by Maria Dubrovskaia
If you are applying to an art program or seeking gallery representation, you probably already know that an artist’s portfolio makes or breaks an application. It is the first thing that faculty or a gallery director will consider. So what is an art portfolio and how should an artist go about putting it together?
The portfolio is a selection of your work that best represents you as an artist. Your portfolio should stand out from the rest. It should demonstrate your personality, your artistic skills, the strength of your imagination and creativity, and your openness to experimentation. It should communicate to the selection committee who you are as an artist and how you differ from everyone else.
As you begin to put your work together, consider that undergraduate programs, graduate schools, and galleries have somewhat different criteria for assessing your portfolio. The requirements for creating the portfolio itself also vary a great deal. It is important to research these instructions well in advance and follow them carefully.
You may want to look over all three sections of this blog entry to get the sense of how the selection process evolves as your career progresses. Note that regardless of whether you are just starting out or if you have a successful career as an artist, the quality of the images in your portfolio matters. Your presentation should always be top-notch.
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Beyond that, here are also some general tips that will help you along the way.
Applying to art school
Prepare to convince the selection committee that you hold great promise as an artist and that you are willing to learn tons to get there. Your portfolio should consist of artwork you created recently, maybe even specifically for the portfolio. It should reflect the qualities that art schools seek in their potential students: the ability to use a range of skills, creativity, and deep commitment to art. Here is what you can do to help your portfolio stand out:
- You should include works done in a variety of mediums and techniques. You want to show that you are interested in experimenting and open to evolving as an artist. Play with dry and wet mediums, use several different types of paint, charcoal, crayon, oil pastels, etc.
- As you compile your portfolio, be sure to include both figurate and abstract drawings and paintings. It is crucially important to include successful observational drawings. Few people know how to draw from life anymore, so strong observational drawings will make your application look good. You want to demonstrate that you understand form, perspective, proportions, tone, etc. At the same time, avoid working in a dry academic style. You should be playful in your compositions. Vary the points of view on your subject. And do not waste your time by copying other artists’ work. Create your own!
- You should make sure to check out examples of successful art portfolios online. Rhode Island School of Design has a great selection.
Finally: Get input from art professors. You should definitely attend a National Portfolio Day, when many art schools gather in one place—usually at a college or university in several major cities around the country—to talk to students interested in applying to their programs. They will ask you to bring samples of your work and will provide useful feedback and guidance in the application process. Portfolio Day is also a great opportunity to see other students’ work and get the feel for the programs you are interested in.
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Applying to an MFA program
Your portfolio should communicate that you are ready to push your established artistic practice toward new horizons. The MFA selection committees seek artists willing to undergo a complete transformation in their programs. As a potential MFA student, you should:
- Do your research. MFA programs vary a great deal. You want to apply to a program receptive to the kind of art you make.
- Submit recent work. Consider organizing the portfolio from the newest to the oldest piece and do not submit work that is older than two-three years. Your selection committee will want to know where you are in your practice at the moment of the application, not the entire history of how you got here.
- You should demonstrate a cohesive practice with a clear (and original) conceptual thread running through the portfolio. This means that you should avoid submitting disparate pieces simply to showcase your abilities.
- Avoid redundancy. While you want to demonstrate conceptual coherence that amounts to a body of work, there should be some variation in your conceptual themes and how you approach them. Your portfolio should reflect your artistic evolution. The faculty wants to see how your art manifests, your ideas and look for ways they can help you develop in these ideas in their program.
If you are an artist seeking gallery representation
Keep in mind that unlike art programs, galleries do not take responsibility for your artistic development. Gallerists are not there to critique you or provide feedback but to exhibit and sell art. When they look at portfolios, they assess whether your work fits the profile of the gallery and how effectively they can sell it. To convince the gallery to select you, you should strive to demonstrate that you know who you are as an artist, have a mature, established practice, and will be able to consistently deliver quality work.
As you put together your portfolio, you should:
- Know your (artistic) self. You should understand how your work fits into the contemporary artscape. This will help you as you research galleries as much as it will help galleries sell your work. Look through galleries’ websites and apply to the ones that represent your artistic niche. At the same time, your portfolio should hold the promise of a unique, original addition to the roster of a gallery’s roster. It is helpful to look up artists you admire, both at your stage in their career and ahead of you in terms of success. You may want to apply to the galleries that represent them.
- Your portfolio should include your strongest, most effective pieces. It should display your talent and a clear sense of your personal style. It should definitely contain several images of your most recent work.
- It goes without saying that your portfolio reflects your level professionalism. This means that presentation is of utmost importance. Your images should be of the very best quality possible. Lighting, color balance, and format should be working in your favor. If you are unsure of your skills as a photographer and graphic designer, hire a professional photographer to help you. Check with the gallery if they have a preference for a particular format. Make sure that each slide, image, transparency or original artwork is labeled clearly. You might want to take a look at Agora’s guidelines for the submission process. Also, make sure to check out the FAQ section as well.
Useful article: How To Create A Professional Portfolio
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Maria Doubrovskaia is a visual artist and scholar. She moved to New York from St. Petersburg, Russia, when she was a kid. The Chelsea Hotel was seedy, and the Limelight was still a club back then. Maria loves cities and prefers slightly dangerous cities to glossy shiny ones. Some favorites are Naples, Palermo, Dakar, and Brooklyn before 9/11. If Maria was not a visual artist and a scholar, she would be an anthropologist.