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Preparing an Art Portfolio for University: Step One - Dos and Don'ts

Updated on December 2, 2009

What this is, and what this isn't.

For the next few Hubs I'm going to be talking a little about a subject that's especially important to university students over the next few months (myself included). There's probably going to be four parts in all once I'm done, though I reserve the right to change this if I need to.

Ok, so lets start with a brief introduction; This Hub is about the general Dos and Don'ts of portfolio preparation, and the way it changes in relation to your audience. This isn't going to go into too much detail about art portfolios for applying for work (I've no personal experience of that at least :) ), and I'm not going to claim that its the definitive list. What I will say, is that there's a good chance based on what I've learned from speaking to universities in this country, tutors, and so on that if you have the right level of talent and follow at least some of these steps it could boost your chances. If you've any more suggestions, as always, feel free to send them to me and I'll add it in.

The List

So now that we've covered some basic stuff, here's my list of Dos and Don'ts;


  • Present all your work neatly, in a logical order (get your art teacher/tutor to help you if possible)
  • Include only the work you're proud of.  It should be your best work, work you can talk about comfortably and happily, or life drawing.
  • Get advice!  Talk to your art teacher, talk to the university you're applying to; it'll help you understand what you need to create and where to push yourself to have the best chance possible.
  • Research your choices.  I can't stress this enough, look at what the students on the course you're applying to are producing by their final year; this will not only give you some insight into how the course works and whether you want to be on it or not, but it'll help give your portfolio some focus.
  • Create a sketchbook.  If you don't have one, start one.  It can be full of anything you want, drawings, sketches, scribbles, doodles, writing, scraps of things you find interesting, whatever - sketchbooks show people how you think and come up with your ideas.  As my lecturer is fond of saying, the more chaotic the better.
  • Show a broad range of skills.  I don't necessarily mean draw, photograph, sculpture... I mean show different subjects; people, vehicles, landscapes, abstract, whatever tickles your fancy.  A variety of different mediums and styles also seems to be beneficial, as well as a mixture between colour work and gray-scale.


  • Panic.  You still have time before your portfolio is due for submission, if you start working on it now it'll probably be done on time.
  • Overfill.  It'll be tempting, once you start, to put in every piece of work you own that's half decent (or otherwise in some cases) - resist.  We'll go over this a bit more in the next hub, but until then, try not to add more than you need to.
  • Fail to present.  This is a big one, basically if you don't present your work in a manner that they're pleased with sometimes your portfolio will be put in the 'failed application' pile without even being looked at properly.  Again we'll go over this together in a later hub, but so long as you've not got bits of paper hanging out everywhere, smudges on your mounts, and things look relatively neat you should be ok here.
  • Put in anything you're not happy to talk about.  I don't care who says its good, if you personally don't like it and they talk to you about it at the interview they're going to catch on straight away.  Its not worth it, and the only time I'd even consider doing that would be when its the technically best piece of work you've done (and even then I'd be dubious).

Some General Guidelines

The requirements will vary a little from university to university, but in general they ask for some examples of life drawing (to show an understanding of form, lighting, interpretation and suchlike), still life (any scene so long as you're drawing it from objects right in front of you), and some imaginative pieces of your own.

Sometimes they'll ask for more pieces, but usually the standard is between 10 and 30.  Personally I'm aiming for 20, since I'm applying to two different universities and that's within the range of both of them. 

If you happen to be going into university after a specialised course, or you have artwork that's difficult to include in a traditional portfolio (sculptures, models, photography, 3D artwork, etc) they recommend that you photograph the pieces where appropriate and create colour printouts of them.  For animations and suchlike, some universities let you submit a burned DVD along with your work.

When in doubt about a universities specific guidelines, go ahead and call/email them! Usually they're more than happy to help and you'll often find your answers quicker than trying to muddle through on your own.  Look on their website first though, as sometimes they have sections devoted to portfolio preparation.

Parting Message

Don't worry if you still have questions after this Hub, as I mentioned in the introduction there's at least another three to follow it.  If you have any queries or suggestions then feel free to add a comment or send me a message.

Other than that, all that's left to say is thank you all for reading and I'll see you next time with Step Two: Content and Themes.


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    • Tylina Vespart profile image

      Tylina Vespart 7 years ago from Scotland

      @artdesign - Sorry about the delay! I think your first port of call should be to check with the universities or colleges you're applying to. Some will accept paintings on canvas as part of a portfolio, others won't.

      Personally I'd go for a photograph, however as I said, check with the universities themselves.

    • profile image

      artdesign 7 years ago

      What about oil painting on canvas? Only supply photograph?

    • profile image

      free art portfolio 7 years ago

      great article with some really usefull advice

    • profile image

      gareth 7 years ago

      Don't forget about, it has the advantage that's its 100% free