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Everything you need to know to rock your high school arts portfolio

October 30, 2020 Ella Solarino

Compiling artwork in a portfolio is one of the most necessary things you need to do when you apply to an art school. However, it can also be one of the most stress-inducing parts of your application. It can be really hard to know what kind of art you need to submit, how many pieces you need, etc. This article explains all of what you need to do to be able to turn in your best work and feel satisfied with it at the end. (Criteria can differ between schools, so make sure to consult the websites of the schools you’re applying to as well!)

The key to an amazing portfolio is variety. While it is always good to focus on whatever medium or technique makes you happy, no art teacher wants to look at the same kind of art all day. If you only submit landscapes drawn in pencil, no one will be able to tell the full scope of your ability. Good portfolios often include pieces made with pencil or charcoal; oil, acrylic, watercolor, and/or gouache paint; colored pencils, oil pastels, and even digital programs, which is totally optional (you do not need to use all of these!). In most schools, it is required to submit drawings made from observation, such as portraits (of yourself or other people), landscapes, still lives, and more, but abstract art is also great to add, as well as stylized illustrations showing characters or objects from your imagination, animations, short comics, and more. These are always welcome and can totally improve your chances of getting accepted. In my portfolio, I even put a 3-page long storyboard, so really, anything (non-vulgar!) goes. The overall point of all this is to show the school that you can learn to work with different materials in different ways.

The next important points to consider are the number of pieces you should prepare and how to choose them. Most portfolios should contain at least 10 pieces of art, but you should strive for 15 and up (not more than 20, though, unless the school directs you to do so. Too many pieces can distract the judge from whatever is your best work). My portfolio had 18 pieces in it, including the storyboard. When preparing your work, you should try to work every day on drawing/creating all the required art pieces for the schools you’re applying to. You should also go through some of your old or less recent art; you can also include a few of those in your portfolio (especially if you’re running out of time). If you’re not happy with a piece you intended to put in your portfolio, you do not have to put it in. Try again if you’re willing to, or find another piece to take its place. If you have a painting on a canvas, or anything too big to bring with you, you can take a photo or scan it and print it out. 

  • My name
  • The date I made this piece
  • Medium I used
  • Work size (x” by y”)
  • Whether it was supervised or unsupervised
  • Whether I drew it from imagination or observation

Next, you need to actually put together your art into a portfolio. Obviously, nowadays with COVID-19, you might not be going in-person to auditions. If that’s the case, make sure to take high-quality photos of your work in good lighting! For the physical portfolio, you have a few different options. If all of your artwork is printer-paper size (8.5” by 11”), you can use a regular school folder. However, if you do use a folder, make sure to get a sturdy one. For other types of work, check out materials at your local art store. They should have plenty to choose from. I used one called ProFolio by ITOYA, which is a sturdy plastic portfolio with plastic sleeves inside it. Mine was about 18” by 14”. This or any kind like it is the ideal one to keep your work safest. 

Lastly, (and this is a must!!!), you need to put labels on your work. You can do this by writing it on the back of your art, making sure it’s visible, or you could even buy little label stickers that you could stick on your drawings. Here’s what I wrote on each of mine (you do not have to follow these exactly, but I recommend using all of these):

I know from experience that this process can be super overwhelming, but if you are diligent, organized, follow what your schools say, and put in your best work, you’ll get through it. I wish you all good luck this year!

Ella Solarino is a sophomore visual arts major at Fiorello H. Laguardia High School. Ella loves to watch animes like Danganronpa and Tokyo ghoul, and also likes writing and worldbuilding.

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