How to Make Your Art Portfolio Pop

If you're planning to continue your arts education in college, you'll need a strong application portfolio. Here's how to build the best one possible.

Whether you’re a Cooper Union hopeful or simply planning to continue your arts education in college, a strong portfolio is a must-have in an increasingly competitive admission climate. The final product will not only be a potential tipping point between acceptance and rejection; it will also impact the amount of scholarships and financial aid you’re offered. But don’t panic: a well-organized and carefully thought-out selection of work will highlight your talents and demonstrate your ability across a variety of areas. Here’s how to build the best art portfolio possible:

  • Always include more than the minimum. If the limit is 15 pieces but you’re asked for  10, go the extra mile and upload at least 12 or 13. This will show interest and commitment to the admission committee and allow you to share the full extent of your experience in the arts.
  • Keep it professional. To further boost your chances of admission, you want your work to look its best possible, and this means taking the best quality photos possible. Ask if you can use your school’s photography lab (assuming you have one) or approach a trusted art teacher to take the photos for you. Admissions counselors recommend keeping the lighting even and cropping out all corners and margins. If you’re photographing 3D pieces (i.e. pottery, jewelry, or sculpture), a blank white background is best. Stripes or crazy patterns can draw attention away from your art, which is the absolute last thing you want.
  • Choose a selection of your best pieces. Although it sounds like a no-brainer, you want to highlight your strengths, both imaginative and technical. All pieces selected should demonstrate high skill, appear inspired and original, and display a knowledge of the elements and principles of art.

Related: Choosing Art Pieces for Your College Application Portfolio

  • Sketches are fine—just not too many. Believe it or not, including preliminary sketches or drafts as part of your portfolio is a great way to show the evolution of your artistic process. If you’ve taken a life or figure drawing class and want to use work from that as well, feel free! Of course, make sure the pieces are of a certain quality, highlight the change in your work, and aren’t taking up space in your portfolio that could be better filled by something else.
  • Take the mandatory technical piece seriously. RISD, for one, is famous for its required bicycle drawing, and the time you invest will signify your interest level immediately. Believe me, they can tell if you dash it off the night before it’s due. Instead, think of this as a way to showcase not only your technical skills but your creativity. A fresh rendering of a tired old prompt will make you stand out in a sea of boring approaches.
  • Highlight your most recent work. A general rule of thumb: if it’s older than two years, it’s out. Although there are some exceptions, are few and far between. Whether it’s apparent or not, you’re constantly changing and growing, and your newest output most adequately reflects your interests and ability.
  • Demonstrate interest and passion. If none or very few of your pieces were created outside of formal art classes, you might want to reevaluate your dedication to the craft. Admission officers aren’t stupid, and they’ll know when you were so inspired by a project that you went the extra mile to bring your idea to life.
  • Think outside the box. Avoid common pitfalls like “mug-shot” self-portraits or other staples of high school foundation classes. Watch out for cliches in your work, such as roses, mushrooms, skulls, snakes, and rainbows (according to my AP art teacher—shoutout to Mr. Blais!). If you can’t adequately explain its importance, it probably doesn’t need to be there.
  • Showcase a wide variety of work. You want your art to demonstrate creativity and technical ability, but it should also span a wide range of subject matter. Most colleges want to see a self-portrait or two, a still life, a figure study, and work of your choice with an imaginative or allegorical element. 2D art should, if possible, encompass a variety of media, from graphite and charcoal to oil pastel and watercolor.
  • Check the College Board and college-specific websites for ideas. The College Board, which administers the AP art exams, has some great examples of real student portfolios with their scores and accompanying information. Many colleges and universities also post the complete portfolios of scholarship winners on their websites, which should give you a good idea of what they’re looking for in applicants.
  • Show continuity. If you’ve taken AP or honors art, you’ve likely completed a concentration: a series of about 12 pieces exploring a particular concept or idea. At least two concentration pieces should be included to display the different ways you approached the idea. This is also an ideal opportunity to talk about the challenges you faced during the project, how your ideas evolved over time, or the artistic vision you’ve developed for your work.
  • Start and finish strong. One of the most helpful tips I was given by an admission counselor was to never underestimate the power of a first impression. The initial piece in your portfolio should be exceptionally well executed and vibrant enough to capture the attention of the admission officer and make them eager to see the rest of your work. The second piece should also reinforce your level of talent, as well as the final component of the portfolio, which should leave a lasting impact on the viewer’s mind.
  • Think about flow. On a similar note, give some thought to the arrangement of the pieces within your portfolio as a whole. Related pieces should accompany each other, and different media/subject matters should alternate to maintain the viewer’s attention. Bookending a weaker piece with two stronger ones can be an effective way to deflect attention from its flaws.
  • Emphasize your special interests. If you’re submitting a portfolio of traditional 2D pieces but intend to study sculpture, jewelry, or pottery along with painting and illustration, highlight your skills and interest by including sample pieces. Make sure to note your background in these areas as well as your plans for college!
  • Explain, explain, explain. Colleges provide space for accompanying notes for a reason: they’re genuinely curious to hear about your thought process and motivation behind your work. By taking the time to inform them of the methods to your madness, you’re not only demonstrating your commitment to your craft—you’re proving your worth as a candidate.

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