Artists: How to Stay Focused on College

Haverford College

It’s that golden time of year again. The ghosts, goblins, and Disney characters have all gone home. Sidewalks are blanketed with autumn leaves and daylight savings time ends this weekend. Thanksgiving and winter break will be here before you know it. Even though the calendar ahead is whispering “r & r,” families of college-bound artists need to stay focused. Yes, the approaching December break is a good time for rest and relaxation, but I’d like to add another “r” into the mix: reassessing the family college plan. Irrespective of the grade your high school creative is in, make sure he is being strategic, planning wisely, and taking action towards his artistic future.

Here are some tips to help your visual artist stay focused:

Studio space, Carnegie Mellon

Seniors
January general application deadlines are looming. Now is the time to stop procrastinating and double-check everything. Finalize essays, confirm that applications and transcripts have been received, and verify that reference letters have been submitted. If discrepancies are found, contact your guidance counselor or the college representative to clear things up. Finalize your portfolio. If you find it doesn’t say all you want it to, then create more art! There is still time. Then upload your selections to each college’s SlideRoom account. Lastly, consider squeezing in an interview. Contact your top choice programs to inquire if they offer them. Interviews show demonstrated interest and might be just the added ticket to place you into the “accept” column when decision time comes around.

Juniors
Keep creating! Winter break is a perfect time to focus on your growing portfolio. The downtime also provides opportunities to get closer to what makes you tick. Attending art fairs, local craft shows, and art exhibits can all provide inspiration. Have honest conversations with family and friends to help you hone in on what’s important to you artistically and otherwise. Is your ideal college location a large urban setting? Or would you prefer to stay close to home? What about cost? College costs are staggering. If financial aid is a necessity, then make sure you include it as part of your college family discussions. All these thoughts and considerations will help you find the right college fit. Being realistic now will help eliminate idealistic expectations and crushing disappointment down the road.

College for Creative Studies

Underclassmen
It’s not too early to begin envisioning your college future. Your best preparation is to keep drawing, creating and making. Follow wherever your art takes you. December is also a great time to see what winter is truly like on the campus of your dreams. Go exploring and get your steps in by visiting a college or two – even if most students have gone home for the break. Those still on campus will most likely be happy to answer questions about the place, the food, the professors… You get the picture. And when the weather dictates indoor time make sure to keep up with your reading. The commitment to it now will help develop your vocabulary and writing skills for those upcoming pesky standardized tests.

Juniors and underclassmen can all benefit from campus visits. Most tours and information sessions are unavailable in late December, but it doesn’t hurt to swing by a college or two if you’re nearby. Strolling across campus and checking out the local neighborhood can still influence future decisions. And, especially if winter isn’t your season, start thinking about summer art programs. Sign-ups for pre-college programs will be on college websites before you know it.

Crafting an Artist Statement

Lenivec (flickr)

The language of artists and designers is visual. Color, light, composition, texture, and dimension are the paragraphs and punctuation of our stories. Yet, working artists and college-bound creatives also need to rely on words to communicate our creative goals and vision.

That’s where an artist statement comes in. These useful tools help audiences’ access and understand the why behind our artistry. And, for many applying to college art programs, artist statements are an essential part of the application process.

So how do you create one and what should it include?

book of life, david kracov

Think It Through
Begin with some genuine self-examination. Artist statements are an introduction to your work. They explain your inspiration and your approach to making. Start by answering some tough questions:

  • What are you trying to express through your work?
  • What keeps you coming back to it day after day?
  • What influences you? (This could be anything from other artists to social issues, etc.)
  • What themes do you have running through your work?
  • What medium do you work in and why? What materials are essential to your toolbox?

Write It Down
Follow these few tips when putting pen to paper:

What to Write

  • Address why you create what you create
  • Be personal
  • Talk about your goals and what you hope to achieve through your art
  • Explain your choice of materials and your techniques
  • Share what you’re trying to communicate

monks cradle 2, tommy olaughlin and patrick dougherty

How to Write It

  • Be clear and honest
  • Write in the first person, using “I” instead of “you”
  • Be concise; 50-100 words is enough for a college statement
  • Stay away from clichés and artistic jargon
  • Don’t summarize your resume
  • Remember, this is about your work, not you

Crafting a well-written artist statement is a difficult yet very valuable exercise. Your written description will become an important link between you and your audience. And after you’ve presented it as part of your college admissions you can amend it for any future gallery or show submissions.

The Sophomore Slump: 4 Tips To Keep Your Visual Artist Focused In High School

Typically referring to college, the sophomore slump can just as easily take place in high school. Even though high school has become a familiar place for your teen, now is no time to chill out. Colleges take sophomore year efforts and grades seriously. Your budding artist should too. So, how do you ensure that your teen avoids a second-year slump? A little bit of focus goes a long way.

Maintain your attention on grades. Colleges consider high school coursework and grades more telling than anything in their selection process. That being said, take note of the classes your teen is taking. Is she stretching herself artistically and academically? The most advanced studio and non-studio classes all have prerequisites. Honors Drawing and Painting preclude Studio Art and Independent Study just as Global History precludes AP U.S. Government. Now’s the time to reassess and refocus to ensure your burgeoning designer is on task to achieve her goals. Your high school guidance counselor and art teachers can help tweak her schedule and focus if needed.

NY Times

NY Times

Get ready for the SAT. Those bedeviling proficiency tests are looming. Whether an art school or university is in your creative’s future, taking them is necessary, and now is the time to get practicing. The PSAT and PLAN provide your teen with an introduction to the SAT and ACT exams respectively. These “practice” tests deliver real value: they lessen fears by getting your teen acquainted with what is unfamiliar and they convey an idea of the score range your teen can expect in next year’s real exams. Additionally, the PSAT is used to determine National Merit Scholarship awards. The PSAT and PLAN are typically taken in October. Check with your college counselor to know when your tests will be offered.

sophomore-yearEngage with your teen. Discover what he wants to study in college and uncover the type of college experience he envisions. Is a BFA or a BA the desired end result? The decision will impact the type of school he chooses. Does he prefer a large campus experience with a diverse student body and non-stop activities or will he thrive best in an environment that breathes art and design 24/7? Visiting colleges will give you and your student a sense for campus life as well as begin to define preferences for size and location. Pick diverse colleges to visit, make a plan about when you’ll tour, and use those long car drives to discuss his likes and dislikes.

Portfolio prep (c) ashcan school

Portfolio prep (c) ashcan school

Focus on portfolio development. This should be a top priority throughout high school regardless of where your teen applies. Many programs don’t require a portfolio for admission, but you’ll want to be prepared for either option. Also, just like muscles, repeated development and practice of artistic skills will only strengthen them. Your teen should be working with high school art teachers and engaging in outside artistic opportunities to broaden his abilities. Here the adage “practice makes perfect” definitely applies.

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Searching for the Best College Fit

This past week I had the pleasure of participating in Bexley High School’s College Awareness Night, an event devoted to answering questions about college for teens and parents. During the evening, I led a wonderful discussion on the College Search Process for the Visual Arts. Our conversation focused on getting organized, identifying options and resources, and planning ahead for a successful search.

A few of the questions I answered included:

  • What are the differences between an arts college and a liberal arts college?
  • Can you explain what goes into a portfolio?
  • How do I determine which are the best art programs for my teen?

It was an energetic and engaging discussion.

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 8.02.49 AM

Where are you in your search process? Are you feeling like you don’t know where to begin? Are you confused and overwhelmed in the midst of your teen’s search? Are you trying to compare multiple creative programs, or perhaps trying to understand the portfolio process?

If you answer “yes” to any of the above, give me a call. I’ll help you understand what decisions need to be made, alleviate some of the stress of your search, and help your family develop a plan to find the best college fit for your teen.

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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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