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How to Prepare an Art School Portfolio: Drawings Are Important

Updated October 27, 2019

By Clara LieuAdjunct Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design

Drawings are the core of a strong portfolio

You might have 15 digital paintings with an impressive amount of technical skill, but none of that will matter if you have poor drawings. In terms of drawing media, the vast majority of high school students are creating tight, conservative, photo realistic pencil drawings drawn from photographs.

Drawing is not about just copying a photograph as accurately as possible; we now have cameras that can do this instantly with incredibly precision and quality. Ask yourself, what you can express with your drawing that a camera would not be capable of producing by itself.  What types of marks and imagery can you create that are unique to your drawing materials?

Digital Sky Painting, Jordan McCracken-Foster

Digital media is wonderful, but don’t skip over traditional drawing skills

It’s great to have experience in art media like photography, videodigital painting, cinemagraphs, (see right image) etc. but we don’t recommend working in these other media at the expense of gaining strong drawing skills.

Not only will experience with traditional drawing materials help you with your art portfolio, but these new skills will only enhance and support your artworks in other media, it’s a win-win situation. Make room for all of these media!

Digital media & traditional media

You can also try combining digital media with traditional media, which is a great way to see how these different media can interact together.

In this Character Design tutorial on the left, Cat Huang demonstrates how she begins her sketching process in a sketchbook with pencil, segues to an ink drawing, and then finishes the final design by adding colors in Photoshop.

This approach allows Cat to get the best of both worlds, exploiting the special talents of each media to get the most efficient results.

Drawing is the foundation for all areas of visual arts

Prof Lieu once had a student who claimed “I’m going to major in Architecture, so I don’t need to learn to draw.”

Nothing could be further from the truths.  Architect Frank Gehry starts out the beginning part of the process with quick gestural sketches of his buildings. Sculptor Claes Oldenburg, who creates monumental public sculptures starts out with drawing to think through the design process.

Drawing is applicable to all areas of visual arts.  Jewelers will sketch out their jewelry designs before getting started with expensive materials like metals and stones, industrial designers have to present drawing to explain their proposals for projects, painters usually start with drawings to map out their ideas for a painting.

This is why drawing needs to be highly prioritized in the art school portfolio, because the skills you gain from the drawing process will ultimately be useful no matter what area of visual arts you end up going into.

John Singer Sargent, Robert Henry Benson, 1912

When you look at a drawing, you see an artist’s process

Part of the process of improving your drawing skills is to look at drawings by artists from history.  Often times people think that all that matters is that they look at images from art history.  Actually, looking at a painting to try to understand drawing can be problematic.

The problem with looking at paintings if you want to study drawing is that paintings cover up all of the mistakes, all of the false starts that an artist goes through. Painting is also a much more complex art media, there are so many tools and supplies you can use that the entire process sometimes gets in the way of seeing a bare, naked mark that drawing reveals so well.

Paintings only show the finished product, you don’t get to go behind the scenes the way you would if you look at an artist’s drawings.

Don’t know where to start? Our list below of both art historical and contemporary artists who work in drawing will get you started, click on the links below or just do a Google Image search with their name, and tack on “drawing.”

Albrecht Durer, Self Portrait at Age 13, 1484

Georges Seurat, charcoal drawings
Jean-Antoine Watteau, chalk drawings
Tintoretto, chalk drawings
Maya LinA River is a Drawing
Claes OldenburgStudies for Sculpture
Francisco Goya, ink & chalk drawings
Nicolas Poussin, pen & ink drawings

Jenny Saville, pencil drawings
Albrecht Dürer, ink & silverpoint drawings
Ralph Steadman, ink drawings
Käthe Kollwitz, charcoal drawings
Andrew Wyeth, ink & pencil drawings
Hilary Brace, charcoal drawings
Raphael, chalk drawings
Antonio López García, pencil drawings

Eugène Delacroix, ink drawings
Rembrandt, ink drawings
John Singer Sargent, charcoal drawings
Frank Gehry, sketches for architecture
Toba Khedoori, large scale drawings
Edward Hopper, charcoal drawings
Leonardo da Vinci
Jacopo Pontormo, chalk drawings

Rembrandt, A Young Woman Sleeping, Ink Drawing

Historical drawings show evidence of mistakes you can learn from

In a drawing, you’ll get to see all of the mistakes, you’ll see the mess that a drawing can start out as. In a painting, all of those mistakes get covered up, you don’t get to see the artist stumbling in their drawing process.  Look carefully at an old master drawing, you’ll get to see evidence of the artist trying to draw that arm 3, 4, or 5 times before settling in on it’s final form.

Those mistakes are so important to see, to see that even Rembrandt and Michelangelo didn’t slam dunk their lines in their very first marks on a page.  A lot of drawings really aren’t that flashy, and a lot of them just look like loose marks on the page, but they’re a means for you to enter the mind of an artist and see how they see their subjects.

There’s a common assumption among high school students that great masters of drawing got everything “right” with their first few marks, but this isn’t the case at all.  The drawing process is tons of troubleshooting, falling on your face, searching for the lines you want; so little of it actually works out just the way you want it to at first.

Drawings show the struggle and history of the artistic process

Many artists today don’t show those less successful sketches that show their struggle. Frequently, most artists heavily curate what gets seen publicly online, selecting only their best work for viewing. This does a tremendous disservice to younger artists who are consequently given the impression that an artist should be able to do great drawings every time they sit down to draw.

When the messier, less impressive part of the drawing process is hidden from view, it creates the impression that professional artists don’t mess up with their drawings. Even professional artists who have decades of experience do bad drawings, it’s simply a part of the process!

Even Michelangelo made mistakes in his drawings

In this Michelangelo drawing of the Libyan Sibyl, (right image) there is a highly rendered figure in the center.  Yes, you’ll learn from looking at Michelangelo’s articulation of the musculature of the figure, but actually, the very quick sketches of the foot and toe in the lower right are just as important.

These small sketches of the foot and toe show you the beginning part of Michelangelo’s drawing process, unlike the highly rendered figure which is much more polished.  Seeing such a raw form of Michelangelo’s drawing is really revealing about what goes into the drawing process.

Libyan Sybil Drawing, Michelangelo
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