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Six Ways to Make Your Art and Design Portfolio Sparkle

Preparing for an Art School Interview


Preparing your portfolio for an art school interview can be a daunting process. Some institutions will have strict guidelines on how they want things presented, others will be more relaxed, so make sure you read submission guidelines carefully. Any advice you receive from the institution takes priority over my suggestions! With that important caveat in mind, here are some suggestions to help you put together a great portfolio.

1. Demonstrate Your Technical Skills

Art Skills can be learned, but most courses will have some ‘starting point’ of minimum entry. So when reviewing a student’s portfolio, I hope to see evidence of basic ability. I’m not looking for Michelangelo, but someone who is at least attempting to develop their drawing from life, with some still-life, figurative drawings and basic perspective. If a lot of your artwork is abstract, be sure to include one or two realist studies, to demonstrate that you will be able to cope with compulsory drawing assignments.

2. Show Your Creative Ideas

Art is about communication of ideas. Art students need the persistence to explore and develop concepts from start to finish, and the ability to think broadly in different ways. So while a portfolio may be diverse, some of the works should show a connecting thread and exploration around a theme. Most of your portfolio should have some meaning to you on a personal level, with the exception of any technical studies. Be prepared to 'speak to' - talk about - things like symbolism, meaning and metaphor, as well as formal choices that you've made about composition, format and color.

3. Share Your Enthusiasm

Artists should be engaged with society and art history. So you want your portfolio to reflect this. Try to include at least one work which makes some kind of reference to art history or a contemporary artist. Of course, it shouldn't be an arbitrary connection - it must have meaning and make sense in the context of your other artwork. Ask your art teacher for help in finding artists that you might 'connect' with. This also doesn't mean that you should copy artworks; but rather, be able to identify when you share common ground with other artists - such as an interest in color fields like Rothko or a love of line reminiscent of a Picasso etching. Be able to speak about the meaning of the reference, and use any discussion of the piece as a launching point to show your enthusiasm for art theory.

4. Select Your Highlights

Many interviews will ask to see a fairly small selection of work - 10 to 20 of your very best pieces. You’ll need to choose a range of work which includes studies from life, a figurative piece, imaginative design, and development of a theme or motif. You should include a selection of mediums, such as pencil, charcoal, ink, watercolour, linocut and digital art. Even with a larger portfolio, you should have a selection of 'highlight' works identified and placed strategically in your folder, so that it's easy to direct the panel to these pieces.

5. Present Your Work

Your art portfolio must be easy to handle. Not a stack of small pieces falling out of a folder! A large presentation book is the most popular choice, though some interview panels prefer work to be loose. They can also be a little expensive, and a simple art folder is a perfectly acceptable alternative. In either case, have works on paper mounted on uniformly-sized card for easy handling. Think clean, crisp and professional. Extremely large work can be photographed and printed at a more manageable size, provided you don't lose too much impact; portability can sometimes require a judgement call. Be sure to have your name and contact information on the back of pieces.

6. Provide Supporting Material

Even you have been asked for only a few pieces, have supporting work available, in case the interviewer asks to see more. Don't rely on them asking for it though, as they'll probably be on a tight schedule. Often I find that sketches tell me more about an artist than their finished work, so I am always keen to see sketchbooks. Supporting work should include sketches and work that shows development of the themes in your main folio, as well as additional studies, technical drawing or work that covers broader styles and techniques.

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