“Preparing for my art portfolio for college admission was one of the most enjoyable and stressful times of my life. One one hand, the experience could be perceived as pleasurable, mostly because my mom forced me to draw. (and not many juniors could say that during the pinnacle of their academic career) However, it was also frustrating. As you could imagine, trying to blend outside figure drawing courses with an unpredictable grade point average does not make a great smoothie.
Fortunately, attending Orange County School of the Arts allowed me to produce a fair quantity of work and continuing my studies at a summer pre-college art program greatly helped me build my portfolio. Perhaps the hardest challenge to overcome was not the action of creating the art, but the psychological endurance to keep going in order to meet the rapidly approaching deadline.”
“My experience in preparing an art portfolio was very natural as I did not know I wanted to go to an art school. The summer pre-college art program I attended definitely helped this process a lot and I encourage anyone to go to a summer pre-college art program if they can.
Although I think that lack of a thoughtful theme hurt my body of work a little bit, it is important to always draw what you like and learn from this process rather than stress over it.”
Preparing a Portfolio for Art School or College Admission
Preparing a portfolio for college admission is not a casual undertaking, it’s very common for high school students to underestimate how much time and labor is involved. For most students it takes several months, even up to a year to create a body of work that is rigorous enough for the competitive art school and college admissions process.
If you can maintain a prodigious level of production, the quality of your work will progress tremendously and you’ll have many more pieces to choose from. Even of the portfolio requirements state that you only need 15 pieces, this means you should aim to create between 20-30 pieces. Not only will your work improve from more experience, but you’ll be able to weed out the weaker pieces and emphasize only your best work.
Every school is going to have their own unique set of requirements, so be sure that you check each school’s guidelines first. I recommend re-reading the guidelines multiple times as you’re working on your portfolio to be certain at every stage that you are following their precise requirements.
On top of that, remember that several art schools and college also require that students create a few artworks specifically for their application on top of the portfolio. You’ll need to set aside time to work on these specific assignments in addition to creating the entire portfolio. The tips I offer below are basic essentials that should apply to most schools.
Create Original Work from Direct Observation
Drawing from life is hands down the number one, absolutely essential thing to do that essentially all high school students fail to do. This problem is so prominent, that drawing from direct observation is now the rare exception among high school art students. Just doing this one directive will distinguish your work from the crowd, and put you light years ahead of other students.
It is easy to see why students have only learned to draw from photographs: photographs are much more convenient, and you don’t have to work as hard to get half decent results. However, drawing is not about turning yourself into a human xerox machine and trying to create a perfect replication of a photograph.
There is nothing artistic or creative about copying a photograph, it’s simply a sterile, mechanical process that is dull and boring to look at. On top of that, most students will download a poor photograph off the Internet, so the photograph isn’t even one that they shot themselves.
In addition to making poor portfolio pieces, drawing from photographs causes students to develop terrible drawing habits that will be difficult to get rid of later. Many college freshmen who haven’t drawn from life before have a very tough time making the transition in college because their drawing habits are so bad.
Variety in Subjects
Students frequently ask how much they are expected to show works that are related to their intended major. Most art schools will not expect you to already have expertise in the field you are planning on majoring in during college.
For example, if you want to major in Graphic Design, your portfolio should not be 20 graphic design pieces. You can certainly include perhaps 1-2 graphic design pieces if you have them, but overall you should focus on showing that you have a wide, well rounded skill set.
Depicting a wide range of subjects demonstrates your willingness and interest to work with different subject matter. Figures, self-portraits, still lifes, landscapes, interiors, are all excellent subjects to address in your portfolio. Admissions officers don’t want to see a portfolio of twenty self-portraits. A portfolio with only one topic comes across as narrow minded and limited.
At the same time, you don’t want every piece in your portfolio to appear to be simply a technical exercise. A portfolio of still life drawings that look entirely like class assignments will not show off your ability to communicate an idea, an opinion, a thought, in a visual manner. Art schools are looking for students who can think about their artwork, who can develop and brainstorm ideas that they can communicate through their artwork.
Take the initiative to create artworks that demonstrate your thinking process, that pushes beyond the most obvious, literal, cliche reaction in a piece. Technique is important, but it doesn’t matter how brilliantly you can draw if your artworks don’t have any substance behind their motivation and purpose.
The two videos below demonstrate techniques and strategies for how to brainstorm, develop, sketch, and execute an artwork that addresses content and visual communication.
Show Brainstorming and Ideas
Keep in mind that Admissions officers are looking to see much more in your portfolio than several classroom exercises; they want to see that you are able to express an opinion, a narrative, a mood, an emotion, perhaps a political statement even, etc.-whatever it is that you want your artwork to communicate.
Show in your pieces that you are engaging with your subject matter beyond just being visual eye candy or a mindless technical exercise. Create several pieces for your portfolio that show that you are thinking about your subject matter, and brainstorming ideas for your pieces. Our brainstorming tutorial leads you through every step of the process: a mind map, thumbnail sketches, and transitioning into a finished drawing.
If you’re looking for ideas for subject matter, check out our Monthly Art Dares, where we assign a prompt to create, with prizes as well! On my Pinterest page, I have a collection of narrative drawings from my courses over the past decade that show drawings that explore subject matter and brainstorming in great depth.
You may want to include 1-2 images from a sketchbook, but keep in mind that the rest of your portfolio should be focused on finished artworks. The advantage of showing a sketchbook page is that it’s an opportunity for you to demonstrate your thinking, sketching, and brainstorming process.
A sketchbook can show that you are engaged with your images beyond just the visual, that you are considering the subject and meaning behind your pieces.
Sketchbooks, video course
Finish & Presentation
Be sure that everything else in your portfolio is a work that has been 100% fully realized. This means no white backgrounds, no dirty fingerprints, no random sketchbook drawings, no ripped edges, no half finished figures, etc. I’ve had students in my courses bring in drawings that were torn on the side, had masking tape hanging off the edge, and more. It takes very little time to clean up your presentation and makes a huge difference in your application.
The quintessential problem I see in artwork by high school students is not bringing a piece of a full finish. Many portfolio pieces I see by high school students are only about 50% finished, and have big problems like glaringly empty backgrounds and lack detail. The majority of students get really worried that they will ruin their piece if they continue to develop the piece. The consequence is that many students stop working on their projects prematurely, which leads to works that are unresolved.
In my experience, it’s very rare that I will see an artwork that is overworked in a student portfolio, the vast majority of pieces are under worked. Err on the side of working your pieces beyond what you would normally do, usually the students in my courses who think they are doing “too much,” end up bringing their pieces to a good state of completion.
Variety in Media
This exhibits that you have taken the initiative to learn and hone skills in contrasting media. It shows that you have more than one skill set, and can move fluidly from one media into the next. Include drawings, paintings, sculptures, mixed media, digital media, printmaking, or anything else that you’ve had experience with.
Make sure that you have both black and white pieces as well as works that display a full range of color. The color pieces you show in a portfolio should demonstrate that you can use color in different capacities. You can include some monochromatic pieces, some pieces that have a more subdued color palette, or a pieces that use highly intense, saturated colors.
Many students assume that if they want to incorporate color into their portfolio, the only option is acrylic painting and oil painting. However, painting supplies are costly, and without proper training in painting techniques, both media can be incredibly difficult and frustrating to learn on your won.
Instead, consider doing drawings using color drawing media such as chalk pastel, oil pastels, oil bars, or Caran d’Ache crayons. The best brand of chalk pastels is Rembrandt, but be aware that this brand is expensive. A more affordable brand that has decent quality for chalk pastels is NuPastel. Make sure when creating a chalk pastel drawing that you’re using a neutral colored pastel or charcoal paper. White paper is nightmare to draw on for chalk pastels, it’s very difficult to sufficiently cover the paper, and the consequence is that your drawing will have a white graininess all over it, which is hard to get rid of. On a toned or black sheet of paper, that white graininess doesn’t exist, and provides a solid foundation of color for you to work on.
Strong Drawings are Critical
Accomplished drawings are the heart of a successful portfolio when applying at the undergraduate level. You might have 15 digital paintings, 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?
Take the time to explore a wide range of drawing media. Frequently, most high school students are not taught to draw with anything except pencil, which is an extremely limited way to study drawing.
Our art supply encyclopedia provides tons of information on many different options for supplies that can be used in drawing. Get beyond the pencil and explore charcoal, ink, chalk pastel, crayon, and more!
Photographs Are Everything
One of Prof Lieu’s colleagues once said “As artists, we live and die by our photographs.” When applying to schools with a portfolio, this could not be more true.
A poor photograph of your artwork is hugely distracting and can really make or break an admission officer’s initial reaction to the work.
Shooting high quality photographs that accurately represent your artwork is not a task that can be done overnight; the process is time consuming and requires lots of advance planning. Don’t leave this task until the last minute!!!
Many smart phones today are now capable of decent quality photographs, and the resolution is pretty good.
If you really absolutely cannot afford a high quality camera, a smart phone will get the job done. However, there are limitations to what a smart phone can achieve in terms of the quality of the photo. For example, the resolution of a photograph shot on a smart phone is significantly less than the resolution of a photograph shot on a DSLR camera.
However, the quality of the photographs shot on a smart phone are nowhere near the quality of a DSLR camera. The first time I saw a photo shot with a DSLR camera I couldn’t believe how much crisp and clear the photographs were.
The clarity of the image, the vibrancy of the colors, and is really outstanding, and makes a smart phone photo look poor by comparison.
A high quality digital camera really is a worthwhile investment. Think about it this way: if you are planning a career as an artist, this won’t be the last time you’ll need to photograph your artwork.
You can do it yourself by investing some standard photography equipment. Purchase a kit with 2 stand lights with umbrellas, a tripod, with photo flood bulbs that are 500 watts each. These lighting kits cost about $200, and again, are a worthwhile investment.
Regular incandescent and florescent lighting is nowhere near sufficient to produce high quality photographs. Regular lights are too weak, and therefore they will not produce the color accurately, tend to be out of focus, look grainy, and be far too dark to see the image well.
The cheapest lighting solution is to shoot your photographs outdoors. However, this option can be so inconvenient that it may cause you more frustration than is worth it, and there is no guarantee you will get the lighting you need.
There are no walls to hang your artwork on, you have to deal with wind, and most importantly, the weather causes the lighting to fluctuate a lot. This is an option, but it’s one that is really not easy to do.
Hiring a Professional Photographer
If you can afford it, another option is to hire a professional photographer to shoot your photographs, but be aware that it can be astronomically expensive. However, this option does ensure that you will have top notch photographs. (assuming you find someone who is a pro) The first time I saw a professional photographer shoot photos I was blown away by how amazing the photos looked. 3D pieces that looked ordinary looked remarkable with the lighting and color the photographer was able to capture.
Photographing 2D artwork
Lighting 2D artwork
Set up the two stand lights so that there is one on the left, and one of the right. Hang your artwork on the wall so that it is evenly centered in between the lights. One trick is to hang the artwork horizontally; it’s easier to shoot if you don’t have to angle the camera vertically.
Position the lights so that light is directed from the left and right of the artwork. This creates lighting that will move evenly across the artwork. Adjust with the distance of the lights in relation to the artwork. If the lights are too close to the artwork, the lighting will be too bright and therefore uneven. If the lights are too far away from the artwork, the lights won’t be bright enough.
The umbrellas are really important to have, they diffuse the lights so that you get soft, even lighting. Without the umbrellas, you’ll get sharp shadows that are really harsh and the lighting is much tougher to make even.
Look for these attributes below for a quality photograph. Mistakes are chronic in many student portfolios, and most of these mistakes can be easily prevented with just a few simple adjustments.
Make sure the lighting is consistent across your artwork. If the lighting is very bright in one area, but dark in another, your piece will be misrepresented.
All your photos will need to be cropped. This can be done in Photoshop. Be sure that the orientation of the image is correct too, it doesn’t look good if your image is tilted.
Inaccurate color is usually happens because the camera setting doesn’t match the type of light, so make sure your camera setting and your lighting matches. If shooting indoors, your camera has to be set to tungsten. (artificial lights) You can try to color correct in Photoshop, but isn’t always effective.
Your photographs have to be high resolution, so that details are clear when the admissions officer review your portfolio. For example, an image that is 400 x 300 pixels is far too low. Aim for images that are at least 3000 pixels.
Blurry photographs will always be blurry, you can’t fix this in Photoshop. Solid lighting definitely lowers the possibility of getting a blurry photograph.
Paintings are prone to glare. Play with where you position you lights and keep tweaking until the glare is not visible. It is possible, but takes time to get right.
Balance the Contrast
In Photoshop, many people like to adjust the contrast to get the lights and dark to balance well.
However, be careful to not over do it. You can blow out the white areas, and make the contrast too severe.
Unless the borders are absolutely critical to the design/format of your artwork, crop them. Cropping borders significantly enlarges the image, making the image more prominent.
Photographing 3D Artwork
Three-dimensional artwork is especially difficult to photograph well, and are the most problematic photographs for most students. The above images are examples of clean, well lit photographs of 3D artwork.
First, get a wide roll of paper that is a neutral color. Don’t use a sheet of fabric; fabric wrinkles too easily and therefore your background won’t be smooth and clean. Make sure to take the time to select an appropriate color for your backdrop based on the color and brightness of your 3D piece. In general, it’s best to choose either white, grey, brown, or black to create contrast so that the sculpture is visible against the back drop.
In the photographs above, the white background is a poor choice because the sculpture is also white. Therefore, the photograph lacks contrast and the sculpture is difficult to see. The black background is too stark of a contrast against the white sculpture, making it hard to see the more subtle greys in the sculpture. The grey background balances well against the white sculpture; it’s dark enough bring out the white sculpture, but not so dark that the piece looks too harsh.
Too often students shoot photographs of 3D work with distracting backgrounds which make it difficult to see the 3D artwork clearly. A chronic problem is placing the sculpture on a table against a wall, creating an ugly horizon line between the table and the wall which looks terrible. (above right image)
Tape the top of the paper roll to a board behind the artwork, and then gently pull down the paper roll so that it falls on the surface of the table. Tape the paper to the table so that it is secure as you photograph. The roll of paper provides a smooth, clean, neat background for the sculpture to sit on. (above left image)
Photographs of 3D artwork should show the entire piece. Cropping too many parts of the 3D artwork makes it difficult to see the entire piece, (above left image) while having too much background makes it tough to see the details in the work. (above center image) Crop enough of the background that you can still see the entire 3D artwork, but not to close to the edges of the piece. (above right image)
Lighting 3D Artwork
If you can, try to use natural light from a window if you can to light your 3D artwork. The advantage of natural light is that it can create soft, subtle shadows that will articulate your piece well. Make sure if you use natural light that you use a window that will provide diffused light. Direct sun light will be far too harsh and create stark shadows on your 3D artwork, causing it to appear flat and lose its sense of volume.
If you don’t have a window with the right lighting available, use one of the stand lights from the lighting kit with a lighting umbrella. The lighting umbrella will diffuse the light from the stand light, and create soft shadows similar to natural light.
Take the time to consider the direction and height that your light is coming from. Try positioning your stand light from above, from the left, from the right, etc. Depending on the 3D artwork, different positions will make the artwork look better or worse, so it’s worth your time to try out different options.
Avoid placing the stand light very close to your 3D artwork, that generally creates harsh lighting. On the other hand, you don’t want the stand light so far from your 3D artwork that you don’t have sufficient light and dark contrast in your shadows. Like positioning the light, try out many options in terms of setting up the distance between the stand light and 3D artwork.
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Get Feedback from an Art Teacher
Creating a portfolio should not be an effort that you have to do entirely on your own, and yet many students do not take the initiative to seek out feedback and help on their portfolios. Consider this: would an aspiring concert pianist who is trying to get into Julliard try to figure out how to play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto on their own with no piano teacher?
Visual arts is no different from any other field, you have to get an outside opinion to improve. All artists, even professionals will get stuck in their own heads and won’t be able to evaluate their artwork objectively.
A fresh eye from someone else is hugely important when developing your artwork.An art teacher can aid you in weeding out the weaker works, and provide invaluable advice about what direction to head in. Don’t rely only on yourself (or family members) to make decisions about what works go into your portfolio.
Take the initiative to get a critique to an art teacher whose opinion you trust to get a thorough portfolio critique. Watch the videos above to get a sense of what a professional art critique is like.Purchase a portfolio critique
Another option is to take a continuing education course for adults or teens at a local college, art museum, or art center. You may be able to find an instructor at one of those classes might be able to help you with your portfolio.
Unfortunately, diverse and rigorous course offerings for high school students in the visual arts are very meager. You will likely find that you will actually have many more options looking at adult continuing education courses aimed at a specific medium or subject you wouldn’t normally have access to at your school, such as figure drawing or oil painting.
Summer Pre-College programs are also great experiences where you can intensively study visual arts in a college context with other high school students who are committed to visual arts.
National Portfolio Day
Finally, the real test of the strength of your portfolio is attending a local National Portfolio Day event, where representatives from art schools and colleges with solid art programs across the country are available to critique your portfolio in person. If you’re really serious about being accepted into a high caliber undergraduate art program, this is the event to go to.
We recommend going in the fall of your junior year, just to get a feel for things, and then again in the fall of your senior year. Attending this event is always overwhelming for students, and going twice will most certainly make your second experience much more manageable.
Be ready for very long lines and huge crowds, especially at the top schools. Prof Lieu first went as a junior in high school. Despite having waited 2 hours in line, she didn’t even get a review from my top choice school. The line at this school was so obscenely long that at a certain point the school just closed the line and turned everyone else away.
The second year Prof Lieu went, having learned my lesson the year before, she went to wait in line for the doors to open two hours in advance of the event starting!
At National Portfolio Day, brace yourself for the possibility of harsh words, rushed comments, and feedback that is less than helpful or not considerate of you as an individual. Frequently, students are told at National Portfolio Day that they essentially have to start over from scratch because their portfolio is headed in the wrong direction.
A student I knew who was fantastic told me that a review rudely told her to give up and try a different field. When Prof Lieu attended, (back in the 20th century) she had a reviewer who was extremely impatient and condescending, which made me furious. Listen, nod you head, and move on. Reviewers like that aren’t being constructive, and don’t let an obnoxious comment get to you.
Don’t be discouraged if you get a tough critique or a rude comment! This event is difficult and it’s common for students to have a frustrating experience.
Finally, we have many free resources here on Art Prof that can help you with preparing your portfolio!
Many of our viewers tell us that they learn a lot watching other artists’ critiques, so consider exploring our Critiques section. Our Pro Development section is great for learning about the wide range of aspects of being an artist, and our Art Dares are a great source of motivation and resource, and you can get more involved instructions for projects in our for Project Ideas section.
Our video courses provide concrete instruction on techniques from beginning to end, and you can get inspiration by reading columns and videos featuring young artists in our Emerging Artists section. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask our staff, we are happy to help you out!