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Transferring to Art School

I’m a community college student, and I’m preparing the portfolio for transferring. Do art schools have higher demands for college students? Also, I found out that I have troubles to do creative pieces like I can’t really draw or paint based on my imagination. Are creative pieces must-done works for the portfolio?

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

From what I’ve seen, I don’t think that admissions officers in general have significantly higher expectations for a transfer student’s portfolio, it’s probably about the same.

In terms of making portfolio pieces that are more creative, that is absolutely an important component of the portfolio. If your portfolio is full of generic still life drawings and landscapes that simply are accurate visual documentations of what you see, that’s a portfolio that is not going to show your ability to interpret and make a statement as an artist. While technique is important, it certainly isn’t everything, and you need to show in your portfolio your thinking process, and how you develop an idea in your pieces.

I would recommend that you watch this brainstorming tutorial that I shot, it gives you step by step instructions for how to develop your ideas further. So much of that process begins before you even start the final piece, there’s a lot of time that has to be invested in brainstorming and thumbnail sketches first!

We also have several Art Dares that will help exercise your creativity and thinking. Even though some of these Art Dares are over, you can still use them as inspiration for how to get started! I recommend the 2016 October Art Dare, and the 2017 January Art Dare. The 2017 February Art Dare is a terrific brainstorming exercise, it would be a good warm up!

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Deepti Menon, Filmmaker & Animator

Deepti Menon
Animator & Filmmaker

Showing creativity is crucial to you admissions portfolio! Being unique and showing who you are as an artist is something that will really make your portfolio pop!

I think it’s important to remember that a “creative” portfolio piece doesn’t mean you have to invent your own dystopian world with crazy characters from your imagination. You can show creativity in a variety of ways, like through composition, your interpretation of color, how you tell a narrative, and much more!

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Early Decision vs. Regular Decision

I’ll be applying to college this coming academic year, and I’ve been hearing lots of different things about applying early decision. (especially to art colleges)

Some people say that it’s beneficial to apply early because there’s a better chance of getting in, while others say that waiting until regular decision is the right choice. When do you think is the best time to apply, especially to intense schools like RISD?

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

I think that applying early is only a good idea if you area REALLY on top of your portfolio and are totally ready to go. Every year, I see so many students apply early not because their portfolio is strong and ready, but only because they think it will improve their chances. I think applying regular decision with a really strong portfolio is much smarter than applying early with a mediocre portfolio.

Since the portfolio carries so much weight in your application, I think for most students, it’s much better to have those extra months to continue to improve your portfolio. So many students look at an application, create the 20 required pieces and then stop there. I highly recommend make much more work, if the application asks for 20 pieces, make 30 pieces! Then you know you are weeding out the weaker pieces and showing your very best work.

Consistency is also important. I see portfolios all the time where 3 out of the 20 pieces is really outstanding, but then the other pieces are mediocre or unfinished. Most students really need the time to hit that level of consistency and quality.

Check out this art school portfolio video critique on Becca Krauss’ portfolio, I discuss many of the concerns in a portfolio in her critique. Coming this summer: a comprehensive video course on how to prepare an art school portfolio!

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Lauryn Welch, Painter & Performance Artist

Lauryn Welch
Painter & Performance Artist

My take on it is to wait till regular decision because you can use those extra few months to beef up your portfolio. If you use that time wisely, you can make a lot of improvements in just a few months, and that can maximize your chances of getting in.

Also, I don’t remember with the other schools, but RISD’s application deadline coincided with my school’s winter break, so I got to use the break to direct total attention to finishing my home test.

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Casey Roonan, Comics Artist & Cartoonist

Casey Roonan
Illustrator & Comics Artist

I think senior year of high school often marks a huge leap forward for a lot of young artists, whether it’s because of the rigor involved with putting together an AP Art portfolio, art school applications, or just a new level of maturity and discipline. I know, personally, that the majority of the most accomplished pieces I made in high school were completed in the second half of the school year…

I did not apply to any art schools early decision, and I know now that if I had, my portfolio would have been significantly weaker. I can’t say whether or not it would have made a difference in where I was accepted, but I can say that I felt much more confident in the body of my work!

If you’re feeling some anxiety about how your portfolio might stack up, I would definitely recommend going to some college fairs and portfolio reviews and talking with representatives from these schools, if you can. When I was “college shopping” I attended many of these (and in some cases drove a great distance to do so) and found them to be extremely helpful in getting honest feedback about what each school was looking for, and how well my portfolio was actually coming together.

Not only that, but at the time there were a few art schools that would even accept you on the spot if your work was strong enough! I’m not sure if anyone still does this, anymore (and RISD certainly does not), but either way these sorts of events are more worth your time and energy than freaking out about some early acceptance deadline, in my opinion.

That said, you can never start too soon in putting together your portfolio – Be ambitious and give yourself deadlines, by all means, but don’t rush it if you don’t think the work is there, yet.

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Artistic Style

I’ve been wondering for a while now but what are some ways to develop a unique style? A lot of artists I like seem to have distinctive or interesting art but I can’t seem to break out of what I feel is a generic style.

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

The best way to develop your own artistic style is to explore as many different ways of working. It sounds like a contradictory approach, but it’s so important to investigate all of your options before you can figure out exactly what you want to do.

I see so many young artists (even in high school!) who are worried that their artwork isn’t distinctive enough. In my opinion, it’s really important to not force yourself to find a style, if you are worried about it, it probably means you’re not there yet.

Style should be something that happens naturally, over time, don’t force it! This article explains this topic in much greater depth.

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Lauryn Welch, Painter & Performance Artist

Lauryn Welch
Painter & Performance Artist

When you’re a teenager you try on all these identities and groups of people and scenes to figure out who you are, and it’s a lot of feeling around in the dark, but eventually you hit a point of self understanding. I think developing yourself as an artist is really similar. It’s okay to not have a style yet.

In fact, you don’t necessarily want to be stuck within a certain set of style constraints. Collect images by artists that you like and who inspire you. Collect images of things that interest you. Do your own research.

From there, your unique synthesis of these elements will become your own sense of style, your own artistic identity.

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Alex Rowe, Illustrator & Children's Book Artist

Alex Rowe
Illustrator & Children’s Book Artist

It’s an endless journey to find your style! Best to just enjoy the road and not be impatient for the end. As many others have said, look to other artists. Shamelessly borrow from them and use them to learn. Living or dead, keep a note of what you like in art and what you want to create. Make master copies.

You will notice that as you go, you see things that you want to change. When I last made a master copy, I found I wanted to use completely different colors – and those colors that I wanted to use ended up belonging in a future personal painting I made!

Your style, when it comes, will reveal itself slowly over many hours of practice and exploration.

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Finding Inspiration & Ideas

As an art student in high school, I often find myself reliant on a prompt for inspiration and direction. I need to make art for my art school portfolio that are outside of my class assignments, but it has become challenging to think of what to make if I don’t have someone else telling me what to do. How do you decide what to paint/draw/etc. when you don’t have an assignment?

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

Getting started is always the most difficult part for many artists! One way to think about creating artwork is to see your next few pieces as “variations on a theme.” If you choose 1 subject and stick with it for at least 5 artworks, there’s an opportunity there to explore much more in depth with one subject, instead of just skimming the surface. Plus, then you know what to work on for a while, instead of always needing to start from scratch every time you begin a new piece.

For example, my former colleague Bill Flynn had a relative who had this ratty old chair that they were going to throw out. Instead, Bill saved the chair and drew it for the next several years-over, and over, and over again. Eventually he had over 500 drawings of this chair. One would think that spending that much time drawing a chair would get boring really quickly, but it was incredible the way Bill had to stretch his drawing process to sustain his interest. The drawings evolved very dramatically, until eventually he realized that the drawings had become metaphors for war.

Your chosen subject doesn’t have to complicated to be interesting, Claude Monet painted haystacks over and over again. Personally, I can’t think of a more drab subject, but Monet was engaged with color and light in his painting process and the haystacks were the vehicle for his artistic expression.

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Deepti Menon, Filmmaker & Animator

Deepti Menon
Animator & Filmmaker

This is such a common problem! I think referring to old sketches is a great way to get the juices flowing. However, I think it’s more important to just start making something, regardless of how dumb or uninspiring you think it may be. You don’t have to dedicate hours to it even, maybe just 15 min.

Sometimes I just look out my window and draw whatever is there. A lot of the times I find something inspiring during the process, like maybe a color palette created by the houses on my street, or a funny interaction I see on the sidewalk that creates a narrative in my head.

One time, I actually forced my friends to give me sets of three words and would pick one set to create work off of every day. You could even just do a random word generator on the internet. It’s a fun way of giving yourself a really loose and open beginning.

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Alex Rowe, Illustrator & Children's Book Artist

Alex Rowe
Illustrator & Children’s Book Artist

There are two paths that work for me to solve this road block – One is to just draw what you are obsessed with. Follow those deep passions and explore them, and then create art from them.

A great example of passion fueling art is the illustrator Robert Brinkerhoff and his personal work illustrating Dante’s Inferno…he’s been making this for years, and is a wonderful project of love!

The other path is to make what I like to think of as “creative self-sustainability.” Many artist I know have a side-art…for example, I’m an illustrator but I write on the side. A friend is a musician but makes collage on the side. Get in touch with your side-art, and use that relaxed work to inspire your more serious work!

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Drawing from Photos

I’m curious about how to use reference pictures for pieces in my art school portfolio. When I create illustrations, I feel like I rely on my own reference pictures too much. I draw from life often, but I still have a hard time imagining scenarios in my head. How do artists find a balance between using references and using their imaginations?

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

A common problem I see when students work from reference pictures is they only use ONE reference photo to draw from. Not only does this limit the visual possibilities, but I think it makes you too reliant on a single reference to work from. I encourage artists to work from multiple references; perhaps one part of the image is observed from direct observation, while another is referenced from a photo.

For example, if you wanted to draw an image of a flamingo standing next to a tree, you could draw the tree from direct observation, and then draw the flamingo from a photo. (unless you have a pet flamingo) When you have several references you’re working from, you have to be a lot more inventive, it’s less likely that you’ll copy the reference and spend more time thinking about how to stitch all the references together.

Also, when you have to figure out how to visually transition from one reference to another you really HAVE to use your imagination to keep the image from looking like a patchwork quilt!

My former professor Andrew Raftery constructs these elaborate interior spaces out of plywood, and then sculpts wax figures and positions them into the interior spaces. He lights the figures in the interior spaces, creates drawing studies, and then transitions to creating these images into engravings. These models are very time consuming to create, but the results are simply extraordinary.

I’ve created resin sculptures as references for my drawings. It’s a great option because if you want to draw a figure, but can’t afford to hire a model to pose for you, you can still get something that can work pretty well! Drawing from a sculpture grants you enormous flexibility, being able to choose what point of view you use and how you create the lighting is really amazing.

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Lauryn Welch, Painter & Performance Artist

Lauryn Welch
Painter & Performance Artist

Omg, I have the same issues sometimes! I think it’s really hard to just draw up something out of nowhere even if you’re a pro.

There are some cool processes I’ve observed that work in distancing yourself from your reference though. I always try to have a marker drawing of whatever I want to translate to a painting. This is especially necessary if I’m working from photos. I need to be working from a handmade intermediate where I have already made some visual and mechanical decisions and mistakes. This lets the final painting develop in a more organic way.

Another thing I’ve seen that I really love, is that some artists make dioramas as spatial references. They can sculpt figures with clay and position them however they want, they can buy doll furniture, create specific architecture and props, and fix the lighting however they need. Check out Claudia Bitran and Hilary Doyle. Both combine diorama references really successfully into their work!

Some of my friends in art school like Simon Tosky and Jeffrey Heiman used Photoshop to create reference images by stitching different jpegs together and using the paint tool to work on top of them. Also, if you get stuck on whatever you’re working on, you can take a picture of your WIP and test your ideas in Photoshop or print out the image and physically draw on top of it before you risk anything on the original.

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Alex Rowe, Illustrator & Children's Book Artist

Alex Rowe
Illustrator & Children’s Book Artist

There’s a great quote I saw from Iain McCaig, a concept artist, who said “Your first drawing has the thrill of imagination, the next the authority of your research. Your final drawing combines the two, resulting in something familiar, yet strange.”

Not only is this my *favorite* quote on how to sketch, it’s a perfect answer to your question! Every artist has the problem in one way or another – either how to tap into imagination, or how to incorporate studies. Giving yourself time to practice both independently might help you to think of how they work together.

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5 responses on "FAQ: Applying to Art School"

  1. Every realm of getting your art out there has different rules – what works for instagram might not work for facebook, for instance – but the main ideas stay the same: show growth, and show consistency in your work ethic and your style and your following will slowly build up. A great phrase I heard in college that I constantly remind myself of is “A crummy artist who gets their work out there will find some work; a gifted artist who keeps their work in their room will get no work.”

    Find your tribe – while hashtags for instagram like #artist are good, if you get specific to find other artist that you want to be a part of you’ll get an online presence faster. Things like #stilllife #conceptart searches will help you find other artist like you, and help them discover you as well!

  2. There are definitely little Instagram hacks like using lots of semi-popular hashtags, entering features held by major IG users, and posting pictures of cats, but I think you’re best off trying to establish as many genuine relationships you can with people in the art community that you like.

    Most artists, even the well known ones are open to conversations with emerging artists, even if it’s over email or a Facebook comment, and as long as you maintain these relationships, with time you will become a part of that community.

    It’s not quite being viral, but it’s a much more stable and satisfying way of being noticed and included!

    • Even though you hear all the time about an image or video going viral, I’m not convinced that going viral really does that much. Sure, your work gets viewed by a crazy number of people, but I don’t think that’s the same thing as having a loyal following who really does have a genuine, in depth interest in your work! Just because someone sees your viral video, it doesn’t necessarily convert them instantaneously to being a big fan of your work.

  3. I’ve recently been using Tumblr a lot and realizing the potential of its online community. There are a lot of blogs on Tumblr that are solely dedicated to posting user-submitted artwork. This is a great way to have your work featured on another blog, simply by submitting, and starting a conversation with others in the community.

  4. I would make sure that you are on multiple social media platforms, (not just Instagram) and that you are interacting on those platforms. Having your work on those platforms is important, but it’s just not enough to post your work; it’s good to follow other artists, make comments on their work, stay active! Keep in mind that building an online presence takes time and work, it’s an ongoing task that you have to stay on top of in order to reap the rewards.

    For contests, try our monthly Art Dares!

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