Ask the Art Professor: What are common mistakes in college portfolio submissions?

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Welcome to “Ask the Art Professor“! Essentially an advice column for visual artists, this is your chance to ask me your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, a technical question about a material, etc.  Anything from the smallest technical question to the large and philosophical is welcome. I’ll do my best to provide a thorough, comprehensive answer to your question. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by posting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously. Read an archive of past articles here.

“This year, I’ll be a junior in high school. It feels like this is my last year to improve my techniques before working on portfolios for college…sometimes it’s too much pressure to think about how I’ll be stacked up against many talented kids my age during the college submission process. Everyone is so wonderful and talented!  What are common mistakes in submissions? What shows the difference between a weak student and a strong student? I have one year left to prepare – what should I specifically focus on to improve my chances?”‘

A strong student will command not only technical mastery over their material, but also be innovative and passionate in terms of their subject matter and approach.  On the flip side, you can have a weak student who may have good technique, but perhaps is working with subject matter that is obvious and cliche. A strong student’s work will stand on it’s own, and not look like it’s lifted from some other artist or style. A weaker student might copy something from somewhere else.  Strong students are prolific and experimental with their art materials; they are willing to try out unusual methods for handling their art materials.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, a weaker student might use the same art materials all the time, and use them in a predictable, common manner.

There are a number of “classic” mistakes that I see over and over again when evaluating portfolios for college. I can guarantee if that if you avoid these mistakes like the plague, that you will automatically have a major advantage over a significant portion of the other applicants. Remember, admissions officers have looked at literally thousands of portfolios, and most of these mistakes are nothing new to them.  Making any of these mistakes will get you eliminated from the acceptance pile very quickly.

In conjunction to this list below, also be sure to read this article I wrote, which talks about what you can specifically focus on to improve your chances.

1) Copying from photographs. To a trained eye, it’s generally glaringly obvious when something has been copied from a photograph. Drawing from a photograph is a cheap shortcut. Not only are the results always lousy, but copying from photographs will only develop bad habits that will be difficult to “undo” later. (read this article I wrote which states reasons for why you should draw from direct observation)

2) No anime, manga, or fan art. Period. Don’t even think about it.

3) Poor quality photographs of the art itself. Invest the time and money into photographing your artwork properly. Too often I see terrible photographs of good artwork, which makes me nuts. With digital photography, this is affordable and easy to accomplish, it just takes time and labor. This means properly cropped images, even lighting throughout the image, images that are in focus, etc.

4) Blank backgrounds.  Art students in high school will frequently create images focusing so much on their main subject matter that they leave the background blank.  Be the exception and work on the background as much as you work on everything else in the image, and create backgrounds that are just as lively and engaging as the main subject.

Related articles:
“What is the purpose of a degree in fine art?”
“What should you include in an art portfolio for art school or college?”
“When you have a fine arts degree, what do you do for the rest of your life?”
“How do you preserve your artistic integrity within the strict time limitations in an academic setting?”
“Is art education really so popular in western countries?”
“What do you do after you’ve finished formalized training?”
“Should art students study abroad even if it distracts from job preparation?”
“Who should you make art for, yourself or your professor?”

Ask the Art Professor: What should you include in an art portfolio for art school or college?

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Welcome to “Ask the Art Professor“! Essentially an advice column for visual artists, this is your chance to ask me your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, a technical question about a material, etc.  Anything from the smallest technical question to the large and philosophical is welcome. I’ll do my best to provide a thorough, comprehensive answer to your question. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online. Read an archive of past articles here.

Here’s today’s question:

“In general, what kind of things should one include in their portfolio when applying to undergraduate colleges/universities?”
Every school is going to have their own unique set of requirements, so be sure that you check that first. I recommend re-reading the guidelines multiple times as you’re working on your portfolio to be certain at every stage that you are following their precise requirements. The tips I offer below are basic essentials that should apply to most schools.
1) Create original work from direct observation.
This is hands down the number one, absolutely essential thing to do that many students fail to do. Just doing this one directive will put you light years ahead of other students. Do not copy your work from photographs or other sources. This means no fan art, no anime, no manga, nothing from another artist’s work.  Admissions officers have seen hundreds, probably thousands of images from student portfolios.  They are well trained to quickly spot artworks that have been copied from photographs or that have been lifted from other resources. Don’t think the admissions officers will be able to tell the difference?  You’d be amazed at how sharp they are.
2) Have a variety of subject matter.
This demonstrates your willingness and interest to work with different topics. Figures, self-portraits, still lifes, landscapes, interiors, are all excellent subjects to address in your portfolio.  Admissions officers don’t want to see a portfolio of twenty self-portraits.  A portfolio with only one topic comes across as narrow minded and limited.
3) Every piece must be a finished work and be neatly presented.
Be sure that everything in your portfolio is a work that has been 100% fully realized.  Unless the school specifically requests to see images from a sketchbook, assume that they want to see finished works. This means no white backgrounds, no dirty fingerprints, no ripped edges, no half finished figures, etc.
4) Demonstrate versatility in a range of different media.
This exhibits that you have taken the initiative to learn and hone skills in contrasting media.  It shows that you have more than one skill set, and can move fluidly from one media into the next. Include drawings, paintings, sculptures, mixed media, digital media, printmaking, or anything else that you’ve had experience with.
5) Strong drawings are key.
Accomplished drawings are above all else, the heart of a successful portfolio when applying at the undergraduate level. You might be a wizard in digital media, but none of that will matter if you have poor drawings.
If possible, show your portfolio to an art teacher whose opinion you trust, and who has experience helping students get into an undergraduate program. They can aid you in weeding out the weaker works, and provide invaluable advice about what direction to head in.
Finally, the real test of the strength of your portfolio is attending a local National Portfolio Day event, where representatives from art schools and colleges with solid art programs across the country are available to critique your portfolio in person.  If you’re really serious about being accepted into a high caliber undergraduate art program, this is the event to go to. Be ready for very long lines and huge, overwhelming crowds.  (especially at the big name schools like RISD) The first year that I went as a junior in high school, despite having waited 2 hours in line, I didn’t even get a review from RISD because the line was so obscenely long that at a certain point they just turned people away.  The second year I went, having learned my lesson the year before, I went to wait in line for the doors to open two hours in advance-I was the first person in when the doors opened.
At this event, brace yourself for harsh words.  It’s not uncommon for students to be told at National Portfolio Day that they essentially have to start over from scratch because their portfolio is headed in the wrong direction. Reviewers will be candid and direct about the quality and type of work that their school is looking for, so don’t be discouraged if you get a tough critique. Rather, be glad that you got the feedback you needed to get yourself headed in the right direction.
Like this post?  You might enjoy this 42 minute video interview I did on how to get into art school and choose a course of study.