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Preparing an Art Portfolio for University: Step Three - The Theme

Updated on December 16, 2009


We’re on to step three!  Click here for the first step, and here for the second if you haven’t already read them.

With this step we’re going to address a concept I keep hearing about in portfolio preparation called ‘Theme’.  According to some, it’s an essential part of making a killer portfolio and a great first impression; but what is it?  We’re going to look at what it actually means to have a theme, different elements of themes, and some examples of themes used the right way.  As always, if you have anything to add, or share then feel free to comment below (or even to let me know if you’re still reading!).

Defining Theme

So what do people mean when they say ‘Give your portfolio a theme’?  Well from looking around, this can fall into two different categories.  The first is tying all the images in your portfolio together by a specific subject matter (such as the figure, light, etc), which can be a problem if you’re going for a more diverse range of images.  The second meaning is also to do with your content, but it’s tied together by a much broader subject (such as life, peace, etc).  Specific and Abstract respectively.

Personally when I talk about theme I’m referring to the more abstract set of rules; this isn’t to say that the other way is wrong (far from it).  As a result, that’s the sort of theme I’ll be discussing here; I’m far from qualified enough to talk about the other sort.

Why Bother With a Theme?

If you’ve ever been told that your work is good but it lacks a certain something/unity/coherence then this Hub is for you.  Themes give purpose to your portfolio, and allow you to tell a story both about your artwork and who you, as an artist, are much easier than an eclectic mix.  It will help to guide you when you’re making new pieces of art, provide inspiration, and (provided you choose the right theme for you) may even make it more enjoyable.

You don’t have to have a theme for your portfolio, but the way I like to look at it is this; You can create a resume (CV) with every item of your job history and every qualification you’ve ever had and you might get asked for an interview, or you can tailor your work history and qualifications to the post you’re applying for and create a more coherent whole.  Which do you think would stand the better chance?

Do you already have a Theme?

Your current artwork may follow a theme without you being aware of it.  From the last step we narrowed down our choices to (hopefully) a manageable amount; look through that and see if there’s anything linking some of your pieces to the others.  Are they based mostly around fantasy? Sci-fi? Dark humour? Animals? Or maybe it’s something less obvious, but they feel like they belong together somehow?

With a little bit of luck, this will help you stumble onto your current personal theme, though if you don’t seem to have one its nothing to worry about.  If you’re happy with the theme you currently have, you can skip over this next bit, but for the rest of us let’s move on.

Finding a New Theme

Think about your hobbies; if you read a lot, what sort of books do you enjoy most?  Play video games – what sort?  Like films; the genre could help you out here.

Think about the things that make you smile.  Sunshine? Rain? Children playing?  Beautiful Gardens?  Castles?

Conversely, think about the things you hate / make you angry.  Disorder?  Injustice?  The way your partner hogs the shower in the morning? (if this happens, I’m not suggesting it does but you get the idea)

In short, think about what makes you yourself.  Or, a nice alternative to this is to think about how you’d like yourself to be seen.  A word of caution with that route though; make sure you’re still presenting yourself with integrity otherwise no matter how pleased the university is with your portfolio, you’ll be miserable doing the work.

Choosing your theme is a very personal thing, so what works for me might not work for you.  For those curious, my own themes are fantasy, hope, contrast and darkness.  All very cliche in and of themselves, but that is the sort of work I enjoy doing.


Now that we have a better idea of what a theme is and what we want ours to be, we can look at how to implement it in our work.  First of all, don’t go back to your art choices before and instantly throw out anything that doesn’t conform to your theme; that’s counter productive.  You don’t necessarily need your theme to span across your entire portfolio so long as its organized correctly (more on that in another step).  You can also have more than one theme, which may or may not be related to the other. 

What we can do though, especially if you’re a little short on your required amount, is look at ways of bringing your theme into your artwork.  Remember that list we made in the last step with the different things we wanted to add to our portfolios (self portrait, life drawing, still life, etc)?  Now’s the time to bring them back out.

Using my own themes (fantasy, darkness, contrast and hope) as an example, we can look at my list and see that I’ve still to create a self portrait.  It’s a fairly specific subject matter (ie. My own face/body), so wouldn’t that limit my ability to turn it into any one of my themes? 

Not that I’ve noticed.  The key here is to take your themes, and interpret them in an interesting way that still conforms to what you’re trying to do with the piece.  Continuing our example, I’m planning on drawing myself twice – once in normal clothes facing to the right, and again in a robe-like garment facing to the left, back to back on the same page.  Its still a self portrait, but it caters both to my contrast theme and my fantasy theme.  Still life drawings can be interpreted in much the same way; follow your theme when setting up your scene then implement it the way your brief says to do so.  Life drawing is another matter and I’d almost suggest keeping them as simple as possible to show your skill (though obviously you can still follow your theme here if you like).

Imaginative work is where you get to go really wild with your theme; my only advice here is to follow the spirit of what you want to achieve and have fun with it.  If art isn’t fun at least some of the time you’re doing it wrong.

Examples of Theme in Use

The following are some examples of online portfolios that follow a theme; some of them are obvious however some are more subtle.  Have a look through and see if you can identify some of them.

iTony’s Portfolio

Johanna Pieterman 

Sergio Gaspar

Enfield Fine Arts

Denis Webb

Newmanhyde’s Portfolio


Hopefully this Hub has helped to address the issue of theme in portfolios; let me know how you get along with yours, or if you have any tips and suggestions!  I'll be back next Wednesday with Step Four - Ordering and Presentation.


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