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12 Tips on Building a Winning Art Portfolio

The art portfolio. Those three words are some of the most daunting things any artist has heard. They’re what decide our futures as artists, whether we’re applying to school or applying for a job within the industry. The main question we all have is "What makes a good portfolio?". Fret not, today we’ll be going over 12 tips to help you build a strong portfolio that’ll wow any adjudicator.

Not into reading? Don’t worry, check out instructor Fei Lu’s video on art portfolio tips.

Tip #1: Start with a BANG & end with a BANG

A grey image with bold text in the middle that reads "tip #1: start with a bang, end with a bang"

Usually, people will remember the first thing they see and the last thing they see. Don’t focus only on a good first impression; a good last impression is also extremely important! Look at all your pieces as a whole and see which ones you think are the best; put your best piece first and your second best last, while the other pieces can be spread out throughout the portfolio.

an image from the novel "where the wild things are", above it is a caption in black text that reads "A great art portfolio is like a great picture book."

You want to treat your portfolio like a good picture book. Your portfolio should show off your personality and a story. If you compare your work to that of a good picture book, you’ll get the ultimate engagement!

Tip #2: Include a variety of mediums & subject matter

A grey image with white and yellow text that reads "Tip #2: Include a variety of mediums + subject matter"

A portfolio piece by Andrew Chang. 14 images of a sculpture from multiple angles.
Andrew Chang, Sheridan Animation Portfolio 2019

You want to show someone that you’ve tried tons of different mediums and materials in your work. You also want to showcase that you’ve also tried tons of different themes that can communicate what you’re passionate about. However, keep in mind that while you want to showcase variety, you also want to make very specific portfolios for specific schools/workspaces.

For example, it’ll make more sense to show off a higher volume of architecture and still lifes if you’re applying to an architectural school or job, or it’ll make more sense to include a higher volume of animations and character studies if you’re applying for an animation program or job.

Tip #3: Create thoughtful descriptions

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You want to create thought-driven and interesting descriptions for all your art pieces when submitting a portfolio. Adjudicators will be going through hundreds of books, and you want to make it easy for them to appreciate the amount of thought you put into your work.

A common mistake is when an artist writes down a very literal and obvious description. For instance, when you submit a still life, don’t say “this is a still life”. They can see that for themselves. Instead, tell them more about your still life. Why did you choose that subject? What technical choices did you make while illustrating it? Talking about your thought process makes it far easier for adjudicators to understand and evaluate your work.

Tip #4: Less is MORE

A grey image with white text that states "Tip #4: Less is more"

“The more artwork you put into your portfolio, the better it will be” is a generally false sentiment. In actuality, you appear only as good as your weakest piece. Be an extremely ruthless editor. Have people that you trust -- whether that’s a friend or a teacher -- who has a good eye for design that can look at your pieces objectively and let you know which pieces are the strongest.

An image of Fei Lu assisting a student with their work
A trusted instructor or friend can help with honest critique!

A lot of the time, artists will pick their favourite piece as their strongest piece, however that may not always be the case. Sometimes that piece is their favourite because they have a positive experience linked to it, or sometimes it means a lot to them. However, adjudicators are not looking for your favourites, they’re looking for the most meaningful pieces that you have. Find someone who can lend you an objective eye that can help you make these decisions.

Tip #5: Showcase your style & versatility

A grey image with white and yellow text that states "Tip #5: Showcase your style and versatility"
A self portrait made up of varying words by Jay Lintag for his York Sheridan design portfolio (2015)
Jay Lintag, York Sheridan Design portfolio, 2015

If an adjudicator is looking at 100 portfolios, if there’s one that has a very distinct style that is super memorable, that’s what will make that portfolio stand out.

Many portfolios will require self-portraits, and a very common technique that’s showcased is a self-portrait done in pencil where the expression looks somewhat bored. If there’s a bunch of those pencil drawings with bored faces but one portrait that’s done in either a different medium or is done more creatively, that one will be the one that’s easily remembered.

Tip #6: Make it flawless

A grey image with sparkles and white and yellow text that states "Tip #6: Make it flawless"

To quote Rihanna, you should “shine bright like a diamond”! You want to make sure that you’ve selected and edited only your best pieces that you have to offer. You need to put in extra effort to make sure everything is of the highest quality. Is it nicely formatted? Is your presentation well put together? Are there any typos/spelling mistakes/grammatical errors? There should be nothing that will mar the experience of your art portfolio. Triple checking everything is an absolute must. It’s 2020 -- there is no excuse for not spell-checking your work. It’s been around for 30 years now!

Usually, we’re up super late at night putting the finishing touches on our portfolios, and if it’s 3am and you’re barely alive then you haven’t left yourself enough time. Leave a couple of days to really sleep on it and look at your portfolio objectively. Working during the early hours of the morning can mess with our heads and doesn’t put us in the correct mindset to be properly assessing our own work.

Tip #7: Read the instructions carefully

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To make sure you avoid disqualification, make sure you read your instructions carefully. There’s no worse feeling than putting days of work into your portfolio, only to have it disqualified because you didn’t read something correctly. It’s a good idea to keep all of your school info and requirements organized in a spreadsheet or a document so that you don’t miss a step. If you’re applying to more than one school, make sure that you’re following the rules to each of those schools and all their major portfolio requirements.

A still from a sketchbook flip through video by Phoebe Chan
Phoebe Chan, Sketchbook Flipthrough - Sheridan Illustration Portfolio 2019

If you’re applying to more than one school, don’t just make one portfolio and submit it to all of them. Make sure that you’re checking what they’re looking for and what the requirements are, especially for the sketchbook. Sometimes they require a video or a pdf, or they’ll give you choice in the matter. Sketchbooks are meant to be messy and incomplete, but they’re also meant to show your process work, experimentation, and that you’re trying new materials.

Tip #8: A sketchbook should show your creative process

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Your sketchbook is meant to show off the beginning of your creative process. It shows off all your thoughts and ideas -- these may not even make any sense! It should be a lot of writing, bullet points, lists, life drawing, doodles, composition sketches -- all the things you need to do before you get to your final piece.

Two pages from Samantha Chow's sketchbook for her Sheridan Animation portfolio (2019)
Samantha Chow, Sheridan Animation Portfolio 2019

When an adjudicator is looking through your sketchbook, they’ll pick it up, flip through the pages and maybe stop at a couple, and then put it back down after a few seconds. What they’re looking for during this section is your thought process. Do you take the time and the energy to think about your pieces before you illustrate them? Are you a planner? Do you experiment in your sketchbook? Your sketchbook is a sneak peek into your creative process and who you are!

A video flip-through of your sketchbook would be you quickly showcasing your sketchbook’s contents without being super specific, and you can stop at some of the key pages or pages you’re the most proud of. If you’re a design student, putting in lots of topography within your sketchbook -- handwriting, note-making, etc. -- would be most appropriate, whereas if you’re applying for animation or illustration you may see a lot of life drawing within your sketchbook. Your sketchbook should be around 80% full when you submit it.

Tip #9: Don't include low quality images

a grey image with white and yellow text that states "Tip #9: don't include low quality images"
An image of figure drawings by Fei Lu, with a shadow circled in red at the bottom

This doesn’t mean you need a full setup with a DSLR. You can still take photos of your work with your phone, but make sure you have good lighting. You can take photos outside or somewhere that’s naturally well lit to get your photos to look the best they can be. Do not use flash photography; this can make all your photos look amateurish. You can also scan your work if you have that option, but taking photos with natural daylight will probably be your best bet.

Make sure there aren’t any awkward shadows, like a shadowy figure in front of a lot of images. It shows that if you take the care to take good photos, then you would take the same care in your studies of being a future employee or art student.

Tip #10: Don't do the bare minimum

A grey image with white and yellow text that states "Tip #10: Don't do the bare minimum"

If you’re applying somewhere, it’s always good to go above and beyond what’s expected of you. For example, if a portfolio requires 8-10 pieces, it’s probably better to submit 9-10 pieces rather than 8. If you submit 8, it shows that you either don’t have any more pieces or they’re not good enough to include in your book. Don’t do the bare minimum, because it doesn’t reflect as well on your character as if you go above and beyond.

Tip #11: Don't be late!

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Some schools require you to show up to a workshop or an interview in person. This gives you an opportunity to really showcase your passion and your desire to be in the program. Get to the location SUPER early -- a whole hour early is recommended! This’ll leave time for traffic jams or missing your bus. It’ll also leave time to get to your interview, sit down, have a breather, review all the things you want to say or do, and not feel rushed or anxious.

Tip #12: Don't rush the process

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If you’re in panic mode right now, there’s three weeks until the deadline and you haven’t started, forget about it. Take a gap year and take the time to make meaningful artwork that isn’t rushed. If you rush, it’ll only result in mistakes, high stress, and a high chance that it won’t be your best work. Even if it takes an extra year, use that extra year to build your portfolio and hone your skills as an artist -- you won’t regret it!

If you want to hone your skills even further, check out our Drawing & Painting classes with Fei Lu herself as well as our other Art Mentorship programs, and check out our portfolio playlist on YouTube!

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