Art Prof has been keeping me busy. Really busy. What’s challenging is trying to keep all aspects of production going at the same time: shooting footage, editing footage, and maintaining Artprof.org. Even though I have hours and hours of footage that has yet to be edited, I am still scheduling shoots regularly to continue creating new content. I always feel behind, but slowly I am creating a system for everything that is starting to become much more concrete and predictable than before. That’s actually what is so time-consuming; when you produce something for the first time and there is no system in place that you can rely on!
The testimonials have been so much fun to shoot. For some students speaking about their portfolio felt like a distant memory, while for others, it was very recently that they completed their portfolio. Every student has their own unique story, but pretty much across the board, it’s incredible how much frustration and lack of resources almost every student had preparing their portfolio.
The idea behind this art school portfolios course is to provide concrete advice and resources for students combined with personal stories and experiences. If you are preparing an art school portfolio, you don’t have to do it by yourself anymore! I know that when I prepared my portfolio 23 years ago, I did everything entirely by myself. It was a really isolating, miserable experience that I am hoping this course can spare some students from.
The first time I ever met a real, practicing visual artist was when I went to RISD as an undergraduate student. It may sound odd to say this, but when I was in high school I didn’t really think about visual artists as people who were alive in my time period. To me, visual artists were people you read about in a textbook, or whose names were on the walls in an art museum. It never occurred to me that visual artists were actual people I could interact with in my life.
Reflecting upon that now seems so ridiculous, since as a professional artist and teacher, almost everyone I interact with on a regular basis is a practicing artist. In terms of making visual arts accessible to the average person, that’s really frustrating and I have to imagine that many people have a similar perception that I had as a high school student.
What has really been surprising (and fun) about Art Prof is how many artists I have met, people who you never thought were artists have this whole other side of them. I met someone at one of our portfolio review events who told me that he worked construction and landscaping jobs during the day and then went home at night to paint.
I find it ironic that as a high school student, I never really met a working artist, and yet now I am discovering that artists are in fact, everywhere.
That’s why we are building a new section of Art Prof, where we will showcase artists of all ages, middle school students, college students, working adults, lifelong learners, everyone. I have many aspirations of Art Prof, and one of the biggest ones I have is to change the public’s perception of who artists are. We don’t have create elaborate and costly installations like Christo or Yayoi Kusama to be artists. There are many ways to be an artist, and on Art Prof, I want to show the artists who live among us.
I get emails daily from my blog readers on a diverse range of topics. Everything from questions about what drawing supplies to buy, advice on MFA programs, and concerns about careers in the visual arts. You name it, I’ve gotten an email about it.
Once in a while, I get an email that is much more than questions. I recently received an email that I found to be particularly poignant and moving. I was riveted by this email because I felt that it could have been written by my 16 year old self. While I admit that my memories of trying to study visual arts in high school still make me boil, it’s very rewarding to hear that I am filling that same void I experienced 20 years ago for someone today. I always say that no matter how difficult a class I teach is, if I can just reach one person, then that makes it all worth it. I’m delighted to know that I’d a meaningful impact on one of you in this way.
Here’s the email I received:
“Firstly, I would like to thank you for your blog. It has given me great insight and joy to read about your perspective on art school, teaching, and being a practicing visual artist. Your blog has also given me amazing tips that have helped me build my portfolio. I feel I owe a great deal of my confidence in my work to your writing, so thank you so much.
Secondly, I would like to share my experience in high school art classes. I am much like you described yourself in your blog post. I am withdrawn, shy, and lack confidence. Although I have always excelled in academics, I always have felt like I don’t belong in my school. Since I was little, I could not stop thinking of things to make. I loved every art class I took; I would finish a project and beg to know what the next one would be in order to think of what to make.
As I started my freshman year in high school, I saw that most people thought of artistic people as outsiders, so I felt I shouldn’t do anything artistic anymore. Although I felt I left part of myself behind, I hoped that it might lead to friends or to popularity, but it obviously was not the case. As sophomore year began, I met my Art I and AP Art History teacher. She was a wacky painter that would push you both academically and creatively to the extremes. Because of her, I rediscovered my passion for art and fell in love with the history and study of art. I have been enrolled in her class since junior year, and it has been my escape from everything that makes me anxious or sad.
This summer, I attended the RISD Pre-College program and was inspired by my peers to push my technique and pursue ideas that are outside of the norm. I thank two of my favourite teachers there for believing in my vision, but more importantly, teaching me how to believe in it myself. I have seen a resurrection in my creative process.
I think the greatest problem in my school is ignominy that comes with being an artist. Because it is a private school in a country outside of the US, most student’s parents are politicians, economists, etc. so creative fields are completely alien to them. I see people every day that are amazingly creative and tremendously talented, but they say that they could never dedicate themselves to a creative field because they want to “have their lives matter.” I find this not only deeply troubling, but also the reason why schools all over the world don’t emphasize the arts so much; because the students don’t take advantage of creative opportunities.
At the high school level, I think an individual’s responsibility is to find what they love and explore it to the best of their abilities, but the reason why people that could be artists don’t pursue it is that the school system does not push the arts. A school should give students the opportunity to study their artistic passions and should promote the development of visual language throughout the curriculum, not only isolated art classes.”
ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages to learn visual arts in a vibrant art community. Imagine all of the resources here on our blog, except exponentially bigger, in greater quantity, and in more detail. Our Kickstarter campaign hit its $30k goal on July 19! Get info on our future launch by subscribing to our email list.
Ask the Art Prof Liveis a weekly live video broadcast on my Facebook page where I provide professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015. Ask me your questions by commenting on the live video post as the video streams, and I’ll answer right away. I’ll discuss being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more. Like my Facebook page and you’ll receive a notification when each live video begins.
Video Critique Program I offer 30 minute video critiques on 8-20 artworks for aspiring/professional artists working on a body of artwork, and for students working on an art portfolio for college admission. Watch sample video critiques and get more info here.
Visual art has always been the most compelling force throughout my entire life that I could always turn to, no matter how tough times were. My desire to draw as a child was insatiable, and I relished every weekly art class in elementary school.
In high school, I found myself with meager options to study visual art. I was a decent academic student, but I was not a star athlete, the two areas that were glorified by the other students. Socially, I was awkward, shy, isolated, and always felt out of place. Visual art was the thing I knew I was good at, the only subject I deeply enjoyed. For all the other students, art class was a joke, the class you took when you wanted an easy A. The art teachers I had were incompetent, and consequently, the art classes were remedial and pathetic. Basically, I had to teach myself.
I felt alone, lost, and embarrassed by my interest in visual art. Other students were studying classical music with world renowned musicians at places like the New England Conservatory Preparatory school, and I heard constantly about students who were being sent to prestigious, national soccer tournaments. For me, there was no equivalent in the visual arts. And this was at an excellent public school in an affluent neighborhood, I can’t imagine circumstances are any better at most other schools.
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 pastels, Caran 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.
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.