by Soliana Habte

A successful art school portfolio demonstrates an applicant’s technical skills, artistic style, interests, and overall development while also conveying why they are applying to a particular program. In order to create a fantastic portfolio, you will need a wide selection of artworks to choose from, so it is extremely important to begin as early as possible.

Art schools want to see evidence of your creative process, and to get an idea of how you think and what motivates your work. For this reason, many schools will ask for sketchbook pages or accept works in progress. Including a variety of media in your portfolio is better and more interesting than simply showing your best pieces in any given media. If you draw or paint, balancing out your portfolio with sculpture, video, or performance will show a high level of curiosity, which is a vital quality for artists.

While preparing an art portfolio may seem daunting, there are some great strategies you can use to make your application stand out.

  1. Make sure you follow the requirements. Every school will have different requirements, so the specific criteria for each program will help you decide what to include. Some schools want to see sketchbook pages and works in progress, while others ask for fully realized artworks. As a result, you will likely need to make a slightly different portfolio for each school. This means that you will need to rethink how your set of images and videos work together each time you add or remove artworks. It is critical to know how many pieces are required, the image and video requirements for uploads, and if there are any additional requirements for your program. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions about a program’s requirements, or what they are looking for in an applicant.
  2. Show a variety of media and techniques. Ideally you should demonstrate a variety of media in your portfolio if you are applying to an art program. Even if some of these works aren’t as developed as your main medium, attempting to work with new materials shows an aptitude for experimentation, which is fantastic! On the other hand, you shouldn’t include poor quality work just to appear multidisciplinary. If you work in one medium, and are applying for a specific program, like photography, then you should show a few different styles, like portraits, landscapes, and still lifes.
  3. Your portfolio should be a visual representation of you that shows your personality and what you’re excited about. Your portfolio should show your unique perspective, as well as the issues and themes you are exploring in your work. Artworks inspired by your upbringing and where you come from are usually the best way to create cohesion across the various works in your portfolio. Of course, art schools want to see technical ability, but they are more interested in seeing how you are using visual art to process and explore the world around you. You’re not expected to be a fully-developed artist before even beginning your undergraduate degree, but your portfolio should indicate how you will approach art-making during your BFA.
  4. Consider including observational works. Many schools will ask you for observational or life drawings created from a real object or person. It is super important that you draw these from life, not memory or photographs. These works demonstrate fundamental art knowledge and can show versatility when combined with abstract or conceptual work. Drawing from direct observation is a great way to create original work, and becoming rare among high school art students, so this is a great way to stand out! Avoid including works that you’ve copied from other artists including anime, manga and celebrity portraits. Experiment with crayons, pastels, charcoal, chalk and ink in addition to drawing with pencil. If you don’t draw, don’t feel compelled to include drawings when they aren’t required. Though some schools, like RISD, currently emphasize drawing, others, such as Parsons, don’t have any mandatory requirements for classic media at this time.
  5. You must effectively document your work! It doesn’t matter how good your work is if it’s photographed poorly. Make sure your artworks are lit well, shown in a clean space, mounted evenly etc. Use high-quality images and make sure you follow the specifications for image and video size. Although photography is usually the best way to document your work, for some projects, like 3D sculptures or books, video can be a better choice. It is better to have a smaller, refined portfolio with fantastic images than a larger one with lower quality photographs.
  6. Get someone else’s input. I can tell you from experience, it is impossible to be objective about your own work. You know the motivation behind a piece, as well as the process of making it, which can make it really difficult to judge your own work. Ultimately your opinion is the most valuable, but getting feedback from other people will inform the way you are looking at your work in a very constructive way. Usually when I work with students, they only want to show me their favorite final pieces. I always encourage them to also consider pieces that show their curiosity and development in addition to skill. Art teachers, admission counselors, and art school graduates can help you decide what to include in your portfolio.

Remember that applying to art school is just as rigorous (if not more rigorous!) than applying to a liberal arts university. Creating a strong portfolio requires you to be thoughtful, critical, and vulnerable. This is not an easy task, but it is a wonderful opportunity to show a school your potential while giving them insight into your creative process. Before you submit your portfolio, make sure that your application clearly articulates why you are passionate about making art and how