Art Supply Store Recommendations

As part of my “Art Supply Tips” series, I thought it would make sense to share my recommendations for art supply stores that I’ve accumulated over the years. Some are specific to the NYC and Boston area, but you can order from almost all of these stores online.

You would think artists would only need to shop at one art supply store, but I have always had to shop at several stores to obtain everything I need. In many circumstances, I have had to research and hunt extensively to find obscure materials. If you can’t find what you need, I recommend talking to store managers to see if they can help you track down an item.  The RISD Store manager once helped me find and special order 7′ x 4′ sheets of Dura-Lar that I would never have found on my own.

General Art Supplies:

Make sure you go to a professional art supply store.  While some craft stores like Michael’s and AC Moore do sell some art supplies, their inventory is very limited and items are frequently much more expensive than they would be at a professional art supply store. I happened to be at Michael’s once, thinking I might as well pick up a sketchbook while I was there. The sketchbook was $20, so I didn’t buy it, and the following week I picked up a similar sketchbook at the RISD Store for $8.


Dick Blick
Dick Blick has an excellent range of professional art supplies.  They’re the art supply store I go to first, and I can usually count on them to have the vast majority of art supplies that I need for both myself and for teaching.


New York Central Art Supply
I am embarrassed to admit that I never went to this store when I was living in NYC.  I love that they are an independent art supply store, and their paper inventory is legendary among artists.


Your local hardware store
I spend almost as much time at my local hardware store as I do at the art supply store. The art supply stores often carry the same items, but these items are almost always less expensive at a hardware store. I am always stocking up on tape, sand paper, solvents, cleaning supplies, and tools. On top of that, usually within 2 minutes of walking in the door, someone always asks me what I need.  I try to avoid Home Depot if I can, (although sometimes it’s unavoidable) I find shopping there to be really unpleasant.  I’ve had the staff there literally walk in the other direction when I was asking for help, and the overwhelming size of the store makes finding what you need daunting.

Sculpture Supplies:


The Compleat Sculptor
When I was completing my MFA in sculpture in NYC, I was constantly making runs to this store.  This store has a dazzling array of obscure tools, and everything related to mold making and casting, and much more.  The other students and faculty complained all the time that their prices are too high, and one of my teachers always called it “The Compleat Rip-off.”  However, given how specialized their materials are, the incredible selection, and the knowledgeable staff, I think their prices make sense. Their website isn’t easy to navigate, so if you don’t know what you’re looking for in advance it can be tricky to browse.  If you can visit the store in person, you’ll develop a better sense of their inventory and know how to order online more easily.


RISD 3D Store
The RISD 3D Store is like the love child of an art supply store and a hardware store.  They have a wonderful range of sculpture materials/tools/hardware supplies, and unlike hardware stores, the staff know that you are shopping there because you’re an artist. The best aspect of this store is that you can have materials custom cut for you.  You can custom order sheets of plexiglass, plywood, plastic, glass, etc., cut to any size you want, in any quantity. You can get large scale canvas frames built and stretched, and sculpture armatures constructed as well. This store is also the only place where I’ve been able to have untempered masonite custom cut. (tempered masonite is not good for artwork)

Amherst Potter’s Supply
I usually buy ceramic clay for creating sculptures from this local ceramic supplier in Hadley, MA. If you live in MA and order online, you can get your materials in 1-2 days.  If you’re in the NYC area Jack D. Wolfe is an excellent ceramic retailer.

Printmaking Supplies:

The selection of printmaking supplies available at most art supply stores is always terrible. These stores carry about 5% of what a professional printmaker needs. The printmaking supplies also tend to be crazy over priced at most general art supply stores . Once, I was desperate to buy some tarlatan, and I felt scandalized by how much I paid for a tiny scrap of tarlatan at Dick Blick.   If you’re serious about printmaking, you’ll have to order all of your supplies online.


When I was in graduate school in NYC, my printmaking professor suggested Metalliferous to buy copper plates for intaglio printmaking.  Not only were the copper plates well priced, but they had an amazing range of sizes and thicknesses of copper plates. I highly recommend visiting in person, this store is an extraordinary treasure of metal supplies.  Every nook and cranny in the store was densely packed with any metal supply you could imagine.


Renaissance Graphic Arts
I personally haven’t ordered from this company before, but when I used to teach printmaking at a college in Boston, this is where the the printmaking department purchased all of their supplies.


Graphic Chemical and Ink
This store is where I order the vast majority of my printmaking supplies, they pretty much have everything you need for printmaking. I happen to really like their etching ink, ever since I discovered their Renaissance Black Etching ink, I’ve been completely addicted.


Tools for Working Wood
In graduate school, I created a series of large scale woodcut prints.  The woodcut tools that I purchased at the general art supply store were awful; the shape of the tools was awkward, and carving the wood with these tools was downright painful.  My printmaking professor recommended Ashley Iles carving tools that were available only at this store.  I loved visiting this store, it was one of those tiny hole in the wall stores in NYC, with a guy behind the counter who was quite a character. Unlike my old tools which were straight, the Ashley Iles tools were back bent, creating a much more comfortable position for your hand when carving.  The tools were incredibly sharp, and there seemed to be an endless variety of shapes and gouges. I felt like I went from carving wood to carving butter because of these tools. At $37 a tool, (I bought 6 tools) I felt financially traumatized, but the tools completely revolutionized my woodcut technique and were worth every penny.



The Picture Place
Some artists frame their artwork themselves to save money, but nothing compares with the quality of a professional custom framing job. Custom framing is expensive, but poor framing is always glaringly noticeable and can make your artwork look terrible. Finding a good framer is like finding a good car mechanic, you either need a good reference or you have to be really lucky. When I lived in Jamaica Plain in Boston, I chose a frame shop just because it was nearby. The framers there were really friendly and helpful, and that’s where I met the framer I who I work with exclusively now.  He eventually moved to the Picture Place in Brookline, MA, and he has framed all of my artwork for over 15 years.  I trust him to make excellent framing choices for me.

Photography supplies & services:


B & H Photo Video
Generally speaking, I get all of my photography equipment from B&H.  They’re located in NYC, but they ship very quickly and usually I can get what I need within 1-2 days. The one caveat with this store is that they don’t process orders from Friday evenings to Saturday evenings, and they are closed on every Jewish holiday.

Color Services
This is a high end photography lab, they do printing for some of the most renowned visual artists in the Boston area. I have only used them once, to print photographs of my beeswax face sculptures. I was astounded by the range of options that were available in terms of paper choices, mounting, surfacing, etc. They are not cheap, but it is definitely worth it if you’re serious about getting high quality prints made.

New Series: Art Supply Tips

Studio View

I enjoyed writing yesterday’s post about charcoal supplies, and given the fact that people are always asking me about art supplies, I thought I would create a new series of articles called “Art Supply Tips“. In these articles, I will provide recommendations with detailed explanations of art supplies. Most art supplies work in conjunction with others, so each article will present a set of supplies with individual descriptions of each material in the set. I will archive these articles on this page, which you can see on my menu bar.

While the majority of the artistic process is about what you do with the supplies, choosing and shopping for art supplies is a huge process in itself. Just knowing where to shop is complicated; I almost always have to shop at 4 different stores, and sometimes I have to do extensive research to find what I need.  Selecting art supplies is different for everyone, and ultimately every artist has to troubleshoot and experience each material for themselves. Once you gain experience with a breadth of art supplies, you’ll know what your personal preferences are. While I always encourage my students to experiment with art supplies on their own, I do believe that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Getting recommendations from a professional can save you hours of fruitless labor.

As a professor, I have observed that many of the struggles art students have frequently occur because of either 1) poor choice of art supplies, or 2) because they aren’t using a full range of tools. Many of the problems that art students have simply wouldn’t exist if they had been better informed of what to purchase.  I have found that most art students have no idea what to buy, so I hope these articles will be effective launching pads.

As an art student, I experienced a lot of unnecessary frustration because I had poor quality supplies, or because I just didn’t know certain tools existed. My sophomore year at RISD, I had been exasperated by how muddy the colors in my oil paintings were . The day I started cleaning my brushes properly with a silicoil brush cleaning tank, my oil paintings instantly became more vibrant. Discovering this brush cleaning tank didn’t happen until after I had been taken at least 4 oil painting classes.


Choosing art supplies became even more critical when I started teaching.  I try to be conscious that most art students are on a limited budget, but at the same time, I want to ensure a smooth experience for my students. At RISD, I send my students a highly detailed materials list (see image below) before the first day of class. The staff at the RISD Store love my materials lists, too often students are given materials lists that are vague and confusing. Consequently, students don’t know exactly what to buy, which results in many returns and/or wasted purchases.  In my materials lists, I am explicit about details like sizes and manufacturers, but I also provide photos of each supply on the materials list, making it easy for students to identify what they need in the store.


My philosophy on how much to spend on art supplies fluctuates depending on the situation. There are several circumstances where I think it is totally fine to use a cheap, crummy supply, while other times I am adamant that a specific brand that is costly must be used. I was a poor art student once, and I definitely sympathize with the desire to save money on art supplies whenever possible. On the other hand, I know that saving money on a cheaper item is sometimes not worth the headache that cheap supply will cause.  I’ll be sure to mention alternatives to suit any budget, noting the disadvantages/advantages of each choice.

Art Supply Tips: Charcoal Drawing


Today’s post is the first in a new series of articles called “Art Supply Tips“. In these articles, I will provide recommendations with detailed explanations of art supplies. Most art supplies work in conjunction with others, so each article will present a set of supplies with individual descriptions of each material in the set.


Charcoal is an effective material for developing various approaches to drawing because of its versatility and flexibility. Charcoal is a relatively fast drawing material, and encourages students to draw in a bolder, more aggressive manner.   The range of contrast you can achieve in charcoal is unrivaled, and there is no limit to the kinds of marks you can make. There’s a strength and body to charcoal that will never be present in pencil, which as a medium is inherently more grey and weaker in tone.


Below are my supply recommendations for drawing with charcoal.  I’ve spent over a decade troubleshooting various brands in my drawing classes at RISD, and these are the most effective supplies I’ve come up with.

Charcoal paper


I recommend Strathmore 500 Series Charcoal paper pads. You can buy a roll of Strathmore drawing paper if you want to work on a larger scale.  Charcoal paper has a slight texture to it, which allows the powder of the the charcoal to grip the surface of the paper more effectively. Since charcoal is so powdery, it will not adhere to the smooth surface of regular drawing paper very well. With charcoal paper, your drawings will have a slight texture to them which I think is quite beautiful.

Vine charcoal


I recommend buying Bob’s Fine Vine Charcoal pack.  The sticks in this pack are very soft with all different sizes of sticks, with some sticks that are very large and wide. When you need to cover a large area of your drawing, the large sticks make this task very quick and efficient.  Some of the other brands have vine charcoal sticks that are way too skinny, making this task difficult and time consuming.

Vine charcoal is an excellent charcoal material for the initial stages of a drawing because it is very soft and easy to erase.  Therefore, it’s a great tool when you are in the very beginning of a drawing, and you want to be able to sketch lightly and make many changes to your drawing quickly.  If you draw lightly enough, you can erase the vine charcoal with just a wipe of your hand which is very convenient.  In that way, vine charcoal is very forgiving and easy to get rid of.

However, I don’t recommend using vine charcoal beyond the first 20% of your drawing.  Ultimately, the majority of your drawing should be made of compressed charcoal. Once you establish the fundamental composition of a drawing with vine charcoal, move on to compressed charcoal and don’t add any more vine charcoal at that point. One of the major drawbacks of vine charcoal is that it is an incredibly fragile material; even the slightest touch of a finger will mess up an area of vine charcoal. There is also a limit to how dark vine charcoal can get, no matter how hard you press, vine charcoal will never compete with compressed charcoal in terms of achieving a deep, black tone. I find that most students limit themselves to drawing exclusively vine charcoal, and consequently, their drawings are too grey and lack the permanence a drawing with compressed charcoal has.


I like to start my charcoal drawings by toning my entire paper with vine charcoal. (see above image) Get a giant stick of vine charcoal and color the whole paper in, and then finish it off by wiping your hand over the entire sheet of paper to create a smooth, even tone of grey. This middle grey tone creates a foundation from which you can add charcoal or remove charcoal to create highlights with erasers. Because the grey tone is already present before you start drawing, the drawing will develop much faster than if you started with a white sheet of paper.

After toning the paper all grey, you can do a line sketch on top of the grey tone with vine charcoal.  Because the paper is toned grey, you can easily wipe away the line sketch with your hand, and the line sketch will quickly disappear into the grey tone.  I encourage my students to keep wiping away at their initial sketch until they’re satisfied, most of my students will wipe out their initial sketch at least 7 or 8 times.

This toned paper technique gets students over their fear of the white paper. Since the paper is already full of vine charcoal, students don’t feel that they can make noticeable blunders, and if they do, mistakes are very easy to get rid of with a quick wipe of your hand. Below is a torso drawing by one of my RISD freshman drawing students that was started by toning the paper grey with vine charcoal, the drawing has a very loose, painterly appearance.


Compressed charcoal


There are many brands of compressed charcoal, and I find that most of them are far too stiff. Read the packaging carefully and don’t buy black “soft pastels”, these are not the same thing and will not provide good results.  I recommend Art Alternatives Charcoal Drawing Sticks.   These sticks are strong and dark, but also soft enough that when you draw with them, the sticks can create a soft powder.

Many students are afraid of compressed charcoal, it is a very dark, powerful piece of charcoal that is blunt and permanent. You can definitely lighten an area of compressed charcoal with an eraser, but only to a degree.  Once the paper has been touched with compressed charcoal, you can never go back to the perfect white of the paper. While drawing with compressed charcoal is certainly a bigger commitment, the advantages of compressed charcoal are huge.  Compressed charcoal has a wonderful strength and body to it, and there is nothing more dramatically black than an area of deep compressed charcoal.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to lay out the fundamentals of a drawing with vine charcoal first.  When you feel confident about that initial sketch, you will want to transition to compressed charcoal, and stop using the vine charcoal altogether at that point. Many students run into problems because they refuse to transition to the compressed charcoal, resulting in grey drawings that are dull with low contrast. Ultimately, your drawing should be about 20% vine charcoal for the beginning stages, with the compressed charcoal being used for the last 80% of the drawing.

Break your compressed charcoal stick so that it is is about 1″ long; this will allow you to draw with the side of the compressed charcoal.  Drawing with the side of the charcoal allows you to block in areas of tone.  Most students limit themselves to drawing with only the tip of the compressed charcoal, which is slow and will make your drawings flat and too reliant on outlines. When blocking out areas of tone, exert very little pressure with your hand and build up the darkness of the compressed charcoal slowly. If you start by adding pure blacks everywhere, you’ll have to do a lot of backtracking later with your erasers.

Charcoal pencil

Charcoal pencils come in a range of hardness, but I can say that I have never enjoyed using the hard pencils. The soft pencils are so much more flexible and easy to work with. I recommend General’s charcoal pencils.

To sharpen a charcoal pencil, do not put the pencil in an electric or manual pencil sharpener.  The charcoal inside the pencil is so fragile that it will always break. Instead, use a utility knife or razor blade to sharpen the charcoal pencil by hand. Position your thumb behind the knife or blade, and push it upwards on the pencil to slice off shavings of the pencil.

Charcoal pencils should be reserved for the final stages of a drawing, when you need to articulate small areas and details.  Frequently, I see students starting with charcoal pencil far too early, and they start working on details before the fundamentals of the drawing have been established. Charcoal pencils can also be effective for cross-hatching techniques, which can be layered and embedded on top of tonal areas. The portrait below has a significant amount of cross-hatching which has been done with charcoal pencil over a layer of vine charcoal tone.



Most people think of erasers as tools whose sole purpose is to remove mistakes from their drawings. Instead, see your erasers as drawing tools, commanding just as important a role as your sticks of charcoal. If you tone your paper entirely with vine charcoal (as mentioned above), you can use your erasers to block out dramatic highlights out of the grey tone of the paper. This approach really makes you feel like you are drawing with white paint because the eraser marks are so visible in the toned paper.

Many students draw white chalk into their charcoal drawings in order to create bright highlights. I don’t recommend this approach, because the white of the chalk never matches the white of the paper.  Inevitably, either the paper or the chalk always looks more yellow than the other, and having two different whites in your charcoal drawing looks sloppy and inconsistent. The white chalk is too noticeable and looks like you’re trying to clean up mistakes in the drawing.

If you really want a very bright, luminous area of white in your drawing, plan in advance which areas of your drawing you want to remain the white of the page, and leave those areas completely untouched by the charcoal. Remember, once the vine or compressed charcoal touch the paper, you will never ever get the paper back to it’s original brightness.  Planning in advance is a win-win situation; if you ultimately decide you don’t need those areas to be so bright, it’s easy to cover them with charcoal.

White plastic eraser


I recommend Staedtler Mars white plastic eraser, don’t use the Pink Pearl erasers which are awful for charcoal drawing.

A white plastic eraser is terrific in the beginning stages of a charcoal drawing when you are trying to block out dramatic areas of highlight. These erasers are very strong and can create bold passages of light in the vine charcoal tone. If you tone your paper grey with vine charcoal, you do have to put a lot of muscle when removing from the vine charcoal tone with the white plastic eraser.  Without fail, at every drawing class, there is always one student who complains that their white plastic eraser doesn’t work for removing the vine charcoal tone. Actually, it means that the student is being wimpy and not putting enough pressure into the eraser.

Kneaded eraser


I recommend Sanford Design Kneaded Rubber Art Eraser, although I have rarely encountered a kneaded eraser that was ineffective.  When you buy a new kneaded eraser, remove the packaging, and then stretch it out several times as if it were a piece of gum. After you use the kneaded eraser, it will appear to have tons of charcoal in it.  The eraser will absorb the charcoal and clean itself if you simply stretch it out a few times. Eventually, the eraser will absorb so much charcoal that it won’t self clean anymore, and it will look like a big black ball of gum.  At that point, purchase a new eraser.

Kneaded erasers are great to use once you’ve blocked out the brightest highlights with the white plastic eraser.  A kneaded eraser is not as strong and stiff as a white plastic eraser, so it is better when you want to make more subtle changes in the tones of your drawing.  Because you can mold the kneaded eraser into any shape, it is also very versatile in terms of the variety of marks it can make.

Many students over smudge their charcoal drawings with their fingers.  While smudging with your fingers can sometimes be effective, I find most students rely on smudging as a crutch.  Students often times end up buffing their drawing to death and everything in the drawing ends up looking too smooth, giving the drawing a fake, artificial look. Smooth areas are not inherently better, in fact, creating a variety of textures in drawing is just as important. Employ your kneaded eraser to do most of the work, smudge with your fingers in moderation. With the kneaded eraser, you’ll have much more control over your marks, and your marks will have more energy and tension. The kneaded eraser can help you move the charcoal across the surface of the paper.

Eraser stick


I recommend Papermate “Tuff Stuff” eraser stick, this is by far the best eraser stick I have encountered. Some of the other eraser sticks are no good because the tip is too wide and you won’t be able to get thin enough lines. You can even buy refills for the Papermate eraser stick, although the stick does last for a while.

The eraser stick is a great tool when you are putting the finishing touches on your drawing.  I don’t recommend using an eraser stick too early in a drawing, it will cause you to tighten up and focus on details before you’re ready. The cross-hatching marks in this drawing below were done entirely with a charcoal pencil and eraser stick. The multiple layers of cross-hatching give the drawing a rich, substantial look.



21703-1003-1-3ww-l       21703-1001-1-3ww-l

There are two kinds of fixative: there is workable fixative which allows you to go back in and work on the drawing even after spraying it.  There is permanent fixative, which you cannot work back into.

Charcoal drawings are very fragile, and thus are susceptible to damage. Even a slight smudge of a finger can ruin a carefully drawn area. One option is to use fixative, a material you can spray over the surface of a charcoal drawing to make the charcoal adhere more permanently to the paper.  Always spray fixative on your drawings outdoors, the fixatives have chemicals that are dangerous to breathe. Some people use hairspray instead of fixative, which I do not recommend.  If you are at all concerned about your drawing lasting long term, hairspray is a bad choice because it is not an archival material.

I personally have never been a fan of fixatives; while they do make charcoal drawings more resistant to damage, you will notice that your charcoal drawings will darken slightly after spraying it with fixative. The darkening is not that dramatic, but it’s enough that I definitely notice the difference in my drawings. A compromise is to gently place a sheet of newsprint of tracing paper over your charcoal drawing when you store it, and know that you might have to do some last minute touch ups before displaying the work.

Layering & Mixing tools

Finally, the two most crucial principles in charcoal drawing are 1) layering and 2) thoroughly mixing all of the above tools together into a cohesive whole. The chronic problem I see in students is when students limit themselves to only using 1-2 charcoal supplies.  If you are failing to see the importance of one of the above listed supplies, then you need to start experimenting with that supply and figure out what it’s good for. In this drawing below, the student only used vine charcoal and did not take any initiative to add compressed charcoal or engage with the erasers.  Consequently, the drawing has a very thin, washed out look because the range of tones is so limited.


Another common issue is students isolating each supply into one area of the drawing. For example, in this portrait drawing below, it’s evident that the student only used charcoal pencil in the hair, and used a lot of smudging of compressed charcoal in the face. These two areas are drawn so differently from each other, that they fail to integrate within the drawing, giving the drawing a fractured appearance.


Layering is critical in a charcoal drawing, most students only do 1 layer of charcoal in their drawings and stop working prematurely. For a charcoal drawing to demonstrate a significant sense of depth, texture, and substance, a minimum of 4-5 layers of charcoal marks on top of each other is necessary. In a charcoal drawing, you’ll remove and add to each area repeatedly, this builds a visual history for your drawing that will show a rich feeling of depth in the marks.

Related articles:
Art Supply Tips
charcoal paper
vine charcoal
compressed charcoal
erasers for charcoal drawing
white plastic erasers
charcoal pencils
kneaded erasers
eraser sticks


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

If you’re applying to art school or college this coming year, now is the time to get your portfolio in high gear. Below is a post I wrote two years ago, with some new content I’ve added recently.

“In general, what kind of things should one include in their portfolio when applying to undergraduate colleges/universities?”

Preparing a portfolio for college admission is not a casual undertaking, many high school students underestimate how much time and labor is involved.  For most students it takes several months, even up to a year to create a body of work that is rigorous enough for the application process.   If you can maintain a prodigious level of production, the quality of your work will progress tremendously and you’ll have many more pieces to choose from. Even of the portfolio requirements state that you only need 15 pieces, this means you should aim to create between 20-30 pieces.  Not only will your work improve from more experience, but you’ll be able to weed out the weaker pieces and show your best work.

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. On top of that, remember that several art schools and college also require that students create a few artworks specifically for their application on top of the portfolio. You’ll need to set aside time to work on these specific assignments in addition to everything else. 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 essentially all high school students fail to do. This problem is so prominent, that drawing from direct observation is now the rare exception among high school art students. Just doing this one directive will distinguish your work from the crowd, and put you light years ahead of other students.

It is easy to see why students have only learned to draw from photographs: photographs are much more convenient, and you don’t have to work as hard to get half decent results.  It doesn’t help either that most high school art teachers encourage drawing from photographs.  However, drawing is not about turning yourself into a human xerox machine. In addition to making poor portfolio pieces, drawing from photographs causes students to develop terrible drawing habits that will be difficult to get rid of later.  The college freshmen I teach at RISD who haven’t drawn from life before have a very tough time making the transition in college because their drawing habits are so bad. Read this article about the importance and advantages of drawing from direct observation.

Many students complain that if they draw from life, “there’s nothing to draw,” which I find impossible to believe.  Self-Portraits drawn from a mirror are a good option if you want to draw faces, you can set up a still life of objects easily, and interior spaces and landscapes are everywhere.

Be the exception and do not copy your work from photographs or other sources. This means no fan art, no anime, no manga, no celebrity portraits, nothing from another artist’s work.

2) Have a variety of subject matter.

This demonstrates your willingness and interest to work with different subject matter. 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.

Students are always asking me how much they are expected to show works that are related to their intended major. Most art schools will not expect you to already have expertise in the field you are planning on majoring in during college. For example, if you want to major in Graphic Design, your portfolio should not be 20 graphic design pieces. You can certainly include perhaps 1-2 graphic design pieces if you have them, but overall you should focus on showing that you have a wide, well rounded skill set.

3) Every piece must be a finished work and be neatly presented.

Unless the school specifically requests to see images from a sketchbook, assume that they want to see finished works. Be sure that everything in your portfolio is a work that has been 100% fully realized.  This means no white backgrounds, no dirty fingerprints, no random sketchbook drawings, no ripped edges, no half finished figures, etc. This charcoal drawing below by one of my students has some good qualities, but the student completely neglected to extend the drawing to the edge of the paper, making for a sloppy and unfinished presentation.


The quintessential problem I see in artwork by high school students is not bringing a piece of a full finish.  Many portfolio pieces I see by high school students are only about 50% finished, and have big problems like glaringly empty backgrounds and lack detail. The majority of students stop working on their projects prematurely, which leads to works that are unresolved.  Read this article for more on how to bring your artwork to completion, and this article for techniques to determine when an artwork is finished.

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. Make sure that you have both black and white works, as well as works that display a full range of color.

5) Strong drawings are critical.

Accomplished drawings are the heart of a successful portfolio when applying at the undergraduate level. You might have 15 digital paintings, but none of that will matter if you have poor drawings.  In terms of drawing media, the vast majority of high school students are creating tight, conservative, photo realistic pencil drawings drawn from photographs. Drawing is not about just copying a photograph as accurately as possible; we now have cameras that can do this instantly with incredibly high resolution. Ask yourself what you can express with your drawing that a camera would not be capable of producing by itself.  Check out these examples of charcoal drawings done from direct observation by high school students from my RISD Pre-College courses.

Instead of limiting yourself to just drawing with pencil, experiment with other drawing materials such as charcoal, conte crayon, chalk pastelsCaran d’Ache crayons, (see the student drawing below for an example) india ink, oil pastels, etc. Just using these drawing materials will distinguish you from the other student portfolios, and will inspire you to experiment with drawing in a bolder and looser manner.


Read this article for how to practice drawing, and this article for how to motivate yourself to practice drawing. If you don’t have access to a drawing class at school, a good option is purchasing a high quality college level textbook written by two of my colleagues at RISD is “Drawing: Structure & Vision.” This book covers essential information and provides assignments and student drawing examples that can be a solid guide for you.

6) Have excellent digital photographs of your artwork.

One of my colleagues once said to me “As artists, we live and die by our photographs.”  In a portfolio situation, this could not be more true. A poor photograph of your artwork is hugely distracting and can really make or break an admission officer’s initial reaction to the work.

A quality photograph of your artwork will have 1) even lighting, 2) be neatly cropped in Photoshop, 3) be appropriately color balanced, 4) be in focus, 5) taken on a high quality digital camera. Despite smart phones having decent cameras, they are definitely not sufficient for the quality of photograph you need for a portfolio.  Invest the money and buy a high quality digital camera. The student collage seen below has all of the requirements for an excellent photograph.


Ideally, it’s best to hire a professional photographer to shoot your photographs, but if you can’t afford that, you can do it yourself with investment some equipment. Purchase a kit with 2 stand lights with umbrellas, with photo flood bulbs that are 250 watts to 500 watts each. These lighting kits aren’t super cheap, but regular incandescent and florescent lighting is not sufficient to produce high quality photographs. Regular lights will not produce the color accurately, and you will not get good focus because the lights are not bright enough.

Set up the two stand lights so that there is one on the left, and one of the right, with your artwork on the wall in between the lights.  Having the lights directed from the left and right of the artwork creates lighting that will move evenly across the artwork.

In progress

Three-dimensional artwork is especially difficult to photograph well, and are the most problematic photographs for most students.  First get a wide roll of paper that is a neutral color.  Depending on the colors in your sculpture, choose either white, grey, brown, or black to create contrast so that the sculpture is visible against the back drop.  In the case of the student sculpture below, a medium brown color paper was perfect because it made the whiteness of the sculpture stand out.  A white background would not have shown the sculpture as well.

Tape the top of the paper roll to a board behind the artwork, and then gently pull down the paper roll so that it falls on the surface of the table.  Tape the paper to the table so that it is secure as you photograph. The roll of paper provides a smooth, clean, neat background for the sculpture to sit on. Too often students shoot photographs of 3-D work with ugly, distracting backgrounds. Use natural light from a window if you can to light the sculpture, this will create soft shadows to articulate your piece well. If you don’t have a window available, use one of the stand lights from the lighting kit.


Avoid these problems: 1) uneven lighting where cast shadows visible, 2) glare on oil paintings, 3) have distracting background behind the artwork, 4) have inaccurate color, 5) be out of focus, 6) taken on a smart phone.

Get help from an art teacher

Creating a portfolio should not be an effort that you do entirely on your own. 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. Don’t rely only on yourself to make decisions about what works go into your portfolio.  Students can get easily stuck in their heads when looking at their own artwork, and frequently they aren’t able to make sound decisions. Another eye will provide a fresh perspective and objectivity to the evaluation process.

If you don’t have an art teacher who can help you with your portfolio, take a weekend or night class at a local art school, museum, or art center. Chances are, the instructor at one of those classes can help you with your portfolio. Unfortunately, course offerings for high school students in the visual arts is frequently scarce, so you might actually do better taking an adult continuing education course aimed at a specific medium you’re looking to improve in, such as drawing. For most high school students, trying to do prepare a portfolio entirely on their own is daunting, and having the structure of  a class can be enormously useful to stay on track.

National Portfolio Day

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. I recommend going in the fall of your junior year, just to get a feel for things, and then again in the fall of your senior year.

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, and raced immediately to the RISD table.

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. Be prepared for a wide range of different opinions, and critiquing styles.  Some reviewers are concrete and helpful, while others can be less so. Even if you can’t get a review from your top schools because it’s so crowded, a review from any school is valuable.  After I had hit my top schools, I stuck around and got reviews from several other schools and that additional feedback greatly enriched my experience there.

Related articles:
“Preparing an art portfolio for college admission”
“What are common mistakes in college portfolio submissions?”
“What is the purpose of a degree in fine art?”
“7 tips for surviving art school.”
“Should I drop out of art school?”

Ask the Art Professor: How do Artists Handle Commissions?

“Ask the Art Professor” is an advice column for visual artists, now featured in the Huffington Post.  This is your chance to ask a professional artist/educator your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, etc. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at), 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.

“I am currently an art student, and a local company recently contacted me about creating some artwork for their office space. It’s a great opportunity, but I am worried because I have never done a commissioned work before and I don’t know where to start!”

Artists are usually excited to get a commission, but most are not prepared for how dicey commissions can be. Commissioned artwork can be anything: a portrait, a wedding gift, artwork for a hotel, etc. Unfortunately, there are no universal rules for art commissions. Consequently, many clients take advantage of artists, so follow these guidelines to protect yourself.

1) Inform your client about your art making process.

Most clients have no idea what goes into creating an artwork; it’s up to you to lay out a concrete plan for the commission. Clients have to understand that a commission is a mutual commitment, and that their continual involvement is mandatory. Walk your client through every step of the process from beginning to end. For example, steps to create a painting might be listed like this: 1) pencil sketches, 2) colored pencil sketches, 3) small acrylic paintings 4) final acrylic painting, 5) framing, delivery, and installation.


2) Clients who commission artwork usually have no idea what they want.

Assume that a client’s verbal description of what he or she wants is not going to align with your visual interpretation right away. Don’t rely on anything a client says until you’ve actually put the results in front of them. I had one colleague who created a commission exactly as agreed after many rounds of presentations. Despite how faithful my colleague had been to the client’s wishes throughout the entire process, the client’s reaction to the finished piece was “I just don’t like it.”

Clients do however, seem to always know what they don’t want, which is much less useful. I did a portrait commission once, and the client told me that the cheek of a person in the painting was “too pink.” I lightened the cheek slightly, only to be told “now it’s too pale.” One of my former professors who was a portrait painter for over 20 years told me that he was sick to death of endless complaints from clients. He used to intentionally do an exceptionally bad job on one area of the painting so that the client could complain about that area, (usually a trivial detail like the collar of a shirt, which would be easy to fix) instead of some other area on the face that would take weeks of shooting in the dark until the client was satisfied.

3) Write a detailed contract.

A contract is mandatory for any commission. Write down every detail in the contract, such as the size and media of the artwork, your compensation, due dates for payments, who is responsible for framing, installation, delivery of the artwork, etc. If your client balks at signing a contract, WALK AWAY.

4) Have down payments and/or kill fees.

Down payments and kill fees protect artists from investing labor without pay. A kill fee is charged if the client decides to end the project prematurely. Some artists don’t have a kill fee, but ask for a 50% non-refundable down payment . Other artists will ask for a smaller non-refundable down payment and have a kill fee. Clients are also less likely to end a project if they have already invested money.

5) Do not commence work until a contract is signed.

When I was a recent graduate, I received a commission from a local community center. I met with one person, who said they were thinking about a painting of a klezmer band, painted with bright colors. I got to work right away, it didn’t occur to me at the time that I had no contract. I called up a local klezmer band, drove 40 minutes to one of their performances, and shot reference photos for the paintings. I drew many sketches, and made small scale paintings.

I presented the sketches and paintings at a meeting with four people. They hated everything, in fact, one person said that the paintings looked “scary” to her (how a colorful painting of a klezmer band could be scary is beyond me). By the end of the meeting, they said they wanted to see a “mixed collage that featured singing children in a garden.” After that meeting I never heard from them again, and I lost my own time and money.

6) Have an approval process.

Divide your process into stages, and require your client to approve each stage before moving forward. Working in stages lets you catch client concerns before you get too far into the process. I once did a portrait commission where the client approved the sketches, so I proceeded onto the final painting. I was about 75% finished, when the client decided last minute that she wanted to change the black background to yellow, and her daughter’s black shirt into a red sweater. I essentially had to start from scratch. I had written nothing in the contract about making changes after approval, so my workload doubled without any additional pay.

When the commission is complete, ask your client to sign another contract that states that they have accepted the commission as complete, and that any changes made beyond that point will incur a fee.

7) Keep framing, installation, and delivery separate from the commission.

If applicable, ask the client to take financial responsibility for any framing, installation and delivery. These costs can add up quickly for an artist: professional framing is always expensive, delivering a large work involves renting a truck, and installation of the work really needs to be done by a professional art installer. You don’t want to risk a large painting falling off the wall and getting damaged, and most clients want artwork that can remain on permanent display.

Related articles:
“How can an artist overcome their financial issues?”
“How do you explain to potential clients that artists need to be paid?”
“How do you price art?”

Preparing an Art Portfolio for College Admission

Class Photo

I finished up teaching RISD Pre-College last Friday, and as usual I’m collecting my thoughts after a packed 6 weeks of teaching. In the final week, I was particularly struck by how unprepared most of the Pre-College students were in terms of their portfolios for art school admission.

On the last day of class, I gave the Pre-College students the option to have individual appointments with me to review their portfolios.  Out of the approximately 50 student portfolios I reviewed, I didn’t see a single student whose portfolio was ready. In fact, the students weren’t even close in terms of the level of quality that is required to gain admission into a rigorous undergraduate art program.

Out of the hundreds of student artworks in portfolios that I reviewed last week, I can count on one hand the number of drawings that were drawn from direct observation. Almost every drawing I saw was a tight pencil drawing copied from a photograph with the subject in the dead center of the composition, with a blank white background. I’ve never understood the exclusive use of pencil as a drawing medium in high school students, when you consider the amazing range of wonderful drawing materials that are readily available.  Students told me left and right that they were instructed to do pencil drawings only from photographs by their art teachers, to use a grid method to draw, to strive to make their pencil drawings as photo realistic as possible, as well as other terrible drawing methods.   On top of that, every student told me that they were basically building their portfolios on their own, with no help or advice from anyone.  I told pretty much every student that they had to start over.

I discussed strategies with the Pre-College students about what they should do to improve their portfolios, as well as what to avoid for their portfolios. However, it seems that the problem goes far deeper than that. From my experience, the root of the problem is that the vast majority of high school art students have no idea what makes for a good quality artwork.

In athletics, it is obvious who scored the most points to win the game, or who ran the fastest. Visual arts is challenging because what defines a compelling artwork is subjective, what is “good” to one person may well be “bad” to someone else.  In this particular context, I’m not trying to label artworks as “bad” and “good.”  I’m talking about simply weeding out the artwork that is total garbage (most of what you see on the Internet), which apparently is all the Pre-College students are looking at for inspiration.  When I asked the Pre-College students who their favorite artists were, they either said they didn’t know any artists, or showed me an amateur’s work on Tumblr. Not one student named an artist who would be in any standard art history textbook. If these students don’t even have an understanding of what is good quality artwork is to begin with, it makes sense that they would not know where to begin with their own art.

I don’t know any other field where at the high school level, most students don’t understand what they should be striving for, have no options for rigorous training, and are taught faulty methods.  It’s the equivalent of a soccer player not understanding that to win you have to score more goals than the other team, and then on top of that, having a coach they see once a week for one hour, who trains them to kick the ball only with their heels. Sounds ridiculous?  Well, from what I heard from my Pre-College students this summer, that pretty much sums up how many high school students experience visual arts.

As an art professor, it upsets me that my Pre-College students were left to navigate their portfolios on their own, and that there was no one to steer them in the right direction. It is no fault of theirs that they didn’t know what to do, or how to do it. One thing I am sure of is that you cannot train to be an artist on your own.  Like any other field, you need a continuous support system of established mentors, competitive peers, and rigorous programs behind you.  And yet in visual arts in high school, most students are left sitting on a mountain in isolation, being forced to reinvent the wheel by themselves. I’m convinced, more than ever, that the video series I’ve been thinking about needs to happen.

The Quintessential Problem for High School Art Students

2015-07-08 12.08.13

This summer I’m teaching 5 classes of  Drawing Foundations and Design Foundations in the RISD Pre-College program.  Every year, every class is distinct, and offers a different set of challenges for me. Despite how unique every student is, there is one universal problem that I see across the board in all of my pre-college classes:  when students stop working on their projects too early.  The majority of student artwork I’ve seen in the past few weeks is off to a good start, but is noticeably unresolved because students stepped away from the work prematurely.

This tendency to leave an artwork early is understandable; many art students fear that if they work on their projects for too long, they will ruin it. Their desire to protect the final results in order to ensure a certain degree of success shuts down their willingness to take creative risks.  Consequently, many art student miss out on opportunities that might have arisen if they had just given their project another hour.

Creating an artwork is a roller coaster ride where nothing is guaranteed. Many art students have an unrealistic expectation that an artwork should improve in a linear manner, and that if they hit a rough patch that the apocalypse has arrived and nothing in their project can be salvaged. On the contrary, I’ve witnessed students kill their projects and then resurrect the artwork later. I’ve seen students dig themselves out of seemingly hopeless situations and emerge with outstanding results.

Learning how to bring an artwork to true completion is one of the most important skills to gain as an artist.   If you are running a marathon and drop out at mile 15, it doesn’t matter how far ahead you were at the beginning because you didn’t finish the race.  I tell my students that no matter how flawed or unpleasant their process was, to make sure that they cross the finish line.

I once had a student who struggled enormously with the craftsmanship of a collage project.  He was extremely frustrated and clearly had no experience with the materials:  there was glue everywhere, finger prints, the paper wasn’t cut cleanly, etc. However, his piece fundamentally demonstrated that he developed a strong grasp of composition through the piece, which was one of the primary objectives of the assignment. His composition was dynamic and spacious.  Although this student’s technical execution of the materials was a complete car crash, he still followed through and finished the piece. He was mortified at the critique by his poor technique, and was shocked when I commended him for his efforts. I have tremendous respect for the fact that he kept working on the piece, despite his awareness of how sloppy his technique was. It’s never fun to work on a project that you know isn’t going well, and I commended the fact that he pushed through and finished the race.

The difficulty is that there is no “correct” way to finish an artwork, so how do you know what is truly finished?  To figure this out, I encourage my students to intentionally overwork their pieces. This can be a painful, as you can easily lose good parts of your piece in the process, and the results are not always pretty. I had a RISD student who worked on a charcoal drawing to the point that the surface of the paper started to deteriorate. She was up all night working, and was extremely frustrated that nothing was progressing.  When she brought the drawing in for the group critique that morning, it looked like a a civil war had been waged on her drawing. This was the worst drawing she did all semester, but she told me later that the experience was tremendously valuable. She had pushed the drawing well beyond what she thought was reasonable.  Since she went too far with that drawing, she had a better understanding of where her limits were, and was able to pull herself back for the next assignment. I tell my students to let one of their assignments be a “sacrifice drawing,” where they give up any intention of creating a successful piece, to figure out where their limits are.


If you’re an art student, stay with your pieces. Something amazing might be just around the corner, but you’ll never find it if you get up and leave. Sometimes just 60 minutes is all the difference in the world.