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7 steps to prepare a University art portfolio

Art Portfolio

What is an art school application portfolio? 

In addition to meeting academic requirements, Art and Design Colleges/ Universities usually require an art portfolio as part of the application process. 

The University of the Arts London gives the following definition of an application portfolio:

“A portfolio is a collection of your work, which shows how your skills and ideas have developed over a period of time. It demonstrates your creativity, personality, abilities and commitment, and helps us to evaluate your potential.” 

Every art school has different requirements and expectations. Some universities have strict criteria when others are open and flexible. The difference in expectations can leave students uncertain about how to proceed. 

Producing an art portfolio is not to be taken lightly. Top art schools accept a very small percentage of applicants. This blog highlights the general recommendations to help you produce your portfolio. 

1. Research carefully and record the art portfolio requirements each university that you are applying to 

Deciding which art university is for you is a big decision. Create a list of universities that you would like to prepare to attend and find their admissions criteria. All university portfolio requirements are different. Record the exact requirements carefully, print them out and highlight key information. 

In particular, keep careful records of:

  • Open Day times
  • Application and Portfolio due date/s
  • Size and format of work required
  • Whether only finished pieces are expected, or whether sketchbooks, development and process work are also welcome 
  • Whether submissions are digital, hardcopy reproductions or original artwork. 
  • Labelling and presentation requirements. 
  • Whether there are special requirements for international or out-of-state applicants.Whether supplementary material is needed, for example, a personal statement or written essay may be required. 
  • Requirements about what to draw / include. 

2. Look at recent student art portfolio examples to gain a visual understanding of what is expected

Seeing examples from previous applicants is one of the best ways to understand the portfolio standard. Many university art portfolio examples can be found online or in campus libraries. Some art schools retain hardcopy examples to help students the following year. If you feel daunted looking at others portfolios, please take in mind that it is usually the candidates who display their work. Do not despair if your technical skill is not as strong as the example you see. Remember that portfolios are assessed based on a wide range of criteria. If you have an excellent academic background, innovative ideas and a passion for the subject, you can trump someone with technical skill who lacks creativity and personal drive. Showcase your strengths and back yourself. 

3. Attend Open Days

Open days are the ideal time to find out whether an art school is the right place for you. Open days are also a great opportunity to find out more about the admissions process and what is expected by a school in terms of application portfolios. With COVID-19 travelling restrictions, many universities offer online open days. 

4. Plan your art portfolio, aiming to demonstrate a range of artistic skill and experiences, creative ideas/originality and passion/commitment

Many applicants wonder “what should I include in an art portfolio?” The answer is: include a range of recent work (completed within the last year or two) that best communicates your artistic skills and experiences, creative original ideas and commitment. 

a) Emphasise observational drawing

Many art and design courses require applicants to have a certain level of observational drawing skill. This is essential not just for Fine Arts but also for Architecture, Fashion Design and Industrial Design.

The aim is that you:

  • Prove that you are able to competently record shape, proportion, tone, perspective, surface qualities, detail, space and form
  • Draw in a personal, sensitive way, rather than in a mechanical way (i.e. not a laborious copy of a photograph – drawings from photographs are specifically discouraged). This might involve more creative, expressive, gestural mark-making or the addition of non-realistic elements, textures, materials. Try to add your own personal style but also capture the essence of the subject, rather than an exact, rigid copy of a scene. It can help to think about ideas and meanings behind a drawing – selecting a subject that holds meaning or relevance for you, rather than just selecting any random object to draw. 

b) Explore a range of subject matter – make art about interesting things

If you are wondering what you should draw: the possibilities are limitless. You may, for example, draw a landscape, still life, portrait, animal, human figure, interior or exterior environment, hands and feet, or any other interesting everyday object – focusing on subject matter that is relevant for your degree and, more importantly, subject matter that has some meaning and relevance to you. You should try and avoid common or cliché approaches and include a range of different interesting objects and scenes – and do not exactly replicate the work of another artist.

If you are stuck on not knowing what to draw, draw things in your room, your house, your surroundings. Try not to get into any cliches of drawing all the same thing. 

c) Use a range of mediums, styles, art forms and techniques

Your art portfolio should show a diverse range of skill and visual experiences. Demonstrate that you are able to use and experiment with a range of styles, mediums and techniques and can control, apply and manipulate mediums in a skillful, appropriate and intentional way. Someone who is able to create oil paintings, sculptures, collages and pencil drawings, is definitely more flexible than someone who is only able to sketch only with a pencil. The former student is able to demonstrate growth, diversity and a breadth of skill, as well as an interest in learning new things. The latter may just be a ‘one trick pony’.


  • Choose a range of mediums that highlight your artistic strengths. Use wet and dry mediums (graphite, charcoal, ink, pastel, acrylic, watercolour, oil, ceramics, film etc and other mixed mediums) and paint / draw upon a range of different surfaces but don’t include weaker work, just for the sake of covering a greater range of mediums.
  • Explore a range of appropriate styles. Choose artistic styles that showcase your skill, interests and strengths. Don’t try and guess what the university would prefer, choose those that match with your strengths.
  • Experiment with a variety of tools, techniques, processes and art forms. Unless otherwise specified, an application portfolio may include drawings, paintings, photography, digital media, design, three-dimensional work, web design, animation, video and almost any other type of artwork. This does not mean you should endeavour to include every different technique or art form possible (this would create a scattered and incohesive portfolio) but that you demonstrate that you are willing to experiment and try new art-making experiences, focusing on areas that interest you and highlight your strengths.

d) Include a range of varied, well-balanced compositions – show an ‘eye for aesthetics’

All work – even observational drawings – should show that you understand how to compose an image well, arranging visual elements such as line, shape, tone, texture, colour, form and colour in an pleasing way. Compositions should be well-balanced and varied.

  • Avoid drawing items floating in the centre of a page unless this is an intentional, considered decision. Think about the shadows, spaces and surfaces in and around objects.
  • Select and use appropriate colours, making sure that if multiple works are arranged on one page, the colours work well together.
  • Make sure the proportions and spatial relationships between different elements in graphic designs (such as text, images and space) are carefully considered.

e) Include process / development work if permitted

Some art schools, particularly in the United States – require that every piece in your application be a finished, realised work. Others in the UK love to see process, development or sketchbook work. If an art or design school specifically states that this material is permitted, this is an excellent opportunity to flaunt your skills, commitment and depth of knowledge. The research and processes undertaken to develop your work are often as important as the final work itself and allow the selection panel to understand your work in context and see how it has been initiated and developed. Process and development work helps colleges and universities to understand how you think (the ideas and meanings behind pieces) and see that you are able to take an idea from concept and develop it through to a final resolution. It provides evidence that you are able to analyse, experiment, explore and trial different outcomes and make critical judgments.

Development work might include sketchbook that show:

  • In depth investigations into subject matter (sketches, photos and other visual documentation of first-hand sources)
  • Mediums, materials and techniques and technologies examples/ testings
  • Development of concepts, compositions or details
  • Written analysis alongside visual work and annotation discussing ideas behind your work
  • Evidence of links to the historical, contemporary and/or social context in which works have been made – i.e. connections to artists and real world issues
  • Annotated screen captures, contact sheets, and documentation of digital processes

f) Communicate creative ideas: be original

It is important to remember that artistic skill must be accompanied by creativity, original ideas and some form of visual curiosity. Technical skill is useless if you are unable to think of how to put an idea in a unique, interesting way. Someone who is able to generate original and captivating ideas that rip into your heart and soul is far more appealing than someone who produces dull, predictable, yet technically excellent artwork. Although skill is an excellent asset, applicants should not aim to be ‘photocopiers’, but rather the creators of exciting and unexpected pieces. To achieve this within your portfolio, it may help to:

  • Be experimental – try different things and push techniques, materials and technology in innovative and unexpected ways
  • Make art about something rather than just laboriously depict a scene – demonstrate your intellectual potential.
  • Be yourself – reveal your personality and interests. Never submit art that is an imitation of someone else’s. Aim for artwork that is new, fresh and about something that matters to you. Don’t replicate any of the portfolios you see. Your portfolio should be individual to you. Let your portfolio reflect your strengths, interests and experiences and represent who you are.

g) Communicate passion, commitment and enthusiasm

Universities want people who will represent their school well, who will do great things that reflect positively upon their place of study. They want passionate, keen students who will cope with the workload and who intend to actually go on and make use of their degree. This means that you must convey a sense of passion, commitment and enthusiasm within the portfolio. To do this, you can:

  • Ensure that work from classroom projects is thorough, personalised, self-motivated 
  • Include some personal, independent, self-directed work that has been completed outside of the classroom. This helps to give an indication of your current involvement and interest in the arts.

h) Tailor your application to suit the degree

Portfolio guidelines for different areas of art and design are often similar, but it can be wise to modify your portfolio so that it is appropriate for the degree you are applying for. Rather than creating a completely different set of images for each specialisation or major, however, a submission can be tweaked slightly, so that it showcases relevant strengths and an interest in the area you are applying for. Example, submitting observational drawings of city scenes or building interiors for an architecture application.

As an example, digital based degrees may like to see evidence of technological awareness and capability and the ability to work with a range of digital platforms, alongside traditional non-digital techniques. This might include time-based interactive work (film, animation, video, website design).

 Example of Graphic Design Portfolios:

  • Graphic design print work or web graphics
  • Font design or use of typography
  • Graphic illustrations
  • Video graphics
  • Interactive web media and any other related projects

Example of Fashion Design Portfolios

  • Figure drawings – for example drawings of clothing on models
  • Documentation of original sewing, textiles or fashion design projects 

Example of Film School Portfolios:

  • Screenshots from original films, animations, videos or digital applications with video excerpts embedded
  • Fashion, costume or set design
  • Storyboards
  • Website design and multimedia work
  • Evidence of involvement in theatre or performing arts
  • Screenplays and creative writing may also be appropriate

5. Take time to create new artwork and/or improve existing pieces (if required)

Once you have planned what you will include in your portfolio, you should prepare a period of time to produce this. If you have not taken high school Art classes, preparing a portfolio will take a lot of work – about 6 months to complete a portfolio from scratch. Remember it is ideal to create more work than is needed, so that you can carefully edit and remove the weaker pieces. 

6. Select and Review Work

Once you have completed a significant body of work, seek feedback and modify, improve the pieces. Don’t leave this until the last minute, because you will run out of time if changes are needed. Build in reflective time – time to set it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes. 

7. Organise, photograph and present your art portfolio

Presentation of your portfolio is very important. The organisation and arrangement of your portfolio has a direct impact upon the way the work is perceived. A good layout helps to communicate an eye for composition, a professional approach, shows your commitment and desire to attend the program. It leaves a positive, memorable impression. Poorly cared for work that is thrown together in a sloppy, thoughtless layout, or is overly decorative and laboured in presentation, significantly distracts the eye from the quality of the artwork. Admissions staff may spend less than five minutes looking at your portfolio, so first impressions are very important. 

Here are some general portfolio presentation tips:

a) Select a simple, professional format that allows your work to be viewed easily.

If a portfolio size isn’t specified, choose something that works well for your own work and that can be transported easily. A3, A2 or A1 is usually fine.

b) Order the work in a logical and aesthetically pleasing way.

Start and end with a great piece of work, so that you create a great initial and final impression. Space other great work evenly throughout your portfolio (avoiding a clump of weaker work). Think about grouping similar work together, by medium, subject or style – perhaps as a series of projects – or chronologically. The admission officer must be able to ‘understand’ your portfolio and see any connections between pieces (for example, show the creative journey between development work to sketchbook pages to final outcomes). Aim to make it appear coherent, rather than a whole lot of scattered, disconnected pieces. 

c) Avoid unnecessary repetition

If you are asked to submit a specific number of images, ensure that each of these is a different piece of work. Where a certain number of sheets are asked for, it may be possible to mount smaller works onto a single sheet. If you want to submit different angles of one piece of work, it is usually best to digitally submit these on one sheet, or as one image. Read the guidelines of the particular university or college you wish to apply to carefully to find out what is expected.

d) Trim / crop everything in a clean environment and attach to the portfolio (if submitting in hardcopy)

  • Make sure work is thoroughly dry and that pages will not stick together
  • Make sure work is secured well, with no loose work falling out when pages are opened
  • Use fixative to stop charcoal, chalk or graphite drawings smudging and ensure that these are not directly facing other artworks in the portfolio. 
  • Avoid fold out flaps, and other irritating formats that may distract or irritate the viewer
  • Make sure photographs are focused, free of fingerprints, printed on matt (non-reflective) paper and are large enough to see details clearly
  • Don’t mount things with distracting borders. Framing work is unnecessary. Let the work stand on its own. A clean, professional and minimal style is usually ideal.

e) Presentation of digital work (if submitting online or upon DVD or memory stick)

  • If you wish to include digital material with a hardcopy submission, ensure that the school you are applying to is able to view work digital material in particular format (video / CD etc). Check carefully what type of new media presentations they accept and accompany this with a printed hardcopy version (screenshots etc) and a note about the programmes used, in case difficulties arise.
  • Label all digital files sensibly, such as firstname-lastname-application.pdf rather than 4690243fxz.pdf
  • Ensure images reflect the true colour and appearance of the artwork and are cropped correctly, without unrelated, distracting background items
  • Ensure moving image or video footage is cropped to a sensible length 
  • Consider embedding videos on your own website, rather than as a link to youtube / vimeo. This creates a much more professional backdrop to your application.
  • As with physical submissions, think carefully about the organisation and grouping of images.
  • Save a record of all digital submissions as a backup!

f) Label work description clearly

  • Use small, clear writing to label work in a way that doesn’t detract from the artwork. If labelling guidelines are not given, label work in the corner or on the reverse with the title, mediums, dimensions, dates and additional info as required. Avoid decorative fonts and excessively large headings.
  • Proof for spelling errors and inaccuracies. Make sure all links to digital moving images work.

Source: https://www.studentartguide.com/articles/how-to-make-an-art-portfolio-for-college-or-university

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