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How to Build an Effective Portfolio for Applying to a Visual Art Degree

Updated on December 13, 2017

If you are applying to study Visual Arts at a University, most will want an interview and a portfolio review, in which they are looking for specific attributes. Through the application process, feedback I’ve received from many interviewing Professors, and discussing the experiences with fellow students, I have gained some insight into what they are looking for and how to build an effective portfolio.

Go to the open day, talk with faculty and students and make a lasting impression.

Before the interview.
Something that is exceedingly beneficial to helping you get into your chosen discipline is going to the University Open Day to meet with the faculty and students. Try to make an impression. They are more likely to remember someone they saw was genuinely interested and excited, and when you go to your interviews you’d be surprised how many of them mention it. Talk to them about your passions, why you enjoy what you do, and don’t forget to ask questions! Ask about the degree, the facilities, the students, the coursework - basically, act like you’ve already been accepted. Just remember to be polite, and try not to act like a know it all.
One faculty member said because of the small workshop numbers and the closeness of the art community that they more than likely know some of the interviewees before the interviews, and that is a great benefit for them being accepted.

Don't forget to apply to more than one faculty!

Seriously, getting in at all is better than not getting into your first choice. It gives you more opportunity than only applying for one discipline. When you are accepted you can then switch to a different major, or just take electives in your preferred discipline while developing a deeper love of your second and third choice. Be open, and be flexible.

Go to exhibitions.
One of the staple questions I was asked in the interviews was ‘have you been to any art exhibitions?’ They want to know how involved in the community you are. After all it's close knit and most people know each other, learn off one another, and share a wide breadth of experiences and techniques. If you are passionate and want to work in any visual arts field you should already be trying to immerse yourself in the community.

The portfolio you use for a university interview should be different from the portfolio you would use for a job application or freelance work.

Portfolios for University vs portfolios for Career.
Firstly, the portfolio you use for a university interview should be different from the portfolio you would use for a job application or freelance work. This is because your professional portfolio is for showcasing your polished works, to demonstrate technical ability, and to feature your strengths, and overall, should be tailored to the job you are applying for. A portfolio put together for an application to art school, however, needs less finished and polished pieces, and should instead demonstrate your passion, creative scope, experimentation, and working pieces. University Visual Arts disciplines are there to teach you technical skills, and new techniques you will polish to a professional standard over the course of study. What they are actually looking for in an application is passion, dedication, and curiosity, none of which can be taught, but all of which are necessary in great students and a talent artists. Students who are always looking to push the bounds of their mediums and trying new ones are far more desirable than someone who is great at oil paintings in one specific style and not much else, because it shows that you want to learn, explore and create. Being willing to try new things and acknowledging that you will always have more to learn makes for a student who will progress and grow.

Have works that you can talk about.
Knowing the process and the concept behind what you make and being comfortable talking about it helps immensely. It shows forethought and introspectivity, rather than superficial meanings such as ‘because it's pretty’ or ‘it was just an assignment’ - while these are completely adequate reasons to create something, putting more thought into why you chose a particular theme for the assessment, or specifying what about a piece or technique appeal to you, and if you are in fact exploring any cultural features deliberately or not. Such considerations add much more depth to you art.
Knowing the process itself is not only hugely beneficial for you when you are trying to recreate or improve on the technique, but it shows that you are capable of critically understanding a process, which is always a good thing to demonstrate to potential teachers.

Decisions on content. Deciding what to put in the portfolio was hardest for me, as I have a huge body of work in a range of mediums. What it came down to was a few polished pieces that I could talk about easily and in detail. This helps showcase your follow-through, attention to detail, and the depth of your understanding. A majority of the highly polished pieces were in my preferred medium, but I made sure to have some finished pieces in other mediums as well, including some explorative mark making pieces and technical drawings, as most disciplines in visual art like you to have drawing skills. I included early tests for some of the finished pieces as well, as most teachers want to see your working process and preparation. Exploring different ways to achieve effects and in some cases the same effects are crucial to developing your art piece, so showing them off in an interview is also important.

Always include your visual art diary.That has your process, explanations, and idea generation. This book allows them to see what kind of artist you are. It doesn't matter if it's messy, filled with doodles, or a lot of writing, this book is what demonstrates your passion and dedication.

How much is too much?

After talking to the different faculties on open day I was given three or four different answers to the question ‘how many pieces should I have in the portfolio?’ Some suggested as few as 7 pieces, while others wanted everything I had. The idea of making individual portfolios for each of the interviews just wouldn't work - doing that would lead to an overall weaker body of work in each portfolio, or add the stress on the day of rearranging the portfolio to include specific pieces for each interview. What I ended up doing was having as many pieces as I needed to have a strong portfolio which showcased a range of mediums and techniques. Having smaller pieces on one page to show your tests of different techniques and ideas is a good way to consolidate what could be quite a few images into much less space. Another thing I found very useful ways to tailor the number of pieces to what my first choice discipline was. I ended up with 28 or so pieces over 10 pages, with many pieces grouped together by theme or technique. In the end any faculty will appreciate skill in any medium, provided you include enough material to demonstrate you can utilise your skills in a variety of circumstances.

In the end you can only work with the body of art you have created, and that will dictate how you will put together your portfolio. However having a diverse range of pieces ranging from polished ones to tests which showcase your passion, dedication and exploration will be exceedingly beneficial. Be yourself. They are interviewing a lot of people and this is more than likely not their first year doing so. They can tell if someone has genuine interest in the field rather than someone who thinks it will be an easy ride to a degree.


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