By Thom Glick
The portfolio is how artists share their work, their skills, their strengths, their weaknesses, their goals, their fears and, of course, themselves.
Over the years, I have found myself on both sides of the portfolio. I’ve been a high school student applying to BFA programs, an artist applying for jobs and competitions, and an undergraduate applying to MFA programs. I’ve been a judge, jurying art competitions and exhibitions, and a college admissions representative, reviewing applications to a BFA program. Both sides of the portfolio can be equally intimidating, when you don’t have a clear understanding of its purpose. Over the years, I’ve developed an approach to the portfolio, as a builder and as a reviewer, to encourage a more transparent and meaningful dialogue. I’m hoping that the following advice will be helpful for those of you building portfolios as well as those of you reviewing portfolios.
Mind you, this is just my advice.
Regardless of whether you are applying to a college with a traditional foundations program or a direct-to-major curriculum, the portfolio should be built upon the same four basic ideas: technique, concept, risk-taking, and effort. Before we can get into your specific portfolio, which might be focused on animation, portrait painting, abstract sculpture, vehicle design, or something broader or more specific, it’s a good idea to get familiar with them.
The Four Parts
Technique is about control. When I look for technique in a portfolio, I’m looking to see how well you know your materials, how well you know the basic principles of design and, if you’re working observationally, how well you understand your subject matter. When I look for these things, I’m not looking to see that you’ve mastered them; I’m looking to see that you’re aware of them and making purposeful decisions.
Material can be graphite pencils, oil paint, computer software, stone, fabric, or an infinite number of things. What’s important here is that you do your best to take control over your material and showcase what you know about it and what you can do with it.
Design principles have to do with understanding color relationships, composition, proportion, value relationships, shape relationships, and so on. In other words, the basic building blocks of making a visual art piece.
Understanding your subject, when it comes to technique, has to do with trying to capture the observable world on paper, with clay, or whatever material you choose. For instance, if your subject is people, do you understand anatomy, proportions, skin and hair textures, and posing?
Again, technique is about control. When having your portfolio reviewed, the reviewer assumes that every decision you’ve made, you’ve made purposefully. This is apparent in the material you use, how you use it, why you use certain shapes repeatedly, and why you use certain color combinations. Be prepared to answer questions about your decisions. If you don’t have answers, don’t be afraid to say I don’t know and ask for advice on how to gain more control.
Concept is about communication. Whether you intend it to or not, your artwork reveals something. It speaks. It’s more than graphite on paper, text on a printout, fabric stitched together, or clay cooked in a kiln. Your artwork is alive, and an extension of you. It’s autobiographical, and reveals what interests you and what doesn’t.
A strong concept engages your audience, encourages discussion, and compels participation. A strong concept might be making a political cartoon, designing a collection of fall garments, or creating a series of abstract sculptures inspired by sea creatures. It’s whatever inspires you, gets you thinking, and challenges your creativity.
This is your opportunity to decide what kind of relationship you want to have with your audience. Do you want to be an entertainer? A storyteller? A protester? An illuminator of ideas? Someone who makes people’s lives easier? Someone who helps people communicate? Someone who speaks about injustice?
Just like technique, you want to take control of your concept. You want your artwork’s message to be purposeful. Consider that what your art doesn’t say can be as interesting as what it does say. Being in control of your concept is important because it shows you’re not just making stuff, you’re thinking and giving your audience a reason to be interested in what you’re sharing.
Risk-taking is about exploring. This is where progress happens. Being an artist is all about taking risks, pushing limits, getting outside of the box, and figuring out what challenges you. If you get too comfortable your work may become stagnant and boring. As you develop more and more skills and confidence, you should constantly be asking yourself what more you can do or need to do to keep growing.
Risk-taking is different for every artist. What is scary or difficult for you might be safe and easy for someone else. For you, it might be working with a different material or subject matter. It might be working larger or smaller, or working dimensionally. It might be telling a story with comics, redesigning a microwave, learning to sew, building a website, or animating a gif.
Don’t be discouraged if your work isn’t always successful. Failure has a way of revealing things and can guide you ever closer to success.
When adding exploratory work to your portfolio, make sure it supplements your other work. It shouldn’t be disparate or distracting. It should be complementary, offering more insight into your goals and interests. As a reviewer, I’m looking at your risk-taking work as a way of understanding what you’re aspiring to as an artist.
Effort is about commitment. You can’t have a strong portfolio if you don’t have effort.
This should be the easiest of the four components to understand, but can often be one of the most difficult to execute. As artists, we constantly question our decisions and chase after a perfection that doesn’t exist. In this way, we can often be our own worst enemies.
If you’re truly serious about building a successful portfolio, being a successful artist, and getting into your dream art college, my advice is get organized. Make a plan. Build yourself a schedule. Set aside time every day to work. Some days you might write down ideas and do research, or do preliminary work, sketches, and mockups. Other days you might work on your final piece. You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish by setting aside as little as thirty minutes a day.
Your effort is apparent to the person reviewing your portfolio. This is important. I suggest that you include 15-20 pieces in it. If you have fewer, it might be a sign that you’re not devoting enough time to your work. The same rule applies for portfolios with more unfinished than finished pieces. And, consider what it says if all of your work is from your art class. Reviewers can easily determine which pieces are class assignments. Class assignments can be good portfolio pieces, but we do want to see that you’re working outside of class, that you’re making work even when no one is asking you to.
Effort is so important because it tells your reviewer, almost immediately, how serious you are.
Think about the four parts as a foundation upon which you build something that is uniquely yours. What actually goes into your portfolio should represent your interests, your goals, and above all else, it should represent you. As colleges become more selective and applications more competitive, it’s important to find ways to separate yourself from others. The more purposeful your portfolio is the better.
Make sure your portfolio lines up with your interests. If you say you want to be a fashion designer, but your portfolio is full of portrait paintings, there’s a disconnect. You might not have access to the right equipment or know how to make garments, so you might have to get creative. Consider designing a collection with illustrations or paper dolls. Do some research; look at fashion portfolios online for ideas on what to include. If you feel stuck, don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals to ask for advice. For any major or career you might consider, think about whether or not the work you’re producing contributes to your interests or dilutes them.
Don’t be afraid to be specialized. If you’re interested in animation and specifically focusing on backgrounds, that should be apparent in your portfolio. If you’re interested in industrial design and specifically designing office furniture, your portfolio should reflect it. If you’re interested in sculpture specifically multimedia abstracts, your portfolio should show that.
Don’t be afraid to be multidisciplinary. If you’re interested in more than one major, career or type of art, consider how you can include that and still build a cohesive portfolio. Look for the intersections within the different types of work and exploit them. If you’re interested in fashion design and cinematic arts, your intersection might be storytelling. As you build your portfolio, focus on how important storytelling is to your fashion design and cinematic arts work.
Have influences, but find your own voice. It’s important to have influences, ones you admire and ones you loath, and as many as you can find. It’s also important not to simply copy your influences. You should be looking to develop your own voice, your own way of working, your own style, your own spin, your own way of solving problems.
When building your portfolio, remember, it’s your portfolio. Be true to yourself and your goals. Be smart, be passionate, be creative, and make sure you’re portfolio says to your reviewer what you want it to say.
Do keep in mind that some colleges have specific portfolio requirements. Some might ask for a specific number of drawings from life or works based on a particular theme. Some want more variety, some want more focus. Be sure to do your research and follow directions.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Talk to your art teachers, local artists, artists you find on the internet, and college reps. Have your portfolio reviewed often and by different people. You’ll hear a variety of feedback, some you’ll like, and some you won’t. Be smart about the feedback you accept and the feedback you dismiss; all feedback has value. Some will guide you to what you want to accomplish and some will guide you away from what you want to accomplish. The more you work on your portfolio and the more you have it reviewed, the better you’ll be at curating the feedback you receive and ultimately, the better you’ll understand your goals and the work you’re making.
Thom Glick is a graduate of Columbus College of Art & Design. He has been working as a professional freelance artist for over fourteen years and in college admissions for over seven. Connect with him online at thomglick.com or linkedin.com/in/thomglick.