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Here is what should be in your portfolio..

taxguytaxguy Registered User Posts: 6,629 Senior Member
edited September 2009 in Visual Arts and Film Majors
My daughter applied to a number of art schools and schools with art programs several years ago. I thought I would share what we learned from the process since there are many repetitive posts on what should be in a portfolio. This should provide you with a big edge over others that don't read this:


First, do NOT do all or even do mostly 3d work. Do NOT do all or even mostly 3d work. Did I say that enough times? If you were applying to graduate school in animation, having a 3d porfolio would be appropriate. However, for undergraduate design and art programs, it isn't appropriate or even desireable!

Schools will tell you what they want for their portfolio on the schools' web sites. FOLLOW THEIR DIRECTIONS TO THE LETTER!

For the most part, they want observational drawings. Thus, you should have drawings of objects, buildings, people and animals. Drawing forest scenes and flowers is good too. DON'T just take pictures and copy them over! You want to draw from observation.Also, if a school wants 10-15 pieces, only send your your best 10-15 pieces.

Secondly, you want diversity in your portfolio. This has two meanings. You should draw a variety of objects such as people, animals, rooms, buildings etc. Secondly, you should use a variety of mediums such as pencil, pen, acryilac etc. Don't just focus on one medium..

Thirdly, and this is the clincher, attend national porfolio day in your area with your potential portfolio in both your junior year and senior year before you submit your portfolio. In fact, if you have a sufficient number of good drawings, I might even suggest going to porfolio day while a sophomore year in order to get feedback.

You need to really listen to what is said about your portfolio by the reviewers because each school looks for some slightly different stuff.

For example, Syracuse wanted lots of color pieces. CMU School of Design, wanted a few pieces that show motion such as four pictures of a hand doing different phases of a magic trick or flipping a coin.

RIT wanted strong drawing wth a diversified set of subjects. You can learn what each school wants by going to portfolio day. However, it is CRUCIAL that you read over the school's website, which discusses what should be in the portfolio for that school.

You would be amazed at home many kids didn't follow the directions given on the web site. We were at CMU's interview and portfolio review. Even though CMU clearly requested drawings from observations with some diversification, at least half the kids did otherwise. One kid used only photographs. One gal only showed drawings of faces. Some kids only used one medium. At least one girl showed great drawings,but they were clearly copies of printed work such as ads, famous pieces etc.

Bottom line: Follow the instructions on their web site.

Finally, make sure that your portfolio pieces are professionally arranged and photographed. Don't just send in paper. Put copies of the pieces in a nice folder with a cover letter describing each peace. Number your pieces so that the reviewer can tell what description goes with what piece.

Have your pieces professionally photographed. There are photographers who specialize in portfolio pictures.

Bottom line:Be professional about everything you do and about everything you send the school.
Post edited by taxguy on

Replies to: Here is what should be in your portfolio..

  • worried_momworried_mom Registered User Posts: 2,205 Senior Member
    ^^AMEN^^

    Taxguy has given very valuable advice. If you follow his guidelines, you will definitely have a leg up on most art school candidates.
  • joeschmoejoeschmoe Registered User Posts: 50 Junior Member
    I wouldn't presume to know what any particular school wants to see, but I would completely agree with what taxguy wrote about following instructions and attending National Portfolio Day.

    You should be able to show your creativity within the boundary of requested formatting. I think it is unfortunate that the schools cannot get together and have some standard about size of images and pixels per inch, etc.

    National Portfolio Day is like getting a free critique from very high end schools. Additionally, you may get your portfolio accepted that day from some schools.

    Professional photography is not necessary, but helpful. We did not use it, but my daughter still managed to get accepted to some good schools, including RISD and MICA. Maybe it was just luck. However, we did show our initial images to some photographers, who made suggestions about lighting and background, including what kind of lightbulb to use.

    My daughters portfolio was a mix of 2D, 3D and photography.
  • PastelPastel Registered User Posts: 100 Junior Member
    This is great advice.

    I don't plan on applying to art school (except maybe RISD) but I am submitting art supplements so I have some questions:

    1. What percent of your portfolio should be observational? I have a few done from photographs. I'm planning something like this:

    2 Figure Drawings (charcoal & pastel) all from observation
    2 Graphite Sketches (graphite) all from obs.
    6 Pieces (watercolor, pastel, & oil) all from obs.
    3 Experimental Media (really crazy media i.e. chocolate; PM me for examples) but 2 out of 3 are from photographs

    Also, 7 of the above (INCLUDING the 2 figure drawings) will be portraits/figures. Is that a major setback?

    My most impressive pieces (at least in embodying the mix of technical & creative abilities) are from experimental media, but 2/3 are not observational. Is that bad?

    2. Also, will colleges believe if I say that a self portrait is done from observation? I'm going to sit in front of a mirror.
  • taxguytaxguy Registered User Posts: 6,629 Senior Member
    Pastel, I will say it again: READ the college's web site that deal with your portfolio. Just follow what they ask for.
  • jerzgrlmomjerzgrlmom Registered User Posts: 1,245 Senior Member
    My DD decided late in the game to switch from an academic track to Graphic Design (BFA program) and had to work like crazy to get a portfolio ready. She took 2 Drawing classes junior/senior year outside of HS and she bumped up to Art Studio through the G/T program. Her classmates were "perfecting" their portfolios while she was just starting hers.

    She read up on Graphic Design curriculums and couldn't believe the wide range offered and she visited schools. She ultimately decided she wanted a BFA instead of a BA. Like taxguy's daughter, she saw that BFA programs all stressed drawing pieces from observation. Some schools only wanted portfolios mailed in or presented in online websites. She had NO time to do those, when she was furiously trying to draw the required pieces - so she eliminated those schools from her list.

    She didn't attend any portfolio days but we did just happen to arrive on a campus one fall day during portfolio day. All students were in the same room, while several professors did reviews. We were allowed to stay and watch/listen. We found that many students brought all kinds of work, many in very fancy books. We saw some very professional looking 3D items set up. BUT the reviewers kept asking to see drawing. One other thing we noticed was that students were asked to introduce their work and discuss it. Some students were literally speechless and seemed to have no idea what to say.

    My DD only applied to schools where she could present her portfolio in person since she didn't have time to photograph it to her liking or put online (she had mono fall of 12th grade). I stayed in the waiting room at the Syracuse review but it went well (she was told she was in and she eventually was offered a large merit scholarship). At RIT, I was invited to sit in on the review. I said nothing (since I know nothing) but I saw that my DD seemed quite comfortable talking about her work. She was questioned on WHY she made the choices she did. I could tell the reviewer was trying to assess if the decisions were hers or her teacher. Much of her work was done on her own (not homework) - and that was asked. Several times the reviewer questioned my DD on WHY she chose a certain direction. I thought she would get flustered but she didn't. I realized then that this major was a good choice for her. She really knew what she was talking about and was comfortable with this process. She lit up and you could tell she enjoyed what she was doing. Now although she was a straight A student up through Calculus, if you questioned her on WHY such and such, I don't think she would have answered as easily.

    She also freely discussed what her interests were (photography, architecture) and WHY this college was the right program. She also was asked if she had other work with her, perhaps something from her classes. Her art studio teacher had suggested she included a few pieces in the back of her portfolio book so she did and she also brought along her sketchbook. She wound up being awarded a merit scholarship from that Design School.

    SO, be prepared to speak about your work, style, media chosen, color choices. I noticed my DD even mentioned (and showed in her sketchpad) ideas she tried that didn't pan out. The reviewer seemed interested in knowing what she had learned from the experience. So don't be afraid to admit mistakes and failures (such as drawing "floating" objects).
  • valtergeorgevaltergeorge Registered User Posts: 73 Junior Member
    Following the website's instructions would get you accepted for sure, but it would not get you very much scholarship. Art schools would much rather see an in-depth exploration of one idea. Before I go into that, just know there are two types of art schools; mostly-traditional and mostly-conceptual.

    I will start with the traditional. Those are schools like Pratt, RISD, PAFA, etc. and their curriculum is very structured. Those schools look for 2D drawn material and those are the schools where the advice you gave would be beneficial. However to maximize your scholarship, your body of work should be diverse AND cohesive; explore different sizes and media, but make sure your work has a common thread. Be careful and try to avoid literal and overdone themes and imagery (paintings of hands, screaming self-portraits, jellyfish). One of my teachers was a MICA rep and she would tell me stories of "Kitsch Bingo Cards" all the reps would keep.

    NOW, schools like SMFA, Cooper, SAIC, and potentially MICA (though it can be traditional as well), they never ever ever ever ever want to see you turn in a still life. you will not get in if you show them observational drawings (you may get in,but dont expect any money). The no-3D rule does not apply here either. I am currently being recruited by SAIC and my portfolio is 50% sculpture and installation, 25% video, and 25% collage. I do not have even one drawing or painting in my portfolio.

    SO, in conclusion, the above post is helpful(ish) for traditional art schools, but it just wont fly with the more avant garde schools
  • RainingAgainRainingAgain Registered User Posts: 699 Member
    Based upon my experience reviewing a couple of thousand portfolios for a significant art college, I disagree with valtergeorge in part, and agree with taxguy. Of course I cannot speak for any colleges but one.

    01. Follow whatever recommendations are posted or printed by the school. Add additional work if you wish as long as it demonstrates a strength. Traditional and conceptual work are both welcome. Try to mix it up a bit if you can, but originality will go a long way.

    02. What valtergeorge largely describes would seem to be an application portfolio for an M.A. or M.F.A program where schools may be looking for a single concentration and focus especially towards the conceptual.

    03. Portfolio-based scholarships are based upon the quality of work, pretty much regardless of what types of work you submit at the undergraduate level and diversity is appreciated.
  • valtergeorgevaltergeorge Registered User Posts: 73 Junior Member
    i understand diversity is appreciated, but if students submit MFA program quality work applying to an undergrad school, or at least show that sort of mentality, then surely the schools would understand the need to give them more scholarship money.

    I do not mean to take away from your experiences as a reviewer or representative, however I have found in my own personal experiences at an arts high school that colleges like variety but give the big money to the focused and specialised
  • bears and dogsbears and dogs - Posts: 3,076 Senior Member
    watch out young friend. This OP and the person you are talking back now are two gurus, as of Dr. Seuss' south going and north going zax-es.
  • redbug119redbug119 Registered User Posts: 880 Member
    Valter - What do you mean by being "recruited". Do they keep calling, begging you to attend SAIC? Have they offerred you merit $$? My daughter visited SAIC and had her portfolio accepted on the spot. Hers is a mix of observational drawing, graphic design, comics and a few photos No sculpture or animation. She has not gone thru the application process yet, but plans to and hoepfuly get some merit $$.
  • RainingAgainRainingAgain Registered User Posts: 699 Member
    //i understand diversity is appreciated, but if students submit MFA program quality work applying to an undergrad school, or at least show that sort of mentality, then surely the schools would understand the need to give them more scholarship money.//

    Let me try again...

    The vast majority of undergraduate applicants largely are not capable of submitting an MFA-quality, unified body of conceptual work. If an undergraduate student can successfully pull it off, then sure enough, it will likely work in their favor.

    However, I don't want anyone to think that a diversified portfolio cannot deserve and earn undergraduate-level, portfolio-based scholarships which are based upon quality and indication of talent regardless of media or concentration. Talent is talent, and it is relatively easy to spot. If the student has it, throw more money at him/her.
  • RainingAgainRainingAgain Registered User Posts: 699 Member
    // The reviewer seemed interested in knowing what she had learned from the experience. So don't be afraid to admit mistakes and failures (such as drawing "floating" objects). //

    Sure enough. The reviewer was assessing her potential as a student of art/design. The vast majority of schools welcome diamonds in the rough. All schools relish the opportunity to polish the talent. Nothing is more gratifying.
  • samclaresamclare Registered User Posts: 36 Junior Member
    I was so glad to see this difference explained. S has visited a number of art programs or met reps at national portfolio days and they had wildly different advice for him. SAIC also accepted him on the spot and said don't send any of your still lifes or observationals in the portfolio when you apply to get money--we're a concept shop. They want him to send only his animation work and sculptures which show his vision and imagination. MICA has asked for a bit of everything but only if it is good (don't send stuff that you know doesn't show your skills to the max). RISD is very clear and directed in what they want even telling you what to draw...show strong basic 2D techniques and concept may win you some extra points or money. This seems to be on the "traditional" end of the spectrum.

    Art programs located in Universities seem to be less devoted to one approach or the other. VCU and CMU say that they like to see the strong 2-D skills but concept alone can get you in too. VCU raved about S's figure drawing while seemed less keen on the animation. CMU cares about grades and test scores as well as portfolio so does the really high score mean more than the portfolio?


    Personally, SAIC's "accept on the spot" by one admission officer without any other review seems like outrageous pandering to the ego of a 17 year old and smells suspiciously like a scam to take parent's money. I didn't want to dampen S's enthusiasm from the SAIC acceptance because all art schools have been very supportive but none have just said...hey, cool animation, come and spend $45,000 a year with us....The others have said...your portfolio looks really good, think about adding this or changing that and ...please consider submitting an application and a portfolio. Is anyone else a little suspicious of SAICs portfolio review process?
  • RainingAgainRainingAgain Registered User Posts: 699 Member
    // Personally, SAIC's "accept on the spot" by one admission officer without any other review seems like outrageous pandering to the ego of a 17 year old and smells suspiciously like a scam to take parent's money. I didn't want to dampen S's enthusiasm from the SAIC acceptance because all art schools have been very supportive but none have just said...hey, cool animation, come and spend $45,000 a year with us....The others have said...your portfolio looks really good, think about adding this or changing that and ...please consider submitting an application and a portfolio. Is anyone else a little suspicious of SAICs portfolio review process? //

    Did they accept the portfolio on the spot, or the student?

    Did SAIC ask for a matriculation fee on the spot? Did they guarantee a portfolio-based scholarship? Keep shopping around. If the interest is genuine they will be there in the end. '-)

    In some cases grades can mean as much as a portfolio, particularly at schools with programs in the design arts as well as fine arts. Bottom line is schools want students who will be successful. Grades and test scores help weed out the slackers and can identify high achievers regardless of discipline.
  • TrinSFTrinSF Registered User Posts: 1,482 Senior Member
    No, I'm not suspicious of SAIC's portfolio review process, or their admissions department. They've been up front with us. However, they *do* accept 75% of applicants, last I checked. Because of that if nothing else, I don't consider it unusual for them to be accepting portfolios. On the other hand, having your portfolio accepted is not the same as being accepted to SAIC, and is certainly not the same as the completely separate process for merit aid.

    WRT grades and other academic criteria, SAIC is also pretty up front. For example, the have a minimum SAT / ACT for admission. That's not "what we would like to see in an applicant", that's "If you have at least this score, you can tick that off, you've met a requirement for admission".

    I also don't buy "SAIC doesn't want to see any still life/ representational" -- because both the admissions folks we have worked with *and* the instructors my daughter has had at SAIC have done a lot of the same "strengthen your representational skills, be prepared to show us that" when we've discussed it. Do I think a strong portfolio is important during the merit scholarship application process? Yes. And at SAIC, that's a *different* portfolio than the one for admission. I also think that it's entirely possible that an admissions person at SAIC says one thing to one student about what will be the strongest portfolio for that student, and a different admissions rep tells a different student something else about what would be the strongest portfolio for that student to submit. After all, they're different students. :-)
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