How to Create an Art Portfolio for College Admissions

Many students underestimate the impact of an art portfolio when they begin the process of applying to an art school. While many schools, such as Hussian College, do not require an art portfolio as part of the application process, if the option is available it can be a good idea to take advantage of the opportunity and forward along your pieces. Not only will doing so help you stand out as an applicant, but if you received poor grades in high school or less-than-impressive SAT scores, an art portfolio can serve as a reiteration of your dedication as a student.

While building an art portfolio can be intimidating if you’ve never created one before, it’s not as challenging as you may think! To the benefit of many students, there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to putting your pieces together, but there are some guidelines that can help ensure the success of your portfolio. Here’s a closer look…

What is an Art Portfolio?

An art portfolio is not simply a collection of your artwork. Think of it as a visual résumé or calling card. It is a compilation of photographs or scans of created artwork, carefully chosen to demonstrate your artistic and technical talent. When it comes to what is included in a portfolio, there is no right or wrong! A portfolio can be made up of illustrations, graphics, paintings, photography, audio-visual clips, 3D modeling, ceramics, and more.

What Degrees Usually Require an Art Portfolio?

You may be surprised how many programs include a portfolio in their art school application process. Whether or not you need to submit a portfolio largely depends on the particular school, but these programs generally request a portfolio be submitted:

  • Fine Visual Arts, such as illustration, printmaking, sculpture, and photography

  • Graphic Design

  • Industrial/Interior Design

  • Art Education

  • Art History

  • Performing Arts, such as theatre, dance, and music

What Should You Put in Your Art Portfolio?

Just as you might not list every single summer job you’ve had on a resume, your art portfolio should not be treated like a repository for every piece of art you have created. You want to make sure that everything in your portfolio fulfills the requirements of that particular school and speaks clearly to who you are as an artist. With that in mind, there are some things to be considered.

What Does an Admissions Team Typically Look For?

What do art schools look for in a portfolio? Depending on the program, there may be specific items you are asked to include, but generally these are what the admissions team will be looking for.

  • Above Anything Else, Passion! While of course the admissions team will be impressed by artist skill, they are most interested in seeing pieces that showcase pride in their creation. They understand that you may not yet have obtained skills of composition or technique. With that said, include pieces that you are proud of. Your passion will shine through.
  • Creativity and Versatility. The admissions team expects that students will include a lot of work in their preferred art form(s), but they are interested in artists who are skilled in a variety of media. They want people who can apply their artistic skills in a number of ways. They also want prospective students who are willing to explore and experiment with new things, as it is important to your artistic growth.
  • Uniqueness and Personality. Schools want students with personalities. Your art portfolio should show what’s unique about who you are and how you look at the world. Technical merit without the artistic component and the artist’s passion isn’t art – it’s replication. You want your portfolio to convince the admissions team that you will get a lot out of the school and that the school will benefit from having you in its student body.

How to Choose Which Pieces to Include in Your Art Portfolio

Admissions staff are looking to learn who you are as a person, thinker, and artist. You can do that by including the following elements.

  1. A Variety of Techniques.
    • Unless the application states otherwise, your portfolio may include work of pretty much any technique – and the more, the better. Of course, if you are not particularly strong with one technique, don’t include it – you still want to showcase your best work.
  2. A Variety of Mediums.
    • Highlight your artistic strengths with as many different mediums as you can, but don’t put in the more mediocre pieces purely for the sake of having them. Make sure that these works demonstrate your talent, creativity, and capabilities. There are so many mediums to choose from: paints (acrylic, watercolor, oil), sketching materials (charcoal, inks, graphite, pastels), ceramics, film, and of course, combinations of these.
  3. A Variety of Subjects.
    • There are endless possibilities – landscapes, people, objects, and of course, whatever may be relevant to the degree program you’re applying to. Admissions staff want to see a variety. Additionally, make sure that you’re not copying another artist’s work, or things like anime, tattoo designs, or logos.
  4. A Variety of Styles.
    • Art schools love students who really understand the different artistic styles and are able to put their own spin on them. While most art students have their preferred styles, being able to show artistic flexibility can make a good impression on the admissions team. As with the different mediums, there are so many styles and movements to choose from – and mix: abstract art, realism, photorealism, impressionism, expressionism, fauvism – just to name a few.
  5. Process and Development Artwork, if Allowed. 
    • While many are inclined to only include completed pieces, artwork that is still in development shows how you think as an artist and how you achieve the end result. Unfinished pieces or sketches provide insight into how your mind works from the concept stage through completion, helping to paint a picture of how you generate ideas, research, and experiment. Sometimes this is even more fascinating than the art itself!

How to Create/Build an Art Portfolio

In the end, you want your portfolio to tell a story. That story could be about how you’ve grown as a person or artist, ideas or events that have inspired you, or even how you make common artist styles all your own.

  1. The Earlier You Start Building Your Art Portfolio, the Better

Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of attending art school. Or, maybe this is a new adventure. Either way, try to give yourself as much time as possible to create portfolio pieces, especially if you’re starting from scratch. An art portfolio is not something that should be rushed; pressure stifles creativity!

  1. Know the Portfolio Requirements of the School(s) You’re Applying to

Map out all deadlines, as well as any unique requirements. While some schools may be more relaxed in their requirements, others may require a certain number of pieces or may only accept digital files. Avoid immediate rejection by ensuring you follow any necessary guidelines.

  1. Don’t Focus on What You Think They Want to See

This is different from making sure you meet all the requirements. This is more about speculating about what styles, mediums, or techniques the admissions team members may prefer, out of some belief that catering to them will provide a benefit or edge. Most artists appreciate different interpretations and styles. They are more interested in how you apply yourself.

  1. Show Them Why They Want You

Show them your originality and creativity, as well as your attention to detail. Show them your versatility by include different styles, techniques, and mediums. Arrange your pieces in a way that presents a theme. This could be things like: how your personal development has affected your art; how your artistic style has evolved; or even how quick of a learner you are. Stories are what make the collection memorable, not necessarily the other way around.

How to create a Digital Art Portfolio

As an aspiring artist, you should create and maintain a digital art portfolio regardless of the application process or requirements. You may wish to make an easily accessible webpage that you can link to prospective clients or employers; the more convenient it is for the viewer to access your work, the better.

  • Take high quality photographs of your work. You may have to tinker with the lighting to get the best results. You don’t want the admissions staff or viewers of your virtual portfolio to be distracted by lens flares or reflections. If your photographs are of poor-quality, they may think it is your art that is substandard.
  • Make sure the photographs accurately depict the level of detail, textures, and colors of your artwork. Color correct them if necessary, and crop them so that there isn’t much blank background around the piece.
  • For free-standing pieces, such as a sculpture, it may be impossible to fully crop the background from the image. In these instances, make sure the background is a solid, neutral color that doesn’t take away from the piece itself. Bright colors can take the eye away from the actual art, and sometimes unintentionally effect the color of the piece. Colors such as black and white, on the other hand, can play up the tones of the art. Compare how your piece looks against these neutrals and pick the one that makes your art really “pop”.
  • Keep your virtual portfolio updated regularly. As you grow as an artist, you will obtain new skills. In some cases, your style may change all together. Update your portfolio frequent so that you always have something ready to share.
  • Arrange your artwork in the order of which you’d like them to be viewed (if applicable)
  • Keep your portfolio crisp, clean, and easy to view by embracing whitespace and including minimal text. Cramped layouts or wordy descriptions can be distracting and hard on the eyes.

Have Questions About a School’s Portfolio Requirements?

It is much better to contact admissions and ask your questions as early as possible, so you’re not second-guessing when you are putting together your art portfolio. This is true even if a portfolio is not mandatory. Speaking with the admissions staff will provide insight – and often, reassurance – about what you should be highlighting, and if the portfolio is not mandatory, you may already be making yourself stand apart from students who decide not to submit one at all.

Contact Hussian College with any questions about our admissions process or what we look for in an art portfolio.