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Preparing a portfolio for college admission is not a casual undertaking, it’s very common for high school students to 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 competitive art school and college admissions 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 emphasize only your best work.
Every school is going to have their own unique set of requirements, so be sure that you check each school’s guidelines 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 creating the entire portfolio. 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. However, drawing is not about turning yourself into a human xerox machine and trying to create a perfect replication of a photograph. There is nothing artistic or creative about copying a photograph, it’s simply a sterile, mechanical process that is dull and boring to look at. On top of that, most students will download a poor photograph off the Internet, so the photograph isn’t even one that they shot themselves.
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 I wrote about the importance of drawing from direct observation, and about the bad drawing habits that develop as a result of drawing exclusively from photographs.
Many students complain that if they don’t draw from photographs, “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. Drawing from life is only boring if you decide it’s going to be boring, there’s an entire world of exciting subjects to observe. The French Impressionist painter Claude Monet made hay stacks exciting to paint. Personally, I can’t think of a subject that sounds more dull to paint, and yet he saw beautiful light and color in those hay stacks and created extraordinary paintings.
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.
The student did this charcoal drawing above, completed the drawing by setting up a chair in a dynamic position and then arranged shoes throughout the scene to create a lively composition. He took the self-initiative to construct a set up that would be visually exciting to draw from. Take the time to create subjects that you’re engaged in, you won’t always stumble on an interesting scene to draw, sometimes you have to take the initiative to create it yourself.
Below is a drawing in color video tutorial that demonstrates from beginning to end, how to draw a still life from direct observation using crayons.
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) Demonstrate brainstorming, thinking, & ideas.
Keep in mind that Admissions officers are looking to see much more in your portfolio than several classroom exercises; they want to see that you are able to express an opinion, a narrative, a mood, an emotion, perhaps a political statement even, etc.-whatever it is that you want your artwork to communicate. Show in your pieces that you are engaging with your subject matter beyond just being visual eye candy. Create several pieces for your portfolio that show that you are thinking about your subject matter, and brainstorming ideas for your pieces.
If you’re looking for ideas for subject matter, check out our Monthly Art Dares, (watch video above) where we assign a prompt to create, with prizes as well! On my Pinterest page, I have a collection of narrative drawings from my courses at RISD that show drawings that explore subject matter and brainstorming in great depth.
This post talks about how to brainstorm ideas for your artwork. Below is a video tutorial that demonstrate the brainstorming process step by step, working with the prompt for the Art Prof October Art Dare “Your Future Self.”
4) The vast majority of your portfolio should be finished artworks that are neatly presented.
Unless the school specifically requests to see images from a sketchbook, assume that they want to see finished artworks. It would be find to include 1 image or 2 of a sketchbook that demonstrates your thinking, sketching, and brainstorming process, but probably no more than that. Be sure that everything else 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.
5) 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 pieces as well as works that display a full range of color. The color pieces you show in a portfolio should demonstrate that you can use color in different capacities. You can include some monochromatic pieces, some pieces that have a more subdued color palette, or a pieces that use highly intense, saturated colors.
Below are examples of high school student artwork from my RISD Pre-College Program courses that demonstrates a wide range of different media.
If you’re looking for a way to include color in your portfolio, but don’t have the resources or experience to do acrylic or oil painting, (acrylic and oil painting can get costly, and if you don’t have the proper training, both mediums can be excessively difficult to learn on your own) I recommend doing drawings in chalk pastel or Caran d’Ache crayons. The best brand of chalk pastels is Rembrandt, but be aware that this brand is expensive. A more affordable brand that has decent quality for chalk pastels is NuPastel. Make sure with chalk pastel drawings that you’re using a neutral colored pastel/charcoal paper, white paper is nightmare to draw on for chalk pastels. For Caran d’Ache crayons, I recommend drawing on black or neutral colored mat board. You can watch an entire video course on drawing in color using Caran d’Ache crayons on artprof.org.
6) 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 precision and quality. 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 student charcoal drawings done from direct observation (see above) by high school students from my RISD Pre-College courses. This charcoal drawing tutorial I did shows the entire process of creating a portrait drawing in charcoal from beginning to end. (see below) Our Art Supply Encyclopedia on Artprof.org has videos with detailed explanations on each charcoal tool.
Instead of limiting yourself to just drawing with pencil, experiment with other drawing materials such as charcoal, conte crayon, chalk pastels, Caran d’Ache crayons, india ink, oil pastels, etc. Charcoal in particular is a great drawing material because it motivates students to develop an approach to drawing that is bolder and more physically engaging. 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.
This student charcoal drawing below was drawn by directly observing an artichoke, and then repeating the artichoke multiple times throughout the composition by drawing it from different points of view.
Read this article I wrote for how to practice drawing, and this other article I wrote for how what kind of mindset and approach is necessary for drawing. If you don’t have access to rigorous art classes at your school, a good option would be to watch our free video courses on artprof.org.
7) Have excellent 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 that is astronomically expensive. You can do it yourself by investing some standard photography 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.
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. (don’t use fabric, fabric wrinkles too easily and therefore your background won’t be smooth and clean) 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, the white background is a poor choice because the sculpture is also white. Therefore, the photograph lacks contrast and the sculpture is difficult to see.
In this photograph below, the grey background allows the white sculpture to be much more visible. Additionally, the shadows are much darker and the contrast of the overall photograph is much crisper and stronger.
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 distracting backgrounds. A chronic problem is placing the sculpture on a table against a wall, creating an ugly horizon line between the table and the wall which looks terrible.
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 with a lighting umbrella to create a shadows that are more diffused and soft. When the shadows are too harsh, they can make your sculpture look flat and they will lose their sense of volume in the photograph.
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 have to do entirely on your own. Think about it this way, would an aspiring concert pianist who is trying to get into Julliard try to figure out how to play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto on their own with no piano teacher? Visual arts is no different from any other field, you have to get an outside opinion to improve. Take the initiative to get a critique to an art teacher whose opinion you trust to get a thorough portfolio critique. Or even better, ask a professional artist, or a an art professor who has experience helping students get into an undergraduate program. Watch the video below to get a sense of what an art critique involves, and what to expect.
An art teacher 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 (or family members) to make decisions about what works go into your portfolio. All art students and professional artists get 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, you might consider purchasing a 30 min. portfolio video critique from Artprof.org. (watch the video above for info, and an interactive critique below)
Another option is to take a weekend or night class at a local art school, museum, or art center. The instructor at one of those classes might be able to help you with your portfolio. Unfortunately, course offerings for high school students in the visual arts are terribly meager, so you might actually do better and have many more options looking at adult continuing education courses aimed at a specific medium you’re looking to improve in, such as drawing.
Many art schools and colleges also offer summer courses at the college level, and you might consider attending a residential pre-college program at an art school like the six week RISD Pre-College program. You can read about my own experience teaching at and attending RISD Pre-College back in 1993 here. For every high school student, trying to do prepare a portfolio entirely on their own is daunting, and having the structure of a class or summer program 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. Watch the video below for what an art critique can be like:
Be ready for very long lines and huge 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. This post I wrote talks about tips for how to present your portfolio, and how to interact with admissions officers at the event. Many students don’t know how to present/prepare their artwork in a way that is practical at an event like this, and surprisingly, some students can be rude to the admissions officers who are reviewing their portfolios which never serves you well.
Keep in mind that a portfolio review from any school is valuable, especially the ones that are critical and offer feedback and how to improve. It’s not always fun to hear your artwork criticized, but remember that you’re not at National Portfolio Day to have your ego massaged. You’re there to figure out what you can do to improve portfolio, and see how your portfolio will hold up in the competitive college admissions process.