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Making an Art School Portfolio

Updated on May 10, 2013

Gesture Study

Gesture study, tempura on Canson Mix Media paper, 9x12
Gesture study, tempura on Canson Mix Media paper, 9x12 | Source

Fine Art Schools

If you are planning to apply to an art school, you already know that you need to submit a portfolio of your art. What you may not know is that it matters what work you submit. Schools look at your portfolio to decide whether or not you are a good fit for their program, as well as to get an idea about where you stand currently as an artist.

One of the best ways to understand what schools are looking for in an art portfolio is to attend one of the National Portfolio Days hosted by the National Portfolio Day Association in or near the city where you live. On a National Portfolio Day, you visit a host location where many art school representatives will look at your portfolio. They will offer you suggestions on what their school is looking for and ask you a few questions about your work and what you are looking for in an art school. For National Portfolio Day, your portfolio will consist of your original art pieces, to the extent possible, or high-quality art photocopies.

Observational Drawing

Pencil on Canson paper 9x12, 2012
Pencil on Canson paper 9x12, 2012 | Source

Art Portfolio

An art portfolio consists of 10 to 20 pieces of art of your own making, pieces that help to define who you are as an artist. It shows your currently level of mastery of line, composition, tonal value, color, observational drawing,and other areas of the artistic process. If you are applying to art school as a freshman, you aren't expected to know everything, but you should be able to express your talent through your work in some fashion.

Art schools have different submission criterion when it comes to a portfolio. Some want to see examples from your sketchbook all the way to oversized paintings. Most schools don't want to see only work you did in your high school art class; they want to see beyond assignments.

What Should You Not Include in a Portfolio?

The work you did in middle school or elementary school may not reflect where you stand today as an artist. Even if the work is very good, you may have newer pieces that are more reflective of your current ability and interest. Pieces completed within the last year or two are best, and should reflect your very best work in that time frame.

Should My Portfolio Reflect My Style?

Style is a tricky word, and you may not want to be pigeon-holed or described by any particular style. Rather, think of your portfolio as telling a story of sorts. The story is about you and where you are with your art, what inspires you and how that inspiration comes forth in your work.

What to Include in an Art Portfolio

Your portfolio pieces should show your range as an artist, in a variety of mediums, that shows your current understanding of foundational art skills. That said, a strong portfolio with pieces done only in pencil is certainly possible, but strength also comes from range and depth. Therefore, think about including pieces that show color, different mediums (paints, pencils, crayon,) and a variety of subject matter.

  • Include pieces that have had some type of critique, such as in your art class or by fellow artists. It's easy to fall in love with a piece that you've created and not notice that the perspective is off, or that the light source is ill-defined. Even if you made some choices with intent, remember that your portfolio will be examined in context with perhaps hundreds of others, and that there is strength in good, scholarly technique.
  • Include a series, if you can, that shows something about your process. For example, if you did a portrait in charcoal, and then painted the same subject in acrylics on cardboard, the two pieces together can show things about the choices you make as an artist. Similarly, include rougher sketches of a subject as well as the completed painting to show your technique, your thoughts about composition, and other artistic choices you made.
  • Include over-sized pieces. This can help to show how you compose in large scale and your overall understanding of large-scale painting. For incoming freshman, over-sized pieces may help to set you apart, provided you can do them well.
  • Include detailed, completed pencil drawings that show shading and grounding in the space. Often, students don't spend enough time on a drawing, preferring only to sketch the basic subject and leave it at that. For a portfolio piece, it's important to show where you are in terms of line quality, understanding of tonal value, and other basic art principles.
  • Include paintings that show your ability to use color, and use unusual media or mixed media. Show that you've explored and learned something about different artistic media.
  • About half of your portfolio should include observational art, that is, drawings and paintings of what you observed from life. This is different from drawing from photos, and often is not well covered in public high schools. Observational drawing is a skill that takes time to gain, and colleges like to see that you have gained an artistic eye through seeing.

Art Portfolio Preparation for Otis College of Art and Design


National Portfolio Day Association - offers perspective art school students a chance to have their portfolios reviewed by art school representatives and their questions answered.

Otis College of Art and Design - Respected Los Angeles based arts college with a summer portfolio preparation program through continuing education

Maryland Institute College of Art - Portfolio preparation courses for teens

Making an Art Porfolio

It's very important to understand the format a school requires for submitting a portfolio. Every school is different in how they approach this, so the best way to find out is to go to the school's website and read what their requirements are.

Some schools prefer that you submit a CD of digital representations of your work. They may even specify pixel and size requirements. You will want high quality digital photos that represent your work in the best possible way, or art quality digital reproductions by scanning. It is worth the cost to hire a professional photographer who has experience photographing art or to go to a art reproduction professional who can scan your work for you. If you cannot afford professional services, take well-lit shots of your work against a plain background. Prop each piece up on your easel for photographing, but make sure there is nothing distracting on your easel that could take away from your art. Check the incline of the easel and photograph straight-on so you don't introduce any foreshortening of your completed piece. Read the instructions given by the art school for any tips they have to offer regarding how to best photograph or digitize your art and follow their advice.

Other schools have you upload your photos or scans to a special portfolio page that is set up when you submit your art school application. Don't wait until the last minute to upload your work! Any number of technical glitches can occur, so you want to leave yourself time to deal with them and get help if needed..

Generally speaking, schools expect you to be able to state the title of the work, the media used, the size of the work, and the date it was completed.

Building a Portfolio

Building up enough pieces for a portfolio takes time. You can't expect to complete 20 pieces in a month, for example. In the year prior to applying to art school, seek out portfolio preparation courses, private art classes, or "art crawls" where you can create art that might find its way into a portfolio. Be diligent, be purposeful, and soon you will have a great student portfolio to submit to the art school of your choice.


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    • SmartAndFun profile image


      4 years ago from Texas

      Thank you for this. My daughter is 15 and wants (needs, really) to study art at a university when she graduates high school. I am already stressing over her getting accepted somewhere. As I understand it is very competitive, so the advice in this article is appreciated.


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