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How to Build an Illustration Portfolio: Examples & Advice from an Accepted OCAD Illustration Student

Have a love for visual storytelling and hope to get accepted to the Illustration program at OCAD University?

In this blog, we'll cover everything you need to know about building your illustration portfolio with advice from Jessie Chang, a 2021 OCAD student. Keep reading to see the artwork, sketchbook, and personal pieces from her accepted entry portfolio, as well as first-year school projects at OCAD!

Watch the full 30-minute video where Jessie shares a few candid stories about her journey to art school in an interview with Winged Canvas founder Fei Lu.

Jump ahead:

Example of an Accepted OCAD Illustration Portfolio

In Jessie’s accepted illustration portfolio, she included digital and traditional artwork including figure drawings, personal artwork, storyboards and concept art.

Note: Jessie was waitlisted but later accepted — more about her experience below!

Effective Figure Drawing Examples for Your Art Portfolio

Figure drawing is an essential skill that artists need to nail in their portfolios. While your figure drawings don’t necessarily need to be hyper realistic, there needs to be some form of realism. Depending on the school, you may want to stylize your figure drawings — OCAD loves seeing expression and freedom when done intentionally! Sheridan College, on the other hand, prioritizes depth of understanding in forms and anatomy.

30 min and 10min figure drawings

Fun fact: Jessie is known to be a speedy artist so she didn’t use the full time to finish these figure drawings.

10min and 30 min figure drawings

Note: These figure drawing examples are from Jessie’s time in game art where stylization was more important than accuracy. They want to see you take the figure you see and make it more fun and interesting!

Personal Artwork Examples in an Art Portfolio

When selecting personal artwork to include in your portfolio, choose a variety of pieces that showcase your unique art style and personality, as well as your ability to adapt as an artist. Your personal artwork should include a variety of art styles, mediums, and subjects to showcase your versatility and skills.

Digital drawing of a kid smoking and holding a big gun and his backpack next to him on the floor

Think of the kids, digital artwork in response to gun violence

Digital drawing of a female angel with and extra set of eyes on her face and more eyes coming out of her neck

Angels aren’t beautiful, digital artwork based on the history of angels.

Note: The grey bar is not part of the piece.

Panels from Say Hello, Greyson! webcomic

Storyboards & Concept Art Examples in an Art Portfolio

Jessie included many projects from her previous enrollment in the Game Art program at Durham College.

5 thumbnail sketches and notes

Fairy Ghetto thumbnail sketches (school assignment)

Two characters peeking into a bookshelf where tiny fairies are hanging out

Fairy Ghetto concept art (school assignment)

5 thumbnail sketches and notes

Inventor’s Fair thumbnail sketches (school assignment)

Digital line art of elephant, rhino, and narwhal shaped ships

Inventor’s Fair concept art (school assignment)

💡Tip: We are our own worst critics. Other people might like your least favourite artwork in your portfolio and dislike your personal favourite. While Jessie hates the piece she made above, her professor LOVED it!

Painting of a girl wearing purple tank top and shorts laying in different orientations against a red background

Self-Defense 9 x 12-inch gouache painting (personal artwork)

A 3-point perspective digital drawing of a fancy chicken coop

“Chicken” Coop environment concept art in 3-point perspective (personal artwork)

Digital concept drawings of a firearm

Ira de Dios firearm concept art based on Aztec art (school assignment)

Digital art of a fantasy tree creature

Earth Elder fantasy sci-fi video game concept art (personal artwork)

💡Tip: Knowing when your most creative hours are can help you finish your work faster.

Digital art in greyscale of a creepy robot turning the corner into a stairway

A scene from a dream animatronic digital art (personal artwork)

Jessie draws a lot of inspiration from her vivid dreams, often translating them into stunning illustrations. As an artist, don't hesitate to defy expectations with otherworldly visuals from your subconscious. If your art is lacking inspiration, your dreams can be an untapped source of creativity!

Digital art of a worm shaped creature wearing a creepy mask entering from the top of a cave

The prophet background digital painting (school assignment)

Jessie was able to include many previous school assignments in her art portfolio, but if you don't have school to keep you accountable, consider getting a 1-on-1 portfolio review with a professional artist who has been there, or taking art portfolio classes She recommends finding a way to stay accountable, get professional advice, and make art fun for you!

Portfolio Prep Tips & Advice from an OCAD Illustration Student

1. Be yourself, but be mindful of what the art school is looking for

Looking back, Jessie notes that a lot of her portfolio work was game art-oriented, which aims to be literal in concept. However, OCAD is looking for visual storytelling and symbolization in illustration work.

Choose an art school that aligns with your career path

Research each program's curriculum, faculty, and philosophy to ensure it’s compatible with your artistic vision. If you find that your work doesn't align with what this college or university wants, then you may want to reconsider. For example, if the school focuses very heavily on interpretive work and fine arts, you may struggle if you're not that type of artist.

2. Not all advice is good advice. Don’t only listen to your friends.

Not all advice may be right for something as subjective as art. Your friends may not have professional takes on your artwork like a professional artist or adjudicator might. Friends also tend to be nicer about your work.

Seek guidance from various sources — you may receive conflicting feedback so always trust your intuition and make sure you're familiar with the portfolio requirements before taking any advice! Jessie recommends showing your portfolio to your art teachers or getting a portfolio review from an artist mentor for feedback.

3. Re-read the art portfolio requirements, like 3-4 times!

Once you’ve handed it in, you won’t be able to make any more edits! When Jessie re-read the requirements afterwards, she realized she should’ve included more traditional artwork.

💡 Tip: Reading over requirements especially if you’re applying to multiple programs can save you a lot of grief. You don’t want to mix them up! Consider collecting requirements from each school in a spreadsheet so it's easy to compare them and keep track!

Don’t forget to double-check your portfolio too! On her fourth check, she noticed four of her pieces were missing artist statements.

As you build your portfolio, keep Jessie’s tips in mind. Researching what the art school is looking for, seeking advice from creative experts, and triple-checking your portfolio will save you from regret after you’ve hit submit!

What Should I Include In My Sketchbook?

Illustration sketchbook example

In your sketchbook, you want to show your thought process and that you’re not afraid to experiment — the messier the sketchbook, the better!

✅ Jot down your thoughts and take notes about the artwork

✅ Insert clippings of reference images you’ve used

✅ Experiment with a variety of mediums (watercolour, paint marker, charcoal, etc.)

✅ Include a variety of different artwork (original characters, observational, doodles, etc.)

💡Tip: If you want your sketchbook to stand out, show your personality by drawing what is meaningful to you rather than copying what everyone else is drawing.

What Should I NOT Include In My Sketchbook?

❌ Fan art is the #1 thing you should not include in your sketchbook (unless you’ve cleverly disguised it and put your own spin on it).

❌ Blank pages! Full sketchbooks are proof that you have lots of ideas and you make time for drawing.

❌ Perfect drawings on every page. A sketchbook should be a messy collection of thoughts.

💡Tip: Check the sketchbook requirements for your program’s application! Only traditional sketchbooks were allowed in the OCAD Illustration application while digital sketchbooks were accepted for Game Art at Durham College.

How To Write Artwork Descriptions & Artist Statements

Because art is so subjective, an adjudicator reviewing your portfolio will have no idea what went through your head as you created these pieces. An artist's statement helps the viewer understand the meaning behind your work and makes it possible for them to judge your art. Providing context and insight into your creative process enhances the viewer's understanding and appreciation of your art.

How long should my artist statement be?

In the OCAD application, you get a maximum of 250 words to describe each of your portfolio pieces. Whether you feel stuck with a blank page or you’re unsure how to cram all your thoughts into a brief statement, here are some helpful tips:

  1. Don't state the obvious (if your drawing shows 2 figures with 5 min written at the bottom, don't say "I drew 2 figures in 5 min". What insight can you add to the description?

  2. What's the main idea? If you have trouble summarizing the meaning in one paragraph, it could be that the idea isn't very strong.

  3. Create some intrigue! Give the viewer a peek into your creative process by telling them something about the piece that isn’t obvious at a glance.

Can I Get Accepted at OCAD If I’m Waitlisted?

WAITLISTED. It’s not a ‘yes’ but it’s not a definite ‘no’ either. How do you cope during this wait?

Jessie had a stellar art portfolio and she submitted it two days ahead of the deadline, but an entire month had passed before she found out she was put on the waitlist.

If you’ve also been waitlisted or even rejected, remember: it doesn’t mean you have to give up on your art dreams! While an art degree could help open doors, it’s not required for all creative jobs. You’ll get hired based on your portfolio rather than the fact that you have a degree.

And keep your hopes up because being waitlisted means you still have a chance. With just one week left before her final decision was due, Jessie found out she was accepted into OCAD!

First Year Artwork in OCAD's Illustration Program

During your first year in OCAD’s Illustration program, students have to go back to the basics! Jessie shared some of the assignments she had worked on during her first year.

Sketches of draped fabric and a still life sketch of a candle, tissue box, and container

Drapery and still life sketches

A still life drawing of orchids, a succulent, a lamp, and an animal skull on a book

Still life in pencil

Two sketchbook pages of thumbnail sketches and notes for a still life drawing

Still life thumbnail sketches

Left: digital illustration, Right: 40 thumbnail sketches

💡Tip: When it comes to illustration, OCAD professors are all about digging into the meaning behind your work.

In art school, you’ll be challenged to work in different art styles that are out of your comfort zone!

Three icons of a person drawn in black and red

Iconography using only black and red POSCA paint markers

Digital art of tigers inspired by surrealism

A surrealist piece inspired by the Stop Asian Hate movement

Jessie’s Art Journey

After graduating high school, Jessie's passion for gaming led her to pursue becoming a video game artist. During her year at Durham College studying Game Art and working on her webcomic Say Hello, Greyson!, she discovered her love for storytelling and applied to OCAD for their Illustration program. She later decided to drop out of OCAD and opted for a self-taught path — just goes to show how non-linear your art career can be!

Jessie first joined the Winged Canvas team as a co-op student in 2019. Currently, she teaches Digital Art Classes and Digital Illustration Mentorship where she now helps aspiring students build their own illustration portfolios.

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