let that stop me from thriving in other areas as an artist! My technical skills in painting are just one part of me as an artist.)

Figure Drawing, Etching Ink & Lithographic Crayon, Clara Lieu

What subject matter can you address in your artwork that no one else but you can talk about?

When I started working professionally, all I seemed to meet was more and more artists who could paint better, who could draw more detailed. There was no end of crazy skilled artists out there, and my feelings of technical inferiority just became even more pronounced.

Eventually, I accepted fact that there were always going to be people who had stronger painting skills. The only way I was ever going to distinguish myself as an artist was through my ideas. I was never going to get the technical expertise in painting that student in my senior year art art school had. I had to think about what subject I could about with my artwork that no one else could.

That mindset is eventually what led me to a project called Falling, a series of sculptures, prints, and drawings. This series of artworks ended up being my longest, most ambitious studio project of my career so far.

Thinking about your artwork conceptually is tough at first, but it does get easier with practice

Learning how to think conceptually is tough for many artists. The process is unpredictable, and there are no answers at the back of the textbook. Some concepts will flow easily while others will have you banging your head against a wall for days on end. In the beginning, I can guarantee that you will fail much more than you will succeed.

Keep in mind what works for one person may not work for another. Be prepared to go through a lot of trial and error before you find a system that works for you. Here are some concrete actions you can take:

Aim for specificity when developing ideas for your artwork

The more specific your idea is, the more engaging it will be to your audience. Subjects that are too broad come across as generic and vague.

I once had a student who said she wanted to concentrate on “20th century themes” in her project. Her topic was so immense that I had no clue what her project was about.

I could tell you that I live in a house, or I could tell you that I live in a Victorian mansion.  Which statement piques your curiosity more, the house, or the Victorian mansion?

The house is generic, plenty of people on the planet live in a house.  The Victorian mansion reveals a narrative that “a house” cannot, it conjures a specific image of the house and also a narrative for the person who lives there.  Someone who lives in a Victorian mansion probably is extremely rich, with old family money, and more.

Visit the brainstorming page for more in depth tips and concrete exercises you can do to get started!

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