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Make a Winning Art Portfolio in 5 Steps

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So you’ve decided to apply to art school. Congratulations! Here comes the hard part though — getting accepted. The top schools are highly competitive. You need a portfolio to apply, and that portfolio needs to stand out from the crowd. With that in mind, I asked Fei Lu, creative director and co-founder of Winged Canvas, to share her knowledge and expertise. Fei has looked at thousands of portfolios from her time spent as an advertising art director and knows what you need to include and what you need to cut.

Before we launch into the steps, let’s briefly talk about portfolios. A great art portfolio is like a great picture book. It should be entertaining, aesthetically pleasing and have an interesting story. Your portfolio showcases your work — it needs to be coherent and presented with care. It should show that you have strong foundational skills, but also show that you have potential for growth and future success. Most importantly, it should showcase YOU. It can have an opinion, it should have a personality and it needs to highlight your talent, skill, and creative thinking. So now that we’ve covered what your portfolio should be, let’s explore the 5 steps to make it shine.

1. Things You Definitely Need to Do

  • Start with a bang and end with a bang. This means the first piece and the last piece in your portfolio should stand out. People tend to remember the first and last thing they see - and you definitely want a memorable portfolio!

  • Since your portfolio is like a picture book that tells your artistic story, it should show variety in subject matter and mediums. This tells the evaluators that you are open to experimenting and trying new things. Keep in mind that while you want to showcase variety, your pieces should relate to the program you’re applying to.

  • Include thoughtfully written descriptions of your work and don’t state the obvious. For example, if you include a still life, don’t say “This is a still life.” Try to explain the deeper meaning behind the piece and what it represents to you on a personal level. This will help the evaluators understand and appreciate your work - they are not mind readers and you don’t want them to have to make assumptions.

2. Mistakes You Definitely Don’t Want to Make

  • Read the portfolio requirements for each school you’re applying to carefully. You can be disqualified for not following instructions and let’s be honest, it just looks lazy. And we know you’re not lazy. Right?

  • Speaking of not being lazy, make sure there are no spelling mistakes. NONE. Use spell check, have a grammar nerd friend read everything over, and double-check all your written components (such as descriptions and your statement of intent).

  • Don’t include a half-empty sketchbook. It will look like you don’t draw very much, and drawing is definitely something you should be doing.

  • Don’t include low-quality images — it will look like you’re not detail-oriented.

  • Don’t do the bare minimum. Submitting the bare minimum shows that you don’t put in extra effort or go above and beyond.

  • Last but not least, do not apply late!

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3. Less is More

You do not need a long, meandering portfolio with all the art you’ve ever created (please do not do this). In fact, OCAD U only requires 8 - 10 finished pieces. Be a ruthless editor - cut, cut, cut! You only want to include your strongest pieces - the work that shows your talent, skill and creative thinking. Also, make sure these pieces express your personality and cohesive style too. Have friends that like art? Have them look it over to offer a critical eye. If possible, see if an art teacher or mentor can take a look too.

4. Showcase Your Style and Versatility

Your style is part of what makes your portfolio memorable. You want the evaluators to remember your portfolio because they will be looking at a lot of them. Versatility is important too, especially if you are applying to design or want to work in an art direction. Can you design for both AXE and Dove? Show that you are working in different mediums and that you're trying new things and open to exploration. A versatile portfolio that shows this is crucial.

Remember step one? Even though you want to highlight your versatility, you also need to be hard on your work. You need to answer yes to these questions:

  • Is the piece worth putting in your portfolio?

  • Does the piece showcase your talent and skill?

  • Does the piece express your personality?

Just because you really like it doesn’t mean the evaluators will. Think about who is looking at your portfolio and what they’re looking for (this is where following instructions is important). Does it relate to the program you’re applying to? Try to be critical and only include the very best pieces that showcase your unique style and versatility in a coherent way.

a person turns a page in an art portfolio

5. Make it Flawless

To quote Rihanna, shine bright like a diamond. Triple-check everything to ensure there are no errors. Make sure you have edited and only selected the best work that showcases your creative skillset. An eye for detail is critical in the design and visual arts world, so make sure your portfolio shows that you have that eye.

So there you have it. 5 steps to help you create a stand-out portfolio. Try not to be scared — we know preparing a great portfolio is a lot of work — but it will be worth it in the end. If you need a little extra help, check out our Art Mentorship Program or attend one of our live art events.

Want a more detailed rundown for portfolio tips? Check out Fei Lu's video on 12 tips to create a winning portfolio and the related blog!

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