Art School Portfolio: Drawings

Drawings are the core of a 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.

Soft Pastel Drawing: Bread Fairy, Jam Cookies
Food Illustration in Soft Pastel

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?

Don’t skip traditional drawing media

It’s great to have experience in art media like photography, video, digital painting, cinemagraphs, 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!

Figure Drawing: Premium Workshop
Prof Lieu

Combining digital & 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, 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.

Brainstorming & Sketching a Character Design

Drawing is a foundation

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.

Drawing show 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 Resources section lists both art historical and contemporary artists who work in drawing will get you started, just do a Google Image search with their name, and tack on “drawing.”

How to Start Learning Art History

Learn from historical drawings

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.

Expressive Drawing Track: Touch Portrait Drawings
Expressive Drawing Track

Drawings show the struggle

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 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.