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Ask the Art Nerds: Expert Tips on Building Your Art Portfolio

pop art style painting of the word Bang!

Here on the Winged Canvas blog, we wrote a post called Make a Winning Art Portfolio in 5 Steps, where we covered our top tips for making your art portfolio sparkle and shine. As a follow up to that post, I wanted to dig a little deeper and pick the brains of my artistic and talented co-workers. They’ve been through the application process and know the inside scoop. I wanted to find out about their specific experiences — like what steps they took to create a stellar (or maybe not so stellar) portfolio. Did they make mistakes? Did they deal with the pain of rejection? Do they have any words of wisdom to impart on future generations of artists? To answer these questions and more, I asked four Winged Canvas team members about their experiences. Let me introduce you to our panel of art nerd experts:

Fei Lu - Creative Director and instructor specializing in advanced drawing & painting. She holds a BA from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California and was previously an award-winning illustrator, designer & art director before founding Winged Canvas.

Izzy Jefferson - Art instructor and illustrator specializing in watercolour painting & gouache who is a graduate of OCAD University with a degree in illustration.

Jay Lintag - Designer (UX/UI Designer/Graphic Designer) and currently a fourth-year student in the York/Sheridan Joint Design Program.

Nasim Abaeian - Art instructor and illustrator with a BA in visual communications from the American University of Sharjah and MFA in illustration from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Nasim was previously a university professor of art & design at Zayed University in Dubai and OCAD University.

1) Let's talk about the application process. How many schools did you apply to? What was the process like?

Fei: I was living in LA at the time, and I took a big risk and only applied to one art school, ArtCenter College of Design. I knew it was the best, and since I was living in LA, the other schools I would’ve applied to would be too far, in New York or Rhode Island. So I put all of my eggs in one basket! Luckily, I got in, but looking back I should have considered some alternatives. At that time, my plan was to keep reapplying if unsuccessful the first time, and just be determined to get in, even if I failed a bunch of times. ArtCenter only accepted originals at the time, so I fussed over every detail of my portfolio. I made the process more stressful for myself because I wanted to make everything perfect.

Izzy: The application process can be intimidating — it’s hard to put your work on display for critique and judgement — but that’s a big part of the job as an artist. I applied to two schools, Sheridan and OCAD U, and the processes were different in criteria but were equally stressful! I think my biggest takeaway from the application process was learning to evaluate my own work. It was the first time I had to answer the question “why do you want to be an artist?”

Jay: Back when I was applying for schools I was torn between teaching art or entering design. The programs I applied for were York & Sheridan Joint Program in Design, York University for Fine Arts, and OCAD U for Graphic Design. Personally I did NOT know what graphic design was going to be about, all I knew was that I just wanted to make cool illustrations and make a living off selling prints and shirts. It would have helped to have researched the programs a bit more.

Nasim: I was living in the Middle East and wanted to apply for my masters degree in Illustration, which is not very popular, and is mostly available in the US. I didn’t have many options, plus cities like New York or LA were too expensive, so I limited myself to schools in Savannah, GA and Minneapolis. On top of applying, I had extra layers of stress because I needed a Visa, the expenses abroad are large, and I was going to have to move to a new country. However, I got accepted to both schools which helped ease my stress! I guess I had done my research and homework and I focused my portfolio on exactly what I wanted (illustration).

Frida's Garden - Surrealist Painting by Fei Lu
Fei Lu, Frida’s Garden, oil on canvas, 2018

2) Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently during the application process?

Fei: I would’ve done more research into the programs and realistic career paths before I applied. I graduated high school a year early, and being a keener, I wanted to waste no time getting into university. I first applied as a fine arts major (illustration minor) with no real idea of what my career would look like upon graduating — I just knew I liked art. After my second fine art class in university (spending 2 hours discussing how poetry could be interpreted from a single stick), I realized I had make a mistake and quickly changed my major to Illustration. In my 3rd term, I met Milton Glaser, a world-renowned design hero, and I took a big interest in graphic design. If I could do it all over again, I would have taken a year off after high school, practiced my art, volunteered at some studios and design agencies, and gained more insight from working professionals I admired.

Izzy: A lot of my students will come to me with printouts detailing every specific thing needed for their portfolios. I think that’s amazing. I really didn’t research ahead of time what I needed, and a lot of schools are looking for specific things. Do your research, look up graduate’s portfolios or portfolio's of people who made it in to get a feel for the school. I was scrambling a lot last minute which made a stressful situation even worse. That is what I’d change the most.

Jay: Yes, for sure. I wish I took more time to actually look at all the creative programs that were available. I feel that most people (including myself) during high school are only fixated on the “big” creative fields like illustration, design and animation, but once they get in they realize that that is not actually what they were looking for. Luckily for me design turned out to be something that I thoroughly enjoy, but if I had to pick a different field outside of graphic design I think I would have picked printmaking.

Nasim: Honestly, no, not at the application stage. I had done my research and built my portfolio to match what I applied to (illustration). As Izzy mentioned, doing your research and preparing ahead of time is so important.

Bandit - Painting by Izzy Jefferson
Izzy Jefferson, Bandit, gouache on paper

3) If you attended a portfolio interview, how was it? How did you mentally prepare for it? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Fei: I had rehearsed some answers before my interview to be prepared (and I was still nervous at the interview). Of course they didn’t ask me any of the questions I prepared for. I learned that memorizing a script word for word doesn’t work; it only causes anxiety if you mess up. Instead, I should have thought about ways to share the ideas and concepts behind my artwork, and about what inspires me, because it allows me to speak confidently and naturally. Confidence is key because it shows you are not scared of challenges ahead and you believe in your work. Calm your nerves by taking some deep, long breaths before you go in, and smile!

Izzy: The interview for OCAD U was very short. I was asked to bring in 10 pieces of original work and my sketchbook. I spoke to two illustration professors who flipped through my sketchbook very quickly and asked me all sorts of questions about my process and inspirations. I was asked to type out a paragraph about myself, and why I wanted to be an illustrator. I thought I should start off that paragraph with a bit of humor, saying that what I REALLY wanted to be was Indiana Jones, but since that job was taken… It made the professors laugh and I really think that helped me. Your portfolio should be the main focus but don’t be afraid to use your other talents! I think I’m pretty funny, and I wanted the panel to see who I really was. Not to mention I was wearing a shirt that I had painted myself, so I think that might have won me some points as well.

Jay: Oh man, my first interview was at York and I remember waiting outside the room for my turn nervously twiddling my thumbs. By the time it was my turn the girl who finished her interview got her acceptance on the spot and I became even more nervous. The interviewer then prompted me to lay out my work and instead of asking me a question, he told me to talk about my work with him. From there I started to relax and genuinely talked about my work simply because I love talking about art. I ended up getting my acceptance on the spot from York and it felt great.

Nasim: I have observed interviews at OCAD U in the design department (I was observing because I conducted workshops at their portfolio clinic to prepare students to enter OCAD U). The panel likes to see your process, for example, a messy but beautifully drawn sketch that could lead to something new and original. They don’t like to see cliches. Also, I found that if they see still lifes, they like to see ones that are elegant, or ones where the objects have a connection and are well chosen.

Jay Lintag, Wu Xing Calligraphy Set Design
Jay Lintag, Wu Xing – 5 Elements of Chinese Calligraphy, (Semifinalist for Adobe Design Achievement Award), 2018

4) How long did you spend working on and building your portfolio? What was some of the feedback you received (if any) from the professors/evaluators?

Fei: I really started working on my portfolio in the middle of grade 11, so it took me a total of 1.5 years to prepare. My high school art program in the US was weak, so I really had to push myself to make portfolio pieces. Luckily I had pretty supportive teachers that let me do whatever projects I wanted, so in order to motivate myself I entered a lot of art competitions, which forced me to create work. I also took some art classes for high school students at the university, which were designed to help me build my portfolio and try new things, like life drawing. I was already pretty confident in my technical skills because I focused on learning drawing and painting as a child, so I just made sure to fill up my sketchbook.

Izzy: My portfolio was really an accumulation of years of work. I was lucky because I had a real spike of motivation in high school and ended up filling several sketchbooks in my spare time. Draw as much as you can, process is just as important as a finished project which is why sketchbooks are always a portfolio requirement. The interview, like I mentioned, was quick, so in terms of feedback there wasn’t a whole lot. One comment that really stuck with me though is a professor saying a work in my sketchbook looked liked anime. Now depending on the school this might change, but there tends to be a negative reaction to the anime style. I personally don’t agree with this, but a lot of schools don’t see the style as valid and I was advised to steer clear.

Jay: I only seriously started working on my portfolio by the beginning of Grade 12 haha. However I always knew I wanted to take a creative path since grade 11 and took all available courses in both media and visual arts. Taking all these art courses really helped me fill in both my sketchbook and any missing pieces in my portfolio. By the time portfolio season came around it was only a matter of checking the prompts that each program was asking for and creating those missing pieces on my own time.

Nasim: I always kept my art pieces in a nice box, since childhood all the way through high school, they were very precious to me. But my family wanted me to get into engineering or medicine, so I focused on math and sciences at school. I thought I might make art as a hobby or side job one day. I entered university as an architecture student (something close to engineering to make my parents happy and still keep my artistic soul alive). But after one year of art foundations I knew art was what I wanted to pursue and it was my passion, so I changed my major to visual communication. To answer your question, I never prepared a portfolio for art school before my undergraduate program. I did prepare a professional portfolio during my junior year at college for my website, to show to clients, etc. The feedback I get on my art is usually quite diverse, my art has changed and evolved so much. Most critics want something more unified from me, a more signature style — which I am constantly searching for.

Nasim Abaeian, Goldfish, watercolour, 2018

5) A tough question perhaps, but can we talk rejection? Did you apply anywhere and not get accepted? How did that feel?

Fei: I was lucky enough to get in to the school I chose and not face rejection; but I would like to think I was mentally prepared to fail the first time and to try again. I’ve been rejected multiple times — for scholarships, awards, and jobs. As a working artist and designer, I’ve learned that rejection is a normal part of commissioned projects. Heck, I even reject my own work sometimes. It usually just means a different path is required; but it’s never a dead end.

Izzy: Oh heck yes. I applied to Sheridan right out of high school for both animation and illustration. Animation was a bit of a long shot but I was certain I’d have a chance at illustration. I was rejected for both programs, not even wait listed. Truthfully, my portfolio for both programs was very underwhelming and under researched. I see now that I wasn’t ready. I took a year off to work and actually applied again to Sheridan for animation and was rejected once again. Ouch. Luckily I applied to OCAD U as well that year and was accepted. Rejection hurts but not long term, if you’re devoted to your art and love what you do you WILL find your way. You might even, like me, find rejection is a necessary part of your journey.

Jay: I didn’t get rejected during university/college applications but I did get rejected from the local arts high school back when I was entering grade nine. I was so young back then, so naive for ripping out pages from my sketchbook to only show my best work, and remember feeling so crushed when I first opened that rejection letter. By the time I entered grade 9 (not at the art high school), I was ready to quit art for good but I had to fulfill a fine art elective so I gave the creative path one more chance. If art means everything to you don’t quit just because of a rejection letter. Breathe, reflect, and move on. You don’t have to go to a specialized art high school to get into a creative post secondary school and likewise, you don’t have to get into a creative post secondary school to pursue a creative career. No one really knows what they want to be fresh out of high school but it's important that you remain creative regardless if you get in or not. If you don’t get in, set up a plan that will keep you making art and apply again the next year along with a back up art school. In the end, most jobs only look at your personality and your portfolio, not what college or university you graduated from.

Nasim: I didn’t get rejected when I applied to art school, but was rejected so many times at illustration competitions and still now when I apply for grants. As the others have all mentioned, rejection is part of being an artist and it does help you grow. Don’t take it personally and continue to work on your skills.

6) Finally, what is your top tip or best advice to students on portfolio creation?

Fei: Give yourself enough time to prepare a great portfolio. If you decide last minute you want to apply to art school and have two months to work on your book, that’s probably going to cause lots of anxiety, and not be your best work. Instead of rushing, slow down and first identity your strengths and weaknesses, with the help of a mentor. Include a balance of technically impressive work and meaningful pieces that you can talk naturally and passionately about, and document your thinking/process in your sketchbook.

Izzy: Start treating your work as more of a process than an end product, something that really speaks to people as an interesting concept. There’s a good chance that your technical skills are good which is important, but give your portfolio more than that. There are a LOT of great artists out there, but there are never enough good ideas! So dig deep into your work and think of concepts and stories you can apply to your work. That stuff is fascinating to see and the evaluators will appreciate it.

Jay: Honestly, know yourself and know your work. Make art that speaks closely to you so that when you are asked questions during the interview, it will be easy to discuss. When you have those ideas don’t forget to record those thoughts in your sketchbook, process work is everything! Having those thoughts written out in your sketchbook can prove to be useful during interviews as something to refer to if you ever forget a key idea that explains how the piece was made or inspired from.

Nasim: On the top of what everyone else mentioned, BE YOU! Put your heart and identity into the process of making what you love.

Thanks everyone! The biggest take-away I got from these answers was the importance of research and preparation. Do not rush your portfolio! Take the time to create pieces that speak to you and best represent your personal style, but also take the time to research the programs you are applying to.

Finding an artist mentor can also help give you industry insights and keep you motivated until the portfolio deadline! Developing your art portfolio is a lot of hard work, but if you take art portfolio classes and give yourself enough time to build a great body of work, it will pay off in the end.

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