Making the choice to major in the visual arts for some students can be a tough decision. Not only do you have to go through the academic admissions requirements, but you also have the added pressure of submitting a portfolio of your creative work. For most university art programs and private art schools, your portfolio will play a determining factor in your admission.
But the portfolio needn’t be scary or an obstacle to getting into the college of your choice as long as it is approached in a thoughtful and serious manner.
The first step in developing a portfolio is to create a list of first choice and back-up colleges that you are planning to apply to and contact each of their admissions departments to obtain their particular portfolio and admissions requirements.
Some schools only accept original art whereas some only accept slides; some will accept a digital portfolio and others have size limitations; some have strict application deadlines and others are on rolling admissions. The required content of the portfolio may also differ from college to college and each school’s criteria should be followed as closely as possible.
Even if you are currently enrolled in AP Art or an arts program, consulting with a college admissions counselor can give you guidance with your portfolio in advance; generally, these meetings are preliminary and in most cases, not an official review or interview. Meeting as early as possible with a college counselor will give you the opportunity to strengthen the concept and look of the portfolio though constructive criticism and editing.
The most important detail of preparing your portfolio for college admissions is to remember to give yourself plenty of time and have fun with it. It is almost impossible to create quality work if you are nervous and under a time constraint. Don’t wait until the last minute, and make enough work so you can edit together the best portfolio for each school you plan to apply to.
What to Include
Your portfolio represents you to a college as a potential student and young artist. Preparing your portfolio should be an exciting and thoughtful process that you engage in both in art classes in school and on your own at home. Most students will have completed 10 finished pieces for every one that is actually included in the final portfolio.
Selecting what to include should not be a nerve-racking experience. Most art programs will want to see works that fall into three distinct categories: observational art, personal art or a home exam. Some colleges will require a combination of two or three categories, and others will want to see only one category.
Young artists are usually their own worst critics and should follow the advice of their admissions counselors at the colleges they are applying to regarding what to include in their portfolio. Students tend to edit pieces based on their own personal aesthetics and not on what the colleges are looking for in an artwork. Admission counselors are trained to know what their admissions committee is looking for in a prospective student and can help edit a portfolio to meet the committees needs.
Category One: Observational Art
Observational art is drawing or painting in a traditional method using a still life, figure model, portrait or landscape as the subject and rendering the subject as accurately as possible. The image should not be taken from a photograph or the artists’ imagination, but from real life. Size of the artwork should be approximately 18″ x 24″ or larger in scale and fill the entire surface of the paper or canvas. Most work in this category is done in pencil, charcoal, or other drawing mediums, but it can also include painting and collage.
Category Two: Personal Art
Personal art is the work done outside of a classroom situation and reflects the artists’ unique interests in use of materials, subject matter and concept. Work can be completed in any media including (but not limited to) drawing, painting, photography, mixed media, digital/computer art, film/video, ceramics, sculpture, animation and performance art.
Category Three: Home Exam
The home exam consists of specific work that has been required by a particular college or department. (Example: Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the past has asked that all portfolios include a drawing of a “bicycle”.)
Note on photographic works:
Photographic pieces should be works that are shot and printed by you the artist (do not use photographs printed at photo labs.) When it comes to photography, schools are just as interested in why you chose the subject matter as in how well it was printed. You should always attach a brief description (typed) on the back of each photograph explaining why you made that particular print or series of prints.
Presentation of the portfolio is very important — consider this just as you would a personal interview.
Due to the cost of mailing and lack of storage, most colleges will generally want the portfolio submitted in 35-mm slide format. Original artwork, if requested, should be documented on slides prior to mailing in case the portfolio is lost in the mail or unfortunately damaged. Follow each college’s guidelines to the best of your ability and if you have questions regarding how to submit your portfolio, don’t hesitate to call the admissions department of the school for directions.
- If you need to photograph your works on slides, always take enough slides of each individual work so that you can send them to all the schools that you are applying to (it’s better to have too many than too few.) Always keep a master set that you can duplicate at a later date if you need to.
- Give yourself plenty of time prior to the due date of the portfolio. Documenting artwork can be tricky and it may take more than one attempt to get it right.
- Use a 35mm camera with manual operation, if possible. The background should be solid white or black depending on the art.
- When photographing indoors, use photoflood bulbs for lighting because a flash will often produce glare or hot spots.
- Outdoor photography usually produces even lighting. Be sure to prevent shadows from falling on two-dimensional work. Shadows are sometimes desirable for three-dimensional work if they help define edges or textures.
- Fill the frame in the viewfinder with the image of your work so that it is centered and parallel with the frame lines.
- If you still need to edit the image you can mask parts of the slide with a special tape that is sold in camera stores.
- Only submit focused and clear slides.
- Label the slides with your name, date, title, and dimensions of the work. (Avery brand #5267 return address labels work great for slides and can be done on a home computer and printed using most word processing programs.)
- Include a separate typed slide description sheet.
- Do not include torn or poorly cared for work.
- Include your most recent work.
- Include only finished or completed works (avoid sending too many studies or gestures.)
- Include your name, date, title of work and your social security number on the back of each individual artwork.
- Photograph on slides all 3-dimensional/sculptural work (do not mail 3-dimensional work.)
Video, Disc, and CD-ROM Portfolios
- Make sure that your work is as finished/complete as possible.
- Do not assume the college will accept a new media portfolio. Check with each individual college to see if they will accept new media presentations and what format or software they can accommodate..
- Include a color printout of the work as well as a copy on disk format with attached list of instructions and programs used.
- Video should adhere to each school’s time limitations and compatibility requirements.
Note on portfolio delivery: Mail portfolios “Return Receipt Requested” to ensure that delivery of your work made it to the right department/person in a timely manner.
If your school does not offer a strong art program, or if you feel you need more help preparing your portfolio, consider attending a continuing education or prep course offered by an art college. Many art schools and universities offer low-cost courses in continuing or community programs, sometimes called Portfolio Development or Preparation courses.
If you’re a high school student, check the pre-college summer programs at art schools, where you have the chance to spend four to six weeks building basic skills in drawing, color and design, as well the opportunity to receive college credit and experience. Many of the summer programs also offer housing and scholarship opportunities. Check the schools for more information.
About the author: Kavin Buck received his BFA in 1987 from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 1989. Mr. Buck also completed the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program in 1990 and a PS-1 Museum studio residency in 1992. As a professional artist he has exhibited his work in-group and solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York and Europe. Mr. Buck has been director of admissions at Otis College of Art and Design and is currently the Director of Recruitment and Outreach for the School of Arts and Architecture at the University of California Los Angeles.