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.

“Ask the Art Professor” Article Archive

Final Crit

It’s now been one year since I started “Ask the Art Professor”, my advice column for visual artists. Below is an archive of articles I’ve written in the past year.

On college portfolio preparation:
“What are common mistakes in college portfolio submissions?”
“What should you include in an art portfolio for art school or college?”

On art school and degrees:
“What is the purpose of a degree in fine art?”
“How do you preserve your artistic integrity within the strict time limitations in an academic setting?”
“Is art education really so popular in western countries?”
“Should art students study abroad even if it distracts from job preparation?”
“Who should you make art for, yourself or your professor?
“7 tips for surviving art school.”
“How can I prepare myself for the reality of the future?”
“To what extent do grades define an academic career in visual art?”
“Should I drop out of art school?”

On graduate school:
“Is graduate school worth it?”
“How are European MFA degrees viewed in the United States?”
“How do I choose a field for graduate school?”

On life after school:
“What do you do after you’ve finished formalized training?”
“When you have a fine arts degree, what do you do for the rest of your life?”
What is your advice to young students who have just graduated from their undergraduate degree?”
“How do you stay motivated after school?”

On technique and skills:
“How can I tell if I’m skilled enough?”
“How do you find your own individual style?”
“How do artists manage to get their soul out into images?”
“How do you develop an idea from a sketch to a finished work?”
“How do you make an art piece more rich with details that will catch the eye?”
“How do you learn the basics?”
“Is it bad to start another piece of art before finishing another one?”
“How do you work in a series?”
“When and how should you use photo references to draw?”
“How do you know when to stop working?”

On abstraction:
“How can I approach creating abstract art?”
“Does an abstract artist need to be proficient in traditional techniques?”

On painting & color:
“How do you achieve a luminous effect in a painting through color and value?”
“Does painting what you see limit your artistic possibilities?”
“What is the practical meaning of color theory?”
“How do you compose a striking painting with color?”
“Is hard work and experimenting continuously such a bad thing?”

On drawing:
“What is a gesture drawing?”
“Is drawing considered an innate talent or a craft, which can be learned by anyone?”
“How can I learn to shade objects in my drawings?”
“How can I draw what I see in my head?”
“What is the best way to practice my drawing skills?”
“How do you get yourself to practice drawing?”
“What is the most important mindset a student needs to have in order to create a successful drawing?”

On drawing the human figure:
“How would I go about studying the human figure?”
“How do you draw the human face?”
“How can I learn to draw noses?”
“What is the best way to simplify the human figure?”
“How can you learn to draw hair?”

On careers:
“How do I change careers to pursue my passion for art?”
“What are the career opportunities in fine art?”
“How long did it take you to jump start your career after graduation?  What was your first job?”

On Promotion:
“How do you know when your artwork is good enough to show to the world?”
“How do you get people to notice your artwork online?”
“When is it too early to start promoting your work on the Internet?”
“How do you retain the integrity of your artwork while promoting it?”
“How do you get to the top of the art world?”
“How can I get into art exhibitions?”

On illustration:
“How do I become a children’s book illustrator?”
“Can I make a respectable income on freelance illustration?”
“Where is a good place to start with graphic novels?”
“What does it take to get a job at an animation studio?”

On galleries & museums:
“How do I leave my gallery?”
“How do you sell your art?”
“How do I approach a gallery?”
“How do museums select artists to exhibit? What is museum quality work?”
“How do I know I’m ready to start selling and approaching galleries?”

On doubt:
“Am I actually an artist?”
“How can one regain lost satisfaction with their work?”
“How do you gain confidence in your artwork?”
“Do professional artists doubt their abilities?”

On learning:
“Where do I start?”
“How do you keep pushing yourself to get to that next level?”
“Would you improve more if you took art classes than just studying on your own?”
“How do you learn the basics?”
“How do you break out of your comfort zone?”
“How do you get out of thinking you can’t get any better?”
“How do you develop patience for learning curves?”
“When do you let go of an idea?”
“How do I help my daughter reach her potential in art?”

On teaching:
“How do I become an undergraduate art professor?
“What should I be working on now if I would like to be an art professor?”
“What makes a student artist stand out from their peers?”
“How did you become an art professor?”

On life:
“How much of your emotional life do you allow to infiltrate your work?”
“How do you face artistic burnout?”
“How do you come up with ideas?”

On practical matters:
“What do you do for art storage?”
“How can an artist balance their life?”
“How can an artist overcome their financial issues?”
“How can an artist create an artistic group outside of school?”
“How do you balance a full-time job, kids and your own art?”
“How do you socialize in the art world?”

Other:
“What is the most important thing you can do as an artist?
“Does being an artist require much more thinking than in other academic fields?”
“What is the difference between fine arts and visual arts?”
“Will negative stereotypes about artists ever go away?”
“Is photography art?”
“What would you be looking for if you were judging for an art scholarship?”

“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)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.

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

Final Crit

“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)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

“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.

NC1

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.

student_work_02

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.

MG2a

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.

FB1a

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?”