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How To Prepare an Art School Portfolio for College Admission

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Art School Portfolio Examples

Eugenia Yoh

“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.”

Art School Admissions Portfolio

Elizabeth Yuan

“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.”

Art School Portfolio, Elizabeth Yuan

Preparing a Portfolio for Art School or College Admission

An art school portfolio takes time and focus

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.

Preparing an art school portfolio takes a village

On top of the actual hours that are required to simply produce the artwork, creating an art school portfolio requires continuous guidance from professionals in visual arts,  structured training in technique, access to accurate information about art supplies, as well as a supportive peer group who can help you stay on track and motivated in this entire process.

You won’t be able to wake up one day, decide to apply to art school, and just whip up a portfolio in a few weeks, all by yourself.  You have to get guidance. So few few high school students have easy access to rigorous art programs and professional artists with expertise in portfolio preparation.  Unfortunately for this reason, you’ll have to be prepared to take tons of self-initiative on your own to reach out and get the help you’ll need.

This has nothing to do with your abilities, experience or skill set, it’s simply what has to happen. Would an athlete who wants to play college football decide to not bother getting a coach?  Let us know when you hear about an NFL player who was entirely self taught.

Create artwork beyond the application requirements

Even of the portfolio requirements state that you need 15 pieces, this means you should aim to create between 30-40 pieces. 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.

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.  It’s unrealistic to make the assumption that anyone can sit down and create 20 artworks in a row that will be of high enough quality for a competitive art school portfolio.

Different school, different portfolio

Every school is going to have their own unique set of requirements, so be sure that you check each school’s guidelines first, especially before you get started preparing your portfolio. We 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.

It can be an awful lot of information to keep track of, keep all of that information organized so you don’t get confused. One student told us she had Google spreadsheets for the entire process!

Portfolio requirements that are specific to the school

The level of specificity in terms of requirements for each school can vary tremendously.  Some schools are quite open ended in terms of what they are looking for in a portfolio, while others can be incredibly specific. For example, CalArts has a sketchbook requirement, while the Animation program at Sheridan College has requirements that state exactly what media to use, what subject matter down to the last detail.

Several art schools and college will provide a prompt that students will need to respond to, specifically for their application on top of the portfolio. Keep in mind that many schools that provide a prompt frequently change the prompts every year, so make sure that you are referring to the correct year’s prompt. You’ll need to set aside time to work on these specific assignments in addition to creating the entire portfolio.

For this reason, it’s highly likely that if you are applying to multiple art schools that you’ll have to create several different versions of your portfolios depending on what school requires.  There might be a “core” of artworks that can applied to every school, but you’ll need to make changes to adjust to each school’s requirements. Don’t make the assumption that for each school, you’ll be able to use the same 15 artworks!

Create Original Work from Direct Observation

Drawing from life is rare for most high school students

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 in terms of developing your drawing skills.

Beyond just standing apart from the thousands of other student who are copying from photos, drawing from life is an amazing, enriching experience that will provide the foundation for a strong drawing skills.  Read this article that Prof Lieu wrote about the importance of drawing from direct observation, and about the bad drawing habits that develop as a result of drawing exclusively from photographs.

Drawing from life takes patience and time

Only problem is, when you draw from life, you have to work a lot harder to train your eye, work in less convenient situations,  work at a faster pace, and interpret the image on your own.  Drawing from life requires a lot of patience and willingness to practice regularly.

Progress is generally slow, not very visible, and won’t produce immediate gratification. The fact is, the vast majority of students really are unwilling to invest that kind of time and consideration in their drawings. With drawing, you really do have to simply log the hours drawing, the way an athlete has to spend time exercising every day to maintain their strength and stamina.

It is easy to see why students have only learned to draw from photographs: photographs are much more convenient than drawing from life.  If you want to draw a portrait, you don’t have to ask anyone to pose or sit still for you.  Need to draw an elephant?  Just do a Google Image search and in one second there are hundreds of options to pick from.

Drawing from photographs is a limited experience

It’s rare for a photograph online to have exactly what you’re looking for.  If you are drawing a hand in a specific pose, it’s really unlikely you will find a hand in the exact pose you want in a photograph online. In human figures, it’s usually glaringly obvious when something is off in the anatomy.

It’s not difficult to take a photo of your own hand, or someone else’s hand.  You’ll have total control over the position of the hand and make it exactly what you need for your artwork.

Consequently, most students either compromise their image or just end up making up the hand up out of their imagination, which never goes well.  There are so few people  who can draw a convincing hand, with good anatomical structure completely out of their heads.

There’s a difference between copying and interpreting what you see

When students draw from photographs, they don’t have to work remotely as hard to get half decent results.  The process is deceiving because you think you’re drawing, but really, the photograph has done all the work for you.

Essentially, you’re looking at an image that is 2D and then transferring that image to a 2D drawing.  Not much has to change in terms of moving from the photograph to your drawing.

When you draw from life, your eye has to work much harder to translate the 3D objects in space in front of you into a 2D drawing.   You have to learn to observe, investigate, and visually analyze what you are seeing.  You have to process what it is that your eye is seeing, and then interpret that raw visual information into a visual statement that is your own.

Copying what  you see is not remotely the same experience as interpreting what you see.  In the video below, it would have been much, much easier for Teaching Artist Alex Rowe to simply type “sheep” into a Google Image search. Instead, he took the time to visit a farm, which gave him the chance to observe the sheep, see their movement, and to sketch them from life.  This experience with sheep in real life tremendously informed his ability to portray the sheep in his ink wash illustration.

Drawing from imagination doesn’t mean you are a better artist

There’s a common misconception amongst high school students that if you need reference imagery, you are somehow less of an artist. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Most professional artists use some form of reference imagery, and if they do create images from their head, the reason why they have that skill set is from years of drawing from life.

Drawing only from your head, you are vastly  limiting the depth of what you can draw and your images will lean towards being cliche and generic.  Most people have an idea in their head of what a monkey looks like, and probably could draw an image of a monkey that is recognizable as a monkey.

However, if you take the time to look up a photo of a monkey, you’ll discover that there are so many different species of monkeys, and that each species has distinctive features that you would never have been able to come up with on your own. That specificity of the image is what will make your image unique and informed.

Learning to draw only from photos has consequences

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.

Drawing from photos does have a place in the artistic process

This is not to say that drawing from a photograph is WRONG and shouldn’t ever be practiced.  Prof Lieu and many of the Teaching Artists here at Art Prof use photographs all the time in their artwork.

So the question is, why is there so much emphasis being put on learning to draw from life, when the professional artists preaching this are drawing from photos themselves?  The short answer is that learning to draw from photographs effectively is a skill that takes lots of time  (years) and experience drawing from life to develop.  Having solid life drawing skills will enable you to eventually draw from photographs successfully.

There are certainly other creative situations where you just cannot work from life.  For example, if you are a freelance illustrator who has been given a job to do an editorial illustration about the Forbidden City in China, there is just no reason to get on a flight to China to sketch the Forbidden City in real life.  That wouldn’t make sense for any professional illustrator in those circumstances.

If you are sculpting a portrait from clay, a process which can take numerous hours to complete, and you cannot afford to hire an artist model to come pose for you, of course shooting your own photographs of a person makes much more sense.  You can see Prof Lieu show this very scenario in the video above.

On the flip side of that, it’s absolutely ridiculous to draw something from a photograph that is really easy to access in real life.  We’ve seen students who needed to draw an apple and do a Google image search for “apple.”  Really, is it that difficult to get an apple and draw it from real life?  If you need to draw clouds, is it that hard to look out the window?

What’s the difference between copying a photo and using a photo as a visual reference?

Many professional artists shoot their own reference photos by staging the imagery they are looking for:  getting a person to pose a specific way, visiting a location on site, etc.  In the video tutorial below, Teaching Artist Alex Rowe took the time to visit a church and graveyard in real life so that he could shoot reference photos for this gouache painting. See Alex’s trip to the graveyard and hear about his approach towards shooting reference photos.

The photo an artist shoots themselves, specifically for a piece of artwork is merely a reference, seen as the raw material from which an original image can be generated from. While it’s evident that the image on the left was used as a reference photo for the gouache painting on the right, it’s also clear that a lot changed between the reference photo and the gouache painting. The imagery from the reference photo was heavily manipulated and transformed into an original image.

Teaching Artist Alex Rowe changed the direction of the light on the church, and the colors are completely different in the gouache painting compared to the reference photo. Yet you can still see the connection from the original reference photo in terms of the architecture and the structure of the church, those are the types of details that are really tough to make up out of your head.

Many artists create artwork that uses visual references from multiple photos, grabbing a tree from one photo, placing a person from another to fabricate a new image.  You can see in the gouache painting below that one reference photo was used to paint the specific shape of the grave stones, while another reference photo was used to paint the church. In this way, the artist creates a “collage” of reference photos to piece together the visual information they need to construct their own original image.

Gouache Painting, Alex Rowe

When reference photos are used, the images are manipulated and transformed so dramatically that the final drawing does not look exactly like the original reference photo. One sign that you haven’t done that enough is if your reference photo looks better than the artwork itself.  An artist who successfully uses a reference photo should end up with a drawing that is significantly more engaging than the original reference photo.

Below is a comparison of a reference photo that Prof Lieu shot herself of an artist model  (left image) versus the graphite drawing she created from that reference photo.  You can see that while it’s apparent that Prof Lieu observed the reference photo to create the structure and details of the skin, the graphite drawing is significantly different in appearance than the reference photo. Watch Prof Lieu’s drawing process for creating this drawing in the video below.

Graphite Drawing, Clara Lieu

Unfortunately, most high school students are not provided the instruction they need to be able to use reference photos successfully.  The process seems simply in theory, but actually implementing the process and getting effective results takes a lot of experience, trial and error, and troubleshooting.

The default way to use a photo in high school for drawing is to copy it verbatim, with the exact same composition as the photo, where a perfect replica of the drawing in pencil is considered to be a successful outcome.

In some cases, we’ve seen teachers who go through all the trouble to set up a still life in a classroom, but then instruct the students to take a photo of the still life, and draw from that! For something like a still life which is practical and easy to set up in real life, there’s really no excuse for using a photo.

For a demonstration of how to shoot your own reference photos, watch the above video starting at 08:50 min. Cat and Prof Lieu go over strategies as well as how to sift through and organize the best photos for Cat’s illustration.

How can you tell a drawing was copied from a photo?

Many students ask how an admissions officer can spot that a drawing has been copied from a photograph. Generally speaking, the qualities that indicate that a drawing has been copied from a photograph are:

Extreme, hyper focused detail in the drawing; this level of detail is generally not achievable when drawing from life, especially if it’s a portrait. There is no model who can pose for a portrait for 40 hours. Neither are you going to find a bird in the middle of flying in the sky who is going to stay still long enough for you to spend time drawing every line on every single feather.

In the artwork below, there is a tremendous amount of detail in the wrinkles around the eye, the folds in the shirt, the skin folds on the hand.  This amount of detail would not be possible from a live model who is posing for a portrait drawing.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Colored Pencil Drawing

A figure in a pose that would be impossible for a real person to hold over a long period of time is another sign that an artwork was copied from a photo.  The artwork above shows a figure who is painting.  The way this figure has their right hand raised, holding up a paint brush would be impossible for a real person to hold long enough for the artist to achieve the amount of detail in the artwork.

The one exception here is if the pose is very dynamic and the drawing is a 2-5 minute gesture drawing. Any figure drawing that is drawn from life that has been worked on for several hours has to show a model in a pose that would be comfortable for a person to hold for a while. Usually, it’s very obvious when a drawing is a gesture drawing, it can capture the essential structure of the figure, but details like finger nails and eye lashes won’t be present.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Scratchboard Drawing

You can tell if the image of a subject is one that the vast majority of people will never experience in real life: 2 helicopters flying in the air, a hyper realistic drawing of 10 flamingos in their natural habitat, the tarmac of an airport with 3 airplanes, etc.

In the scratchboard drawing above of an elephant, there are tons of minute details, and yet it would be impossible for a person to get that close to an elephant, and have the elephant stay still enough to provide enough time for an artist to create this drawing in real life. Plus, who has access to an elephant for that level of study?

If the shadows in the drawing look really flat that’s another indication that a reference photo has been copied.  If the shadows are filled in straight black, with no nuance in the tone, and they have very flat crisp edges, chances are that a photo has been used. In real life, you can see slight shifts in value within even a seemingly flat cast shadow. In a photo, those shifts of value are too subtle to be picked up by a camera and therefore fall into a single, flat value.

Video Tutorials that demonstrate drawing from life

Variety in Subject Matter

Demonstrate your willingness to experiment

Depicting a wide range of subject matter throughout your entire portfolio demonstrates your willingness and interest to work in many contrasting ways. There is an endless range of possibilities when it comes to subject matter in a portfolio.

Admissions officers don’t want to see a portfolio of twenty self-portraits.  When a portfolio has too much of the same subject matter, the message you are sending an admissions committee is that you don’t want to try anything new, and that even at this early age, you’ve are already set in your ways. Attending art school is all about exposing yourself to as many new experiences as possible.  Having a portfolio with only one topic comes across as narrow minded and limited.

Art School Admissions Portfolio

Dessery Dai

Anything is possible with subject matter

The most obvious subjects are traditional ones such as figures, self-portraits, still lifes, landscapes, interior spaces, architectural spaces,  are all excellent subjects to address in your portfolio.

Don’t stop there though; there are so many other subjects you could address such as character design, abstraction, industrial design, editorial illustration, architecture, typography, urban sketching, political art, poster design, book covers, etc.  Essentially, anything under the sun is a viable option when it comes to subject matter!

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Victoria Lin

Don’t rely on art class assignments to cover all your bases

At the same time, you don’t want every piece in your portfolio to appear to be simply a technical exercise that you were given in art class at school.  A portfolio of still life drawings that are obviously class assignments tend to have a generic quality and usually don’t show off your ability to communicate a personal idea, a unique opinion, etc. in a visual manner.

Sometimes that’s not the fault of the student, sometimes it’s the fault of an assignment being too rigid and specific to the point that there is simply no opportunity to make the project your own, no matter how hard you try.  For example, if the still life of a cardboard box that your art teacher set up for you to draw in class in pencil was boring for you, chances are, your drawing of that still life is probably pretty boring to look at.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Pencil Drawing

A subject is only boring if you decide it’s boring

If Claude Monet was able to make haystacks exciting for himself,  then anything is possible.  For most art students, there’s an immediate assumption that if they are told they will be painting a still life, the still life will definitely be boring.  Still life is only boring if you let it be boring.

Hate your art teacher’s stupid still life?  Make your own at home, using objects that you actually want to draw. In the video below, Prof Lieu and Teaching Artist Alex Rowe show just how exciting setting up a still life can be.

Design and/or find flexible art prompts

Or, sometimes an assignment has such a specific format that it’s glaringly obvious that a student was told exactly what to do, you could practically write the lesson plan just from glancing at the project for 10 seconds.

In the image below, it’s very obvious that the assignment was for the student to take one subject (in this case, a dinosaur) and to draw variations of that subject using different media and styles, some of which are based on art historical movements. That’s why you simply cannot rely on your art class assignments to fill in your entire portfolio.

At a certain point, you’ll need to take the initiative to design your own projects, find more open ended prompts,  and step away from those uptight assignments. 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.  Generally speaking, there is no art class in high school that can accomplish all of that for you.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Mixed Media Drawing

A portfolio does not need to represent your intended major

Students are frequently concerned about showing their interested in a specific major in their portfolios.  For example, a student who has a genuine interest in majoring in architecture will not be expected to apply with a portfolio full of architectural models and architectural drawings.

Many students worry that their lack of pieces in their intended major will work against them in the admissions process, when in fact, it doesn’t at all.

You could have every intention of majoring in architecture, not have a single architectural model in your portfolio, and still be a really strong candidate for a school. Remember, art schools will not expect you to already have expertise in the field you haven’t experienced yet.  After all, isn’t that the reason why you’re applying to attend art school?

A portfolio should not be limited to works in your intended major

On the other hand, there are plenty of students who do get experience in their intended major before they apply to art school.  Let’s say you attended a rigorous summer pre-college program where specific majors were offered, and you were able to produce a number of graphic design pieces:  a series of 5 poster designs,  3 business cards, 4 postcards, and 3 book jacket designs.

Most people would make the assumption that for someone who is intending on majoring in Graphic Design, that including as many of these graphic design pieces in your portfolio as possible would garner the best results.

This actually isn’t the case at all, in fact, your portfolio should not be 20 graphic design pieces.  You can certainly include perhaps 2-3 graphic design pieces in a portfolio of 20 pieces if you have them.  However,  the more critical aspect of your portfolio is that you have a wide, well rounded skill set.

When “architecture” is not actually architecture

Another word of caution:  unless you attended a competitive summer pre-college program at an art school, or your parents are professional architects, there’s a fairly decent chance that what you think is architecture, actually isn’t.  It’s really common for students to make assumptions about what is involved in a specific major, only to find out later that the major is actually nothing like what they imagined.

Prof Lieu teaches in the Illustration department at RISD, and it’s really common for her to encounter students who go into illustration really without an accurate idea of what the field of illustration is all about. Ask one student what is illustration is, they might reply “it’s drawing covers for books!” while another might say “it’s making images for ads.”  Actually the field of illustration is both, plus,  editorial illustration, children’s book illustration, political cartoons, comics, character design, concept art, and more.

A student once told Prof Lieu that they majored in architecture because their dad told them that architecture was for “people who were good at math.”  Since this student excelled in math, he chose architecture as his major at a summer program. However,  it quickly became obvious that there is much more to architecture than math.  Architecture quickly became this student’s least liked course, and it was glaringly clear to this student that they were definitely not going to be majoring in architecture in the future.

Architectural Model by Lucy Saltonstall

Show Brainstorming and Ideas

Get past the clichés

Take the initiative to create artworks that demonstrate your thinking process, that pushes beyond the most literal, cliché reaction in a piece.  In fact, the best way to combat the danger of a cliché is to eliminate that option immediately.

When Prof Lieu does brainstorming exercises with her studio classes, she asks the students to do 3 sketches that represent the most obvious, literal, and cliché sketches they can possibly come up with.  This identifies essentially the most boring, generic options for any given prompt, allowing students to move past those options and come up with ones that are more unusual.

For example, if you are given a prompt that is called “time,” do you think you are the first person to respond to that prompt with an image of a watch, clock, or hourglass? Throw out that watch, clock, and hourglass and then see what you come up with. If you’re not sure what the cliché is for a given subject, do a Google Image search for that subject and see what the dominant image is, you’ll know then not to use that image!

Watch Prof Lieu demonstrate how to create a mind map in order to start the brainstorming process, followed by thumbnail sketches and then transitioning into the final drawing.  Prof Lieu explores the theme “My Future Self,” and you can see how other artists interpreted this theme in the 2016 October Art Dare.

Technique is just one part of an artwork

Technical skills in art media are hugely important, but it doesn’t matter how brilliantly you can draw if your artworks don’t have any substance behind their motivation and purpose.

Think about any artist from art history, are they remembered just because they knew how to paint realistically?  Or because they knew how to render a beautiful shadow?

Caravaggio dared to portray Christ as a not an idealistic, glowing figure of light, but as a real person who had dirt on his feet.  (see the image below) Käthe Kollwitz was known for her gut wrenching prints and drawings depicting the tragedy of war, while contemporary artist William Kentridge is known for his innovative work in animation, printmaking, and drawing portraying the complex political climate in South Africa.

If anything, artists tend to be known more for their ideas, than for their technical abilities.

Crucifixtion of St. Peter, Carvaggio

Express your point of view, make a statement

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.

Show in your pieces that you are engaging with your subject matter beyond just being visual eye candy or a mindless technical exercise. Make it evident that you are thinking about your subject matter, and brainstorming ideas for your pieces.

Sometimes, what might seem like a mundane every day ritual to us might actually be a highly compelling narrative to depict in an artwork. In one of Prof Lieu’s Design courses, a student once created a collage about putting on makeup every day.  Lots of people put on makeup everyday, there’s nothing unique about that.

So what made this student’s collage distinctively hers?  The student explained that she “hated her face,” and that the process of applying makeup for her was a way for her to cover her face, to “hide” her own facial features.

Mixed Media Collage, Grace Ledoux

Brainstorming takes effort, initiative, and time

There’s a common misconception among students that coming up with an idea means waiting around until a bold of lightning strikes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Brainstorming takes time, work, initiative, and intent.

Tell your average person to “come up with an idea,” and almost everyone will sit down and start brainstorming, without writing a single thing on a sheet of paper. Brainstorming is only effective if you put your ideas on paper, you’ll have a visual trail in your sketchbook of your progression of ideas and be able to refer back to them later.  Don’t run through your ideas in your head and eliminate possibilities before you’ve even given them a chance.

Sometimes an idea that sounds terrific in your head doesn’t come across so well once you put it down on paper. The opposite is also true, an idea that you may have dismissed in your head might actually demonstrate a lot of creative potential once it’s been realized on paper.

Put it down on paper

Sitting down and trying to work out an idea in your head is the basically the worst way to come up with ideas.  Put it down on paper.  Even if what you write or sketch sounds or looks like complete gibberish, do it anyway. Prof Lieu calls it “barfing on paper,” meaning that you give yourself the license to entertain literally any idea, no matter how idiotic it sounds by getting it down on a sheet of paper.

Brainstorming is neither fast nor immediate.  Fill several sketchbook pages, go eat dinner, come back and sketch some more. Repeat for at least 2 more days, and then maybe, if you’re lucky, you might just have something worth pursing.  Yup, it’s that much work to brainstorm an idea that has actual potential to go somewhere.

Coming up with an idea is one thing, developing an idea is another.

You may have an idea you are excited about and that you see tremendous potential in, but that’s not the same thing as developing the idea and reaching a point where it’s actually a viable option as an artwork. Explore every possible option with sketches, that lead to thumbnail sketches, which lead to preliminary sketches, which move you towards the final piece.

The entire process, from beginning to end is long and not glamorous at all.  Do the work and it will pay off, a well planned artwork means a more efficient work pace and cuts back on back tracking and wasted art supplies.

This Digital Illustration video below leads you through every step of the process: brainstorming, thumbnail sketches, shooting your own reference photos, and transitioning into a finished piece.

Art Prof monthly Art Dares

If you’re looking for art prompts, check out our Monthly Art Dares.  With a new Art Dare every month, there is an ongoing stream of new prompts being released all the time!  Look at past Art Dares for art prompts, there’s a treasure trove of ideas there just waiting for you. Sign up for the Art Dares email list to get announcements for the new Art Dare every month.

If you do create an artwork based on one of our Art Dares, use #artprofdare on Instagram so we can see what you do, even if it’s from an old Art Dare!


Your sketchbook is an opportunity to show your thought process

It’s a good idea to show an image or two of a sketchbook spread. The advantage of showing a sketchbook spread is that it’s an opportunity for you to demonstrate your thinking, sketching, and brainstorming process in it’s raw, unedited form.

A sketchbook should be a place where literally anything can happen, where you can feel free to make that space your own.  Every artist has their own way of keeping a sketchbook, watch the videos below to see all of the diverse ways that artists work with their sketchbooks.  Then figure out what is going to work for you!

A sketchbook is where everything begins

A sketchbook is one of the most important tools that an artist has, it’s one that you should be carrying with you all day, every day.  If you don’t have a regular sketchbook practice, it’s time to run to the store and get a sketchbook. (or better yet, make your own sketchbook using our Lotus/Meandering or Coptic Stitch course)

If you truly are serious about being an artist, maintaining a lively sketchbook practice should be a given, the absolute bare minimum that any artist should be engaging with at all times.

A quick sketch here, jotting down an idea there, and you’ll notice very fast how critical your sketchbook will become to your artistic thinking process. Think about your sketchbook as the primordial soup of your artistic practice, it’s where ideas begin, grow, and mature.

Presentation & Format for your artwork

The way you present your artwork matters

Be sure that everything else in your portfolio is a work is neatly presented.   This means no white backgrounds, no dirty fingerprints, no random sketchbook drawings, no ripped edges, no half finished figures, etc. Prof Lieu has seen students in her courses bring in drawings that were torn on the side, had masking tape hanging off the edge, and more.

By presenting your artwork in such a sloppy manner, the message you are sending to Admissions Officers is that you don’t care about your artwork. It takes very little time (sometimes just a few minutes!)  to clean up your presentation.  The same drawing presented in a neat way vs. in a messy way can make or break the impression your artwork gives off.

Student Charcoal Drawing

Bring your artwork to a full completion

The quintessential problem in artwork by high school students is not bringing a piece of a full finish.  Many portfolio pieces by high school students are only about 50% finished, and have big problems like glaringly empty backgrounds and a lack of refinement and detail. For more in depth information on this topic, read Prof Lieu’s blog post here.

This drawing below has lovely details in the individual objects, but the composition of the drawing has not been considered.  Composition refers to the placement of each subject on the page, and is a fundamental element of creating an artwork.  The background is totally blank, causing the drawing to look unfinished.

Sometimes the difference really is one extra hour working on the artwork to fill in those gaps.  Other concerns, like a lack of a background are more fundamental and need to be addressed much earlier in the process of the artwork.

Jordan McCracken-Foster, Art School Portfolio

Don’t worry about taking your artwork “too far”

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. It’s very rare to 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 students who think they are doing “too much,” to an artwork end up bringing their pieces to a good state of completion.

One exercise to try is to choose an artwork (preferably one that you are not very attached to) and to deliberately overwork it to the point that it’s super obvious that you did way too much to the piece.  You’ll never know how far to take an artwork until you’ve taken it too far.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Pastel Drawing

Don’t be precious with your artwork

While it’s important to value the artworks you create, be careful that you don’t get too fixated on the product to the point that you are unwilling to try something new with an artwork.  This is one of the reasons why it’s so useful to maintain a really high production rate and to not spend 4 months on a single drawing.

If you are creating a drawing once a week, you won’t be so precious with your work, because you’ll be in the mindset that if the piece you’re working on doesn’t go well, you’ll just make another one. It you take 4 months to finish a drawing, it feels like the end of the world if someone suggests you try something a little bit different.

You’ll end up walking on egg shells with your artwork, which will stifle your artistic growth and ability to experiment and try new approaches.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Amelia Rozear

There’s a difference between composing a drawing vs. drawing randomly on a sheet of paper

Composition is an aspect of creating artwork that is ignored and not considered by most high school students.  The painting above is composed. The figure’s legs and left arm are cropped off the page, there is a  dark surface the figure is resting on, and the background is a cool blue and yellow drapery that fills the space.

The composition of this painting above is not an accident; this art student planned their placement of the figure onto the canvas in advance. Like any other concept in visual arts, composition takes time and patience to learn.  Actually, it’s not that high school students can’t understand composition, it’s that they don’t bother to take the time to consider it.

Variety in Art Media

There is a whole world of art supplies out there waiting for you

You’ll need to make sure that your portfolio represents a diverse range of art media. Showing many art media is a way to demonstrate that you have taken the initiative to learn and hone skills in contrasting art media.   Step outside of what you see everyone else in high school doing, which is probably limited to more commonly known art supplies like acrylic paint and pencils.

Prof Lieu speaks in the video below about all of the advantages of trying out new art media: you’ll gain a diverse, valuable set of skills as an artist and perhaps discover something along the way that you truly love! Of course, not every art media is going to be your cup of tea, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

There’s an assumption among many high school students that drawing means pencil drawing only. There are so many more drawing media than just pencil that it can be baffling to see high school students so unwilling to try anything else.

Crayons, conte crayon, markers, soft pastels, oil pastels, oil bars, india ink, Rapidograph pens, brush pens, charcoal, graphite powder, water soluble colored pencils, Artist Pitt Pens, and much, much more.

Experiment with different surfaces for your artwork

Don’t stop there, you can experiment with many different types of surfaces to draw on. The surface you draw on can completely transform your experience with your art media and should always be considered.

In some cases, there are certain surfaces that will make your life unnecessarily difficult.  For example, many students use newsprint for charcoal drawing. Newsprint is awful for charcoal drawing, erasing charcoal on newsprint is a nightmare, and the newsprint is too thin and fragile for rigorous drawing. Instead, use charcoal paper, which has a slight tooth that “grips” the powdery charcoal well and has a beautiful texture to it.

Some terrific options are black mat board, (useful when using color drawing media) Bristol Board, (great for comics and illustration) watercolor paperYupo paper, (a translucent paper that works great with liquid art media and markers) charcoal paper (much better than regular drawing paper when using charcoal) and more.

Get many more ideas for different drawing surfaces and other art media in our Art Supply Encyclopedia.

Drawing on Black Mat Board

Drawing on Charcoal Paper

Every art supply brings a new artistic perspective

You’ll find that every single art media will bring out a different side of you as an artist. Every art supply art out there behaves in it’s own special way and it’s exciting to see how your creative process might change depending on what you’re working with.

Many art media influence each other in different ways that can be exciting and wonderful.  If you have strong skills in charcoal drawing, try doing animation with charcoal!  If you have enjoyed acrylic painting, perhaps painting with gouache can get you to exercise a whole new set of painting “muscles.” Perhaps you have worked largely in two-dimensional media, dipping your skill set into sculpture could enhance your skills in two-dimensional media.

Try not to make assumptions about new art supplies, it’s easy to assume before you’ve tried an art supply that it’s not going to work for you, but how can you be sure until you’ve actually tried out the supply with your own bare hands? Give every new art media a chance, spend some time with the art media, and see where it goes.

Demonstrate your versatility in a wide range of art media

This is your chance to show the admissions officers that you have more than one skill set, and can move fluidly from one media into the next. There are so many fields within visual arts that you can include: drawings, photography, paintings, sculptures, mixed media, collage, digital media, animation, printmaking, clay, video, character design, creature design jewelry, illustration, installation, artist books, comics, or any other formats or media you have worked with.

Remember that for every area of visual arts, there are so many sub categories and variations on different techniques!  Even in a relatively small area of visual arts like artist books that seems like it can’t get any more specific, there are so many different ways to make a book:  the lotus fold, the Coptic stitch, and much more.

There are infinite ways to do animation:  stop motion, charcoal animation, animating by drawing on a 3D object, pixilation, and more.

Look beyond the art store for your materials

Certainly, there’s lots of good reasons to experiment and try out all different types of combinations of supplies, and you definitely shouldn’t limit yourself in terms of what material can go with what.

One way to really go further with your supplies is to consider supplies that aren’t even at the art store. Teaching Artist Lauryn Welch mixes coffee grounds into her acrylic paint to create a gritty texture for her paintings.  Teaching Artist Deepti Menon uses found objects such as pasta, toys, pom poms, etc. which are terrific to mix into a stop motion animation piece.

Art Hacks

There are many hacks to being an artist as well. There are some items that are sold at an art supply store which can be easily purchased at a grocery store for much less.  Those disposable painting palettes you can buy at the art supply store are much more expensive than buying freezer paper from your local grocery store!

Or, make your own glass palette; most art supply stores don’t carry them, or if they do, the quality is not good.

Archival Materials

However, there are specific circumstances where specific materials simply cannot be used together for archival reasons: if you are doing an oil painting, you cannot paint a layer of oil paint and then add a layer of acrylic paint on top.

Oil paint can be painted on top of acrylic paint, but not the other way around. Don’t know the difference between oil paint and acrylic painting?  Watch our video below which explains all of the technique differences and similarities.

If you are stretching a canvas to paint on, you’ll have to make sure that there is a primer (such as acrylic gesso) painted on the raw canvas before painting on the canvas. Check our Tutorials section for any techniques you need help with.

Oil vs. Acrylic Painting

How to Stretch a Canvas

Discover new materials in our Art Supply Encyclopedia

Often times, half the problem that students have with their artwork is simply having the wrong supplies, or not knowing that a particular tool existed that could solve all of your problems.

More obscure supplies like canvas pliers can make or break your experience stretching a canvas, a good quality non-photo blue pencil can be super helpful in illustration and comics work, and a silicoil brush cleaning tank will revolutionize your experience with oil painting.

Charcoal drawings should be done on charcoal paper, linoleum block prints look great on rice paper, whereas gouache works best on hot press watercolor paper or mat board.

Include artworks in black & white and also in color

Make sure that you have both black and white artworks as well as artworks that display a full range of color. Black and white artworks are important so that you can demonstrate an understanding of a wide range of tones and value,  and to explore contrast and lighting.

The color artworks you show in a art portfolio should demonstrate that you can either layer or mix colors and get beyond painting with colors that come “straight out of the tube.”

Experiment with a wide range of different color schemes. You can include some monochromatic artworks, some pieces that have a more subdued color palette, or a pieces that use highly intense, saturated colors.

Art School Transfer Portfolio, Audrey Scharrer

Painting with a highly saturated color scheme. (above)

Black and white ink wash drawing. (right)

Artworks by Audrey Scharrer

Art School Transfer Portfolio, Audrey Scharrer

Learn to mix and layer your colors.

When creating color artworks, take great initiative to mix and layer your colors.  Some art media require mixing, while others require colors to be layered on top of each other.

For example, with painting media, you’ll need to mix your colors with a palette knife while in a drawing using soft pastels or crayons, you’ll create different color mixtures by layering the colors on top of each other.

The most common problem with color media is that students do not take the time to layer and mix, causing the colors to be flat, obvious, and literal. Frequently, when students do mix their colors, the color mixtures are predictable:  adding white paint to a color to make it lighter, adding black paint to make the color lighter.

Be much more adventurous than that, add alizarin crimson to your green to create a darker shade of green instead of black. Instead of adding white paint to make a color brighter, try naples yellow instead.  Mix your own black instead of using black paint out of the tube. Try alizarin crimson with viridian to create a deep, dark purple that will very much feel like black, or try ultramarine blue with burnt umber for a cooler black.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Oil Painting, Andy Wei

This painting above of the oranges is beautifully painted:  the painting has gorgeous details, the texture of the oranges is really well captured, the contrast is excellent, and the highlights on the oranges seem to glisten in the light.  However, in terms of color, this painting could not be more literal.

The color of the oranges is really monotonous throughout the entire painting.  What if there was a slight hint of cerulean blue in one of the shadows of the oranges?  What if there was a glaze of purple in another shadow?  Grass is never just green, and apples are never just red.

It’s easy to look at an orange and just tell yourself, “it’s orange, I don’t see any other colors.”  You won’t see other colors if you don’t look for other colors.  This circles back to drawing from direction observation, and sharpening your eye to be able to see beyond the first glance.

If color intimidates you, exaggerate your colors

Frequently, students are too timid with color so they end up either working black and white with little touches of color, causing their artworks to come across as muddy and full.

If you’re struggling with this, try a crayon drawing or an acrylic painting where you play with absolutely outrageous colors on purpose:  blue tones in the shadows of a face, green in the shadow of a sweet potato.

Look up artists who are known for their bold, wild use of color:  Alice NeelChaim Soutine, Oskar Kokoschka, Jenny SavilleKehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Jordan Casteel, and more. See this experience with color as an experience to get yourself out of trying to be so accurate and literal with color!

In this crayon drawing tutorial above, you’ll see Prof Lieu building up the layers of color with garish pinks, greens, blues, and purples to articulate the color of the skin tone. Eventually, the layers become dense enough that the colors are less literal and more vibrant.

Teaching Artist Alex Rowe demonstrates an unusual approach to doing the underpainting in our acrylic painting tutorial: instead of painting the objects the colors they actually are, he paints the objects using their complementary color.  In Alex’s underpainting, an orange lobster starts out blue while a red cloth begins as green. Find out why by watching his tutorial!

Color mixing takes time and effort

Using color well means needing to make your own color mixtures, it’s generally very obvious when an acrylic painting has been made entirely with colors that are “straight out of the tube.” Take the extra time and initiative and mix your colors on your palette when painting, create a subtle range or differences of one color within one acrylic painting, it will be well worth your time!

This video below explains a lot of the common problems students have when getting started with color and offers some solutions in terms of what mind set to take when exploring color more in depth.

Painting is not the only color media that exists

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.

Oil painting especially should not be done without proper training and guidance. There are many safety concerns associated with certain supplies in oil painting, and if you are not informed of what those are, oil painting can actually be hazardous to your health.

Instead, consider doing drawings using color drawing media such as chalk pasteloil pastels, oil bars, markers, collage, or Caran d’Ache crayons. Each of these drawing media can be picked up without any professional training, and can yield really terrific results.

The brand of art supplies you buy can make or break your experience

Keep in mind though that the brand that you purchase of these color media really matters.  In some cases, for art supplies, the brands don’t make a difference.  For example, if you need to buy a ball point pen, the brand really doesn’t matter at all. However, with supplies like soft pastels and acrylic paints, you definitely get what you pay for.

There are so many awful acrylic paints on the market, and if you can, it really is worth the extra month to ensure a good quality material. Some art supplies are such poor quality they actually are not an accurate representation of what a media actually does. Poor quality art supplies can create problems for you that simply won’t exist if you are using higher quality supplies.

For example, the best brand of soft pastels is Rembrandt, but be aware that this brand is expensive, especially if you want to purchase a large set. A more affordable brand that has decent quality for soft pastels is Prismacolor NuPastels. NuPastels won’t have the subtle nuances in color and texture the way the Rembrandt brand will, but they will get the job done and produce decent results. See the Rembrandt pastels in the video below from our tutorial How to Draw an Imaginary Environment.

3D media will make your portfolio stand out

The vast majority of students will not have 3D art media in their portfolio, and the few who do have 3D artworks in their portfolio usually do not have pieces that are of high quality.  Unless you have professional guidance from an experienced art teacher, 3D art media is exceptionally tricky to work with.

Getting the appropriate tools and materials for 3D media is very challenging, it’s rare that an art supply store will have everything you need to work in 3D art media.  You’ll probably find yourself spending more time at the hardware store when working with 3D art media.

There are many technical challenges that simply aren’t issues with 2D media; you don’t have to worry about your 2D drawing toppling over because the structure is too weak! Even materials that seem like they should be straightforward are not, for example, choosing the right adhesive for the material you’re working with is usually not obvious.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!  You’re in luck because here at Art Prof, we have many video tutorials and project ideas that use 3D art media and which provide the information and guidance necessary to get successful results.

Strong Drawings are Critical

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?

Cinemagraph, Eloise Sherrid

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

Character Design Drawing, Cat Huang

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 below,  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.

Above is Cat’s drawing done with a quill pen on the left, and the final design with colors.

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 truth!  Architect Frank Gehry starts out the beginning part of the process with quick gestural sketches of his buildings.

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.

Charcoal Drawing by Juwon Joon

Student charcoal drawing by Juwon Jun

To improve your drawing skills, look at drawings from art history

This might seen antiquated, but go to a library and flip through gigantic art books full of drawings.  You might think that you can just research drawings online, but actually it’s really hard to get the range and diversity of drawings online compared to what you’ll see in books at the library. Browsing for famous paintings and sculpture, etc. online works just fine, but a lot of drawings are obscure enough that many are simply not available online.

Find the art books aisle at your local library and take out those drawing books that weight 200 lbs.  Look carefully at the drawings, and ask yourself what you see.  Do you see light sketchy lines, or dark, dramatic ones?  Analyzing these drawings by observation will teach you just as much as practicing drawing.

Albrecht Durer, Self Portrait at Age 13, 1484

Part of the process of improving your drawing skills is to look at drawings by artists from history.  Don’t look at paintings and tell yourself you’re learning about drawing that way. 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. 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.”

Eugène Delacroix, ink drawings
Rembrandt, ink drawings
John Singer Sargent, charcoal drawings
Frank Gehry, sketches for architecture
Toba Khedoori, large scale drawings
Georges Seurat, charcoal drawings
Jean-Antoine Watteau, red chalk drawings
Tintoretto, chalk drawings
Maya Lin, A River is a Drawing
Claes Oldenburg, Studies 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
Edward Hopper, charcoal & pencil drawings
Leonardo da Vinci
Jacopo Pontormo, chalk drawings
Antonio López García, pencil drawings

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Studies of Women's Heads, 18th century

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.

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!

John Singer Sargent, Robert Henry Benson, 1912

In this Michelangelo drawing of the Libyan Sibyl, 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

Photographs Are Everything

How you photograph your artwork can make or break your portfolio

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.

Your goal is to show an accurate presentation of your artwork. Depending on the artwork, this can be straightforward and easy to do, whereas other artworks, such as interactive ones of 3D artworks can be very challenging to present. 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!!!

Camera Options

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Smart Phone

Many of the latest smart phones today are now capable of good quality photographs, and the resolution is fairly high.

Prof Lieu actually stopped using her DSLR camera to shoot photos of student artwork because her iPhone X does a fine job, AND it’s soooo much easier to upload those photos into Google Drive and share them with her students.

Of course, for many people, a DSLR camera is far too high of an expense, so if you are on top of getting good lighting, and some Photoshop work on the images, a smart phone camera can absolutely get the job done.

Know that 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.

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 Prof Lieu saw a photo shot with a DSLR camera, she couldn’t believe how crisp the photographs were. The colors were so vivid, the resolution was incredibly high, and the images had a clarity that a smartphone could never compete with.

Keep in mind that if you do end up doing an undergraduate degree in studio art, shooting photos for your art school portfolio will definitely not be the last time you will need high quality images of your artwork! So you might considering purchasing a DSLR camera since it’s a long term investment that you’ll be using the future quite a bit.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Lighting Options

Lighting Kit

You can do it yourself by investing some standard photography equipment. Purchase a lighting kit, (most inclue 2 stand lights with lighting umbrellas) a tripod, with photo flood bulbs that are 500 watts each. These lighting kits cost about $200, and again, are a worthwhile, long term investment. Lighting equipment is generally a once time purchase, once you buy it, you’ll have it forever!

Regular incandescent and florescent lighting are nowhere near sufficient to produce high quality photographs.  These 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.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Photographing Your Artwork


If absolutely cannot afford the lighting equipment, the best (and free) option is to shoot your photographs outdoors. However, this option can be really unpredictable and tougher to control: you never know what kind of lighting you’ll get depending on where you shoot and the weather that way, there are no walls to hang your artwork on, you have to deal with wind and other factors from working outdoors.

If you do shoot outdoors, you want to ideally shoot on a slightly cloudy day, when the light is even and diffused.  A bright sunny day in the direct sunlight can be too bright and it can be challenging to get the lighting to look really even.

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 Prof Lieu saw a professional photographer shoot photos, she was blown away by how amazing the photos looked.  3D artwork that looked ordinary in real life looked remarkable with the lighting and color the photographer was able to capture.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 3D artwork

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, see the image below so see an example of that. It’s easier to shoot the artwork 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 lighting umbrellas are really important to have, they diffuse the lights so that you get soft, even lighting.  Without the lighting umbrellas, you’ll get sharp shadows that are really harsh and the lighting is much tougher to make even.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

What to look for in a photo of 2D artwork

Look for these attributes below for a quality photograph of your artwork. Mistakes are chronic in many student portfolios, and most of these mistakes can be easily prevented with just a few simple adjustments in Photoshop or in how you shoot the photo.

Even Lighting

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.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Neat cropping

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.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Accurate color

Inaccurate color usually happens because the camera setting doesn’t match the type of light.  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.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

High Resolution

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.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

In Focus

Blurry photographs will always be blurry, you can’t fix this in Photoshop. Solid lighting definitely lowers the possibility of getting a blurry photograph.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Avoid Glare

Oil paintings are notoriously 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.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

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.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Adjust the Brightness

If your lighting is insufficient, your artwork will appear too dark. This is one of the main reasons why it’s so much better to invest in a lighting kit.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Remove thick borders

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.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork


No matter how skilled of a photographer you are, you’ll need to do some basic touch ups to your photos in Photoshop. Assuming that you’ve done a decent job of shooting your photographs, fixes in Photoshop should be fairly simply and straightforward:  cropping the image to get neat edges, adjusting the contrast and brightness so it’s accurate to the artwork, correcting the color, etc.

Keep in mind that it’s much, much easier to take the time to shoot good photographs, rather than shooting bad photographs thinking that you will fix everything later in Photoshop. Some people rush through the photography and think they can fix all of the problems in the photo in Photoshop. Even a skilled expert in Photoshop cannot rescue a poorly shot photo, so take the time to get good photos!

Character Design Drawing, Cat Huang

Photographing 3D Artwork

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 3D artwork

Photographing 3D artwork well is really challenging

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.

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.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 3D artwork

The background color really affects how your 3D piece looks

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.

Artist Book with Gouache Paint, Anushka Srinivasan

Lotus Fold Artist Book

Photo here shot with natural light from a window with black duvetyne as the backdrop.

Materials to use for backdrops

In general, an opaque, matte, thick paper is best for backdrops. You don’t want a backdrop that has any sheen on it, as that will reflect the light in a way that will be distracting.

For a white background, we recommend a roll of white drawing paper. Black backgrounds will need duvetyne, a black cloth often times used on film shoots because of it’s special ability to completely absorb light.You might want a lint roller to pick up any white spots on the duvetyne. (or, you can get rid of these spots in Photoshop later)

For a grey background, a sheet of grey charcoal paper works.  Brown butcher paper can be used for a brown background.

With the exception of duvetyne, we don’t recommend using fabric as a backdrop. Fabric wrinkles too easily and therefore your background won’t be smooth and clean. Of course, you could iron the fabric before you shoot the photo, but that takes time you may not have!

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 3D artwork

A poor background can make your 3D piece look really bad

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 a sheet of white drawing paper from a roll to a board or the wall 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 and to the wall behind the artwork, with blue painter’s tape so that it the artwork is secure as you photograph.

The roll of white drawing paper provides a smooth, clean, neat background for the sculpture to sit on. (above left image) Make sure the white drawing paper you use is thick and opaque enough so that when you shine light on it, the light won’t go through the paper. Some paper types are too thin and won’t work for this purpose.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 3D artwork

Crop your photos of your 3D artwork

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 too close to the edges of the piece. (above right image)

Copper Cuff, Annelise Yee

Multiple views of the same 3D artwork

The three images included are different enough from each other that every photo provides new and different visual information about the piece.

Copper Cuff Jewelry

Copper Cuff, Annelise Yee
Copper Cuff, Annelise Yee

Add another view of the 3D artwork, or a close up

For 3D artwork, it’s generally accepted to have 2 or 3 different views of the artwork. If you do include 2-3 images of the same 3D artwork, make sure the views you show are different enough that it’s worth including another image. If the multiple views are too similar to each other, it’s not worth it to waste the space in your slide.

Another option is to include a photo that shows the work close up. Again, the close up has to be dramatic and different enough from the other photos to make it worth it. If the viewer doesn’t gain new visual knowledge of the 3D artwork from the close up photo, it’s probably not worth including.

Lighting 3D Artwork

Foam board Staircase Sculpture

3D Foamboard Staircase Sculptures

Photo here is shot with natural light from a window, on brown butcher paper as the backdrop.

Natural light is best for lighting 3D pieces

The most effective light source is 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, usually a window that faces north will provide diffused light.  Or, you could wait for a cloudy day when the light is soft.

Clay Portrait Sculpture

Portrait Sculpture

Photo here is shot with a natural light from a window with white drawing paper from a roll as a backdrop, taped onto the wall with blue painter’s tape

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. Another problem that can occur is when the direct sunlight creates such a high level of contrast that your highlights will get blown out. This can be avoided if you really know how to use a camera, but it’s tough to fix if you don’t have lots of experience with photography.

If you don’t have a window with the right lighting available, you can also 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. This is just as effective and you can better control the direction of the light since you are working with an artificial light.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Photographing Your Artwork

Figure Sculpture

Photo here is shot with a stand light & lighting umbrella with white drawing paper from a roll as a backdrop, taped onto the wall with blue painter’s tape

Consider the position of your light in relation to the 3D artwork

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.

If you’re not sure which lighting position looks better, lighting from the right or left hand side generally speaking gets pretty good results for most 3D artwork.

Avoid placing the stand light very close to your 3D artwork, (like 5″ away from the artwork) that generally creates harsh lighting.  On the other hand, you don’t want the stand light so far from your 3D artwork (like 4′ away from the 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.

Balsa Wood Sculpture

Carved Balsa Wood Sculptures

Photo here is show with natural light from a window with a black duvetyne cloth as the backdrop

Get Feedback from an Art Teacher or Professional Artist

Don’t work on your art school portfolio by yourself

Creating a portfolio should not be an effort that you have to do entirely on your own.  Yet it’s very common that many students do not take the initiative to seek out feedback and help on their portfolios. Don’t get stuck in your own ways with your portfolio and shut out any outside opinions.  Because inevitably, you’ll need to find out how your artwork is coming across to someone who is not you!

All artists struggle with evaluating their own artwork, and it has absolutely nothing to do with your background and/or experience. Getting outside of your own head is impossible for every artist, and finding something to evaluate your work in an objective manner is hugely important.

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.

Another opinion & point of view on your artwork

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. You can’t wait around for your art teacher to approach you, you have to take action and go to them.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised that many high school art teachers are happy to provide ongoing assistance in your portfolio preparation process.

Many high school students have very little, if any experience with the process of an art critique, so sometimes it can be tough to know what is a helpful comment and what is a less useful comment. If you don’t know what to look for, watch the videos above to get a sense of what a professional art critique is like.  Sometimes if you can watch a critique in action that doesn’t involve your artwork, it’s a lot easier to get a sense of the overall process.

Purchase a Portfolio Critique or Skype Call

If you don’t have access to an art teacher who can provide professional feedback with your portfolio, you might consider purchasing a 30 min. portfolio video critique  or a Skype Call from Prof Lieu or from one of the Teaching Artists.

Our staff have years of experience assisting art students preparing their portfolios for art school admission, and you can request a specific artist to review your portfolio.  Although we each have our own areas of expertise, all of us share the same foundation of visual arts that is necessary to have knowledge of the art school admissions process.

Purchase a portfolio critique

Free Live Art Critiques on our YouTube

You can submit 1-3 artworks and get a free live art critique from 1 of our staff artists on our YouTube channel. You can request a specific artist, and we will try our best to fulfill that request, however please know that we cannot guarantee that you will receive that specific artist for your live art critique.

Submit Your Art for a Free Live Critique

You may have to take art classes outside of high school

Unfortunately, many high school students have underfunded art programs at their schools, so its likely that their art department may not be able to provide the resources you need.

Another option is to take a continuing education course for adults 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. On top of that, many continuing education classes will offer specific subjects such as figure drawing, which are generally not available at most high schools.

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 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.  Most are rigorous programs which provide a good taste of what art school would be like.

Live Q&A Streams

Ask us your questions LIVE on YouTube!

Prof Lieu, Cat, Eloise, Jordan, and Lauryn answer your questions live twice a month on our YouTube from August through February.  Jump into the YouTube Chat Box and ask away!

In these live Q&A streams, we will provide concrete strategies for how to approach creating artworks for the portfolio, suggestions for what art media to include, potential subject matter to explore and much more.

We will direct you towards our tutorials and other resources such as critiques and pro development that will provide the technical support and brainstorming exercises you’ll need to create artworks for your portfolio.

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 art programs across the United States 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.  Some students are hesitant to attend the event their junior year, but actually, that experience is really useful for when you attend as a senior. Going your junior year is much less stressful, you can just to get a feel for how the event works, pick up lots of brochures, and speak to admissions officers without the pressure of wanting to get a portfolio review.  The you can go 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 their 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. It was a crushing experience, and incredibly frustrating, especially  knowing that this event only occurs once a year.

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! That strategy worked though, Prof Lieu was the first person in line and the second they opened the doors, she sprinted to the booth for her top choice school, which guaranteed a portfolio review.

Everyone has a story to tell from attending National Portfolio Day!  Hear stories from Prof Lieu, Lauryn, and Casey on their experiences at the event. (if you have a negative experience at this event, hearing their cringey and embarrassing stories will make you feel a lot better.)

Get ready for some real criticism

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.

Your experience with the reviewers will definitely be a mixed bag; some reviews will give you really useful advice that you can directly apply to your portfolio preparation, while others won’t be as helpful. Don’t be discouraged if you get a tough critique or a rude comment! Keep in mind that the reviewers are there all day, they are talking to tons of students, and have extremely limited time. For the reviewers, it’s an exhausting day which can be trying.

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 comment like this can be really hard to hear, but it’s better to get an honest review than to be told you are all set, and then to discover that wasn’t the case after all at a later time. This event is difficult and it’s common for students to have a frustrating experience.

On the other hand, it’s also up to you to be on your best behavior as well at an event like this.  (don’t do what Prof Lieu did, watch the video above to find out!)

Hear about Cat’s experience at National Portfolio Day, you’ll feel better about spending so much of your time at the event waiting in line!

Tips for attending National Portfolio Day


1) Be gracious, polite, and say “thank you.”
Introduce yourself at the beginning of the reviewer, make eye contact with the reviewer in the eye, and shake hands. Make sure to say thank you when the review is over, no matter how you feel about what they had to say, it’s common courtesy to do so!

2) Research the schools in advance.
Visit National Portfolio Day Association’s website, and make a list of the schools you’re interested in before the event. Next, visit the websites of the schools you’re interested in before the event, so that you know what their focus and emphasis is on.

For example, there’s no point in wasting your time at the event speaking to a reviewer at a school that has no illustration department if illustration is a field you have interest in.

3) Be concise when you speak. 
Prepare any questions you have in advance of the event, and you might even consider taking the time to run the 1-2 sentences by someone else to make sure it makes sense and is clear. These review sessions are quickly paced, you won’t have time to explain your work in a great deal of depth. I

4) Organize your portfolio beforehand. 
Have your physical artwork neatly packaged in a large portfolio case that is easy to open. Nothing is more frustrating, or more of a waste of time, than for a reviewer to have to sift through a giant mess of drawings that are disorganized and therefore difficult to view quickly.

If you’re going to show any images on a tablet or a laptop, (which is totally acceptable) have a folder of the images you want to show prepared in advance. Again, no reviewer wants to sit there and watch you searching for files on your laptop for 10 minutes!

1) Don’t make excuses. 
The reviewers are interested in the work, they’re not interested in discussing why your hard drive crashed 1 hour before the review began or why you’re so busy with your classes and don’t have time to make better work. For the most part, statements like this really don’t get your conversation off to a good start and are not useful at all.

2) Don’t apologize for your work. 
You want to always present yourself and your work in the best light possible.  Speak about your work with confidence and be prepared to answer any possible question with enthusiasm and clarity.  A friend of Prof Lieu’s who is an actress said that the actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman said in an interview once that you always want to do your best work; regardless of whether you are performing for an audience of 3 people in a tiny local cafe,  or in Carnegie Hall for an audience of hundreds.

When you apologize for how bad you think a drawing is, or how when you go into depth about what you’re not good at, there’s a high risk that your statements will be perceived as whiny and immature. This also takes time away from hearing what the reviewer has to say.

3) Don’t be defensive. 
This means not arguing with the reviewer or telling them “but everyone else likes my work!” You’re there to get feedback on your work, not plead your case to a jury. Remember that schools have specific criteria they are looking for, that your work may not necessarily fit what that school wants in a student.

Inevitably, you’re going to speak to some reviewers who you vehemently disagree with.  Instead of starting a fruitless argument stay cool, nod, and then move onto your next reviewer.

One of the toughest things about National Portfolio Day is the overwhelming amount of information you get in such a short period of time. In our experience, it’s hard to even begin to think straight at events like this!   Most reviewers at National Portfolio Day will only be able to give you a 5 minute reviewer, maybe 8 minutes if you are extremely lucky.

Therefore, it’s unrealistic to expect to receive a portfolio review that really is in depth and thoughtful.  You might consider purchasing a 30 min. portfolio critique from our staff if you want a review that goes into much more detail and provides a comprehensive critique of your portfolio.

Art School Portfolio Critiques

Below are many art school admissions portfolio critiques, by our staff here at Art Prof.  Not only will you get a chance to see other art students’ portfolios, but you’ll get to hear our professional response to the pieces.

We state what the strengths of the portfolio are, and speak extensively about concrete improvements that can be made to the portfolio.


Purchase a portfolio critique or Skype call

Roye Zhang
Critique by Alex Rowe

Sofie Levin
Critique by Jordan McCracken-Foster

Vivian Young, Spring 2017
Critique by Prof Lieu

Emily Jiang
Critique by Prof Lieu

Helen Lu
Critique by Prof Lieu

Vivian Young, Fall 2017
Critique by Prof Lieu

Andy Wei
Critique by Prof Lieu

Rachel He
Critique by Prof Lieu

Dessery Dai
Critique by Prof Lieu

More resources available here on Art Prof

Use our many resources here at Art Prof

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 nuts and bolts of creating a career as an artist, while our Art Dares are a great source of motivation and ideas, with a new Art Dare every month.  You can get more involved instructions for projects in our for Project Ideas section.

Our video tutorials provide concrete instruction on techniques from beginning to end, and you can get inspiration by reading columns and videos featuring high schools and college students in our Emerging Artists section.

Can’t get trusted, professional feedback on your portfolio?  Consider purchasing a portfolio critique from one of our staff.

Purchase a portfolio critique

Reach out and contact us!

If you can’t find what you’re looking for, email us, we are happy to help you out!

We are always working to improve this section on art school portfolios, and on our site in general, so if you have any suggestions for content you’d like to see us produce, please reach out and let us know.

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