Guest Post: On Building A Portfolio

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.

portfolio - concept art - scad 2Over 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

kitchen sink - d'albon high school 2013Technique 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.

portfolio - parsons 2009 - shoesA 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.

Your Portfolio
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.

Portfolio folder 1Don’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.

Now What?
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.

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Guest Post: Studying Art – An Education In Critical Thinking

By Ellen Fraser

Elon fountain

Elon University

Like many students, when I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to choose as my major. All I knew was that I liked reading, writing, and history better than I liked science and math. A liberal arts college seemed like the best fit for me—a place where I could dip my toes into a lot of different disciplines. The first semester of my freshman year, I took an art history class. I decided this would be a good idea because I had always enjoyed history in high school. My favorite part of the subject had always been learning about the ways in which historical happenings influenced aspects of the culture in the place where these happenings, well, happened. Art—its genres, styles, and techniques—was included in this.

Often times, art history has this stereotype of being a class where students sit in a dark room, trying to prevent their eyes from glazing over as they stare at endless slides of ancient artworks that they are expected to memorize for a test at the end of the semester. Well, I went to college at a little school in North Carolina called Elon University, and at this school, I quickly learned that art history did not simply involve a dark room illuminated only by image slides.

logoThe art history program at Elon illuminated my mind. My classes and professors exposed me to art and artists from a variety of geographic locations and time periods. However, and more importantly, they aided in my learning of critical issues that occupy the minds of some of the greatest creators of all time, as well as the fact that works of art can be seen in a variety of ways, and that no way is more correct than another. Also, as a friend to many practitioners of studio art, I was always impressed with the way these students could articulate their concepts when showing their work at campus events. Not only were they talented creators, but they also knew how to talk about their creations.

I never was and (even after having finished my Bachelor’s degree in the subject) am still no artist. And by this I mean only not an artist in a literal sense of the word. Studying art in college taught me how to think critically, to see different perspectives, and to use my thoughts to be a better asker of questions and artist of the written word. These are all important skills to have as students leave college to work on being more aware participants in life. A degree in art, especially from a liberal arts university, can help to sharpen these tools.

Ellen graduated from Elon in the spring of 2014 and is now happily employed by a non-profit arts organization.

 

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Guest Post: Pratt & Fashion Design

It’s fashion show season at art and design colleges across the country. So what’s it like on the inside? I asked Pratt junior Landry Low to give us her perspective.

DSC_0063 -a close upOne of the biggest benefits to going to school in Brooklyn is the fact that I am in one of the major creative hubs, not just in the United States, but also around the world. We have everything at our fingertips – between our close proximity to the other four boroughs and what is available in our own backyard.

I live on the first floor of a brownstone apartment, a short 15-minute walk down the street from Pratt Institute. My roommate, originally from Barbados, is a communications design major (focusing on graphic design). We walk to school together most days, always commenting on how lucky we are to be in such a beautiful neighborhood with a diverse community, rich with culture. Our campus itself is a sort of oasis in the city – complete with expansive lawns, scattered with a constantly changing collection of sculptures. As an Arizona native, I have a special appreciation for the nature on our campus (as most of the nature I’m used to only comes in shades of brown). Whether its tulips and cherry blossom trees in the spring or the colorful foliage of the changing leaves in the fall, our campus is a showcase for the natural beauty that the East Coast has to offer.

I usually try to get to campus a bit early to eat breakfast on the lawn with my friends and cats (we have 16 cats393634_4324009334870_272715025_n -a that live on campus!). Most of my classes start at 9:30 and each meets once a week for a three-, four-, or six-hour time block (with a lunch break splitting up the 6 hour classes). I typically stack my days so that I have two-to-three classes a day, which opens up the rest of my schedule for work. Through work-study I work as a campus tour guide in admissions and as a shop technician in the metal shop.

My favorite day of the week is Tuesday, as that is when I take my six-hour Shape & Form class (a construction based class that is taught in conjunction with our design class). Every other week during spring semester, our department brings in professional fit models for us to fit looks on from our junior thesis collection. This is in 1000896_10201399309767694_1501697596_n -apreparation for senior year, when we’ll spend both semesters developing, creating, fitting, and presenting a final thesis collection. Our entire class is involved in the process – we take photos, videos, and notes for each other, allowing us all to participate, collaborate, and communicate our ideas not just visually, but verbally as well.

As a junior Fashion Design major, I take a four-hour design studio class (Fashion Design), a six-hour construction class (Shape & Form), as well as another four-hour design class (this semester it’s Cut & Sew Knitwear). DSC_0715 - aAfter that, I am free to apply my remaining credits to two liberals arts classes of my choosing, still leaving room for another elective which I can take from any department in the school. I have taken classes in all different areas including Metal Fabrication, Welding & Forge, Intro to Electronics, Woodworking, Perception and Creativity, and Astronomy. One of the best parts about going to a school like Pratt is that I have the opportunity to learn a variety of skills that allow me to create complex cross-disciplinary work. Not only does my own work improve through the implementation of various skills, but I also find that my work has grown dramatically through the collaborative work that I have done with students in other majors as well as in my abroad studies.

Drop me a line if you’re interested in posting about your favorite college art program.
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Guest Post: Cultivate Your Creative Skills

The-three-levels-of-creativity - colored

By Laura Young

Many of my earliest memories are of art. My family was into museums, botanical gardens, and classical concerts, so I started making art very early. Through grade and high school I enjoyed drawing and painting, playing the piano, and acting/comedy improv, but I always saw the visual and performing arts as a separate practice from my academics. Art was just something I did for myself, because it was fun and pleasing, and I didn’t think much beyond that.

When I applied to college, I didn’t want to apply to art school because I liked many subjects. At the nudging of a family member, however, I applied to UCLA’s art department, and to my great surprise, I was admitted. I had turned in a portfolio but my academics did not meet the average profile of campus, so their decision confused me. More than anything else, I didn’t know what I was good at. I had plenty of things that I liked to do, but I wasn’t an expert at anything, so I wondered what UCLA had seen.

The summer before college, however, the luckiest thing happened to me: I got an internship at Disney, with a woman named Peggy van Pelt. Peggy was an executive consultant at the company, and her expertise focused on creative people: how to understand them in order to ensure their happiness, productivity, and positive development. Peggy was the first person to tell me that while I was making art, I was also cultivating many powerful creative skills.

Now that I work with artistic students in the college application process, I often hear them worry that an arts degree isn’t “sensible”. I couldn’t disagree more! Here is a short list of what artists are good at:

– Problem solving – being able to approach an issue and come up with many solutions
– Working alone with minimal supervision
– Working collaboratively
– Working effectively and in a disciplined manner
– Multitasking
– Delivering articulate critique
– Accepting critique and utilizing feedback positively
– Being able to consider issues in the long run as well as in detail

Those of us in the arts have been listening with some amusement to the national discussion on how to develop leaders for the 21st century. Critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, creativity… artists are already fantastic at this. Of course, anyone could learn these important skills in any major, but for creative students, an arts degree program can be the best, most appropriate context to better identify and interact with the world.

So. My message to you is the same one I got from Peggy: you are already so good at so many things.  Go have fun figuring out how to implement your many talents! We’re waiting for you.

 

Laura Young is the Director of Enrollment Management at UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture. She can be reached at laura.miwha.young@gmail.com, and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/lauramyoung/.

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