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

2019 update has a free Art School Portfolios video tutorial, which greatly expands on the content in this article, which includes videos of art school students giving tips, a gallery of student portfolios, and more!

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.

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. 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.

Watch this video above for personal stories from National Portfolio Day

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. is a free website for learning visual arts which features video tutorials, art critiques, and more.


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