Art portfolio ideas can come from the work you've already done or online, and these are some other easy and fun ways to do it

Art Portfolio Ideas: Jumpstart Your Portfolio With These Ideas

If you’re trying to build up your portfolio, it’s easy to get stuck. A strong portfolio demonstrates the best of your best, highlighting technical and conceptual skills, as well as your knowledge of media, disciplines, and art history. The pressure is high, which leads many artists to get stuck and go searching for art portfolio ideas. 

This article will walk you through the main parts of a stellar art portfolio, as well as prompts and art portfolio ideas to help you work through any artist’s block that might hit you in the process.

Art Portfolio Ideas: Technical, Conceptual, and Industry-Based Portfolio Ideas

Technical Art Portfolio Ideas
Conceptual Art Portfolio Ideas
Industry-Driven Art Portfolio Ideas
More Art Portfolio Ideas for When You’re Stuck

A bowl of fruit can be a great subject for drawing from observation for your art portfolio

Technical Art Portfolio Ideas

If you’re applying to art schools, most will have exacting technical portfolio requirements. Most schools want to see drawing from observation, so let’s talk about it.

Drawing from observation

Also called observational drawing or drawing from life, this idea is a form of torture for high school artists everywhere. Many, in an attempt to push this vile practice away, will complete one drawing from observation that they will then drag from the bottom of their portfolio when a portfolio reviewer or teacher suggests more life drawing. 

Just a heads up– this is missing the point completely. Drawing from observation isn’t something you can check off a list and ignore forever. If you plan to become a creative professional it’s a habit and a skill. Like any skill, it requires practice. If you draw from life just once or if you practice observational drawing for a long time and then skip it for a few years, it will take more hard work to get back in practice. 

I get that for many people it is way more fun to draw from your imagination. Observational drawing doesn’t come naturally to me either. But the skills that you learn by practicing drawing from life are more useful than any other kind of practice.

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Fun and easy art portfolio ideas

Still lifes aren’t the only way to practice observational drawing. Many people get bored doing still lifes, and that’s understandable. But you can always find ways to make them interesting. Draw your favorite stuff, draw your friend’s favorite stuff, do weird things with lights and reflective stuff. Observational drawing is practice, but practice doesn’t have to be miserable.

Keep a sketchbook with you at all times. Draw your hands, draw your feet, and draw your face. Draw whatever you see around you. Your hands, feet, and face are some of the hardest things to draw. As you keep drawing them over and over again, you’ll start to notice little details. 

For example, my right eye is higher than my left eye. My nostrils are slightly different shapes and I have an indent on the left side of my chin. I know this because I’ve drawn myself hundreds of times. Getting these details right makes it easier for me to get a likeness– to draw a self-portrait that looks like me.

My face has a lot of asymmetry, and so do most faces, which is why art portfolio ideas from observation are a good idea

Drawing from photographs and another benefit of life drawing

It’s easier to translate a photograph into a drawing because they’re both in two dimensions. This is one of the reasons drawing from observation is difficult because you have to flatten the world around you and make decisions about proportion, value, and shape that a photograph has already simplified for you.

You may choose to pursue a career that requires you to draw from photographs. That’s common because it makes the process of drawing much quicker. But even if you’re working from a combination of reference and imagination, don’t rely on photographs for your subjects. 

Have you ever looked at a painting or poster and it felt wrong but you couldn’t figure out why? This feeling is usually a mistake that the artist didn’t catch. 

Drawing people or animals from photo references can be quick and easy. But have you ever seen a painted portrait where one of the hands looks more like a flipper? Have you seen a portrait with dead eyes or awkward feet? 

A camera can catch moments that our eyes can’t catch. When we see these moments frozen in a photograph there is usually enough other visual information to reassure us that those wonky bits are just leftovers from the moment. But when an artist paints from that photograph those same parts are really uncomfortable to look at. It doesn’t matter how good the rest of the painting is, that painting will always feel wrong.

An artist with life drawing experience can examine that same photograph and refer to their life drawing knowledge. They can adjust that hand, eye, or foot with their knowledge of perspective, musculature, or proportion.

A painting isn’t usually about copying a photograph exactly, it’s about making it feel like you made a good painting using a photographic reference.

Observational drawing and fantasy art

Observational drawing skills are especially important when you’re doing fantasy art. Fantasy art is a magical construction, but you want it to feel real to the viewer. An illustration where the figure is lit in a different way than the background or the figure is too big for the landscape they’re standing in are all common mistakes that can pull your viewer out of the illusion you’re trying to create. 

An observational drawing practice can help you fix all these issues. Animators, painters, illustrators, game designers– anyone who works with the figure will benefit from drawing from observation.

And I don’t mean to pick on designers or photographers, but these are the students that I’ve spent the most listening to complaining about having to take drawing classes. It doesn’t directly apply to their work, so many think of it as an extra or a waste of time. 

But both of these disciplines are also detail-obsessed. A tiny blemish on a negative or kerning that’s a few picas off has a big impact on your final product. There is no better practice for noticing detail than observational drawing.

Yes, drawing from observation is hard and repetitive and annoying, especially if you feel like you’re not good at drawing. But it will always make you better at what you do. So, figure out ways that you can enjoy drawing practice. Go outside and draw with your friends or draw while you binge your favorite show, but keep practicing.

Art portfolio ideas for technique

If you’ve got a lot of finished work from your imagination, it’s a good idea to add some portfolio pieces that show strong technique. If you’re feeling stuck, take a look at what you’ve already done. Next, go back to basics and make sure your portfolio demonstrates each of the following art fundamentals:

  • Line, including cross-hatching
  • Value, including chiaroscuro
  • Color
  • Gradation
  • Texture
  • Shape
  • Volume
  • Perspective
  • Foreshortening
  • Proportion
  • Scale
  • Space and depth
  • Composition
  • Symmetry and asymmetry
  • Motion
  • Rhythm
  • Chance or improvisation

These are more good prompts for making portfolio work that exhibits technical skills:

  • Set up a tower of boxes in your room and do a 3-point perspective drawing
  • Stain or paint a bunch of paper, set up a still life, and make a collage from observation
  • Make a painting of your bedroom exactly as it is right now, hopefully, it is messy
  • Do a realistic landscape painting using techniques that create the illusion of depth like blue shift
  • Experiment with simple shapes and create an interesting, repetitive design or pattern
  • Do a pencil drawing of a still life that’s full of reflective or transparent objects like silverware or drinking glasses
  • Draw some fabric. Find fabric prints and colors that say something about your personality. Drawing your clothes works for this portfolio idea too. 

Conceptual Art Portfolio Ideas

Another essential part of any art portfolio is showing off your ideas. Concepts in a portfolio can include visual storytelling, character designs, original paintings, and an infinite number of other possibilities. Because of this incredible potential, most of the people who review portfolios frown on derivative work. Let’s talk about the ban on animé.

Skip the fan art and animé

Humans are natural mimics. We adjust our facial expressions and tone of voice to make the people that we’re with feel safe and comfortable. We wear clothes that help us stand out or blend in, and we make decisions based on the people around us. 

The internet gives us access to just about any image in the world, but most of us end up in pockets of the internet. We limit ourselves to looking at what we already know and like or what people that we trust introduced us to. 

The next logical step many artists take is to remake what we see. This is why, no matter who he’s drawing, Picasso’s portraits mostly look like Picasso. It’s why art movements were the focus of art history for so long. We see something cool and we want to copy it. 

Most of us use our own faces as a model so often that our faces show up in other parts of our art, so art portfolio ideas that show practice are a great idea

It’s a natural and useful instinct, but it can also lead to some really boring work if you’re not aware that you’re doing it. You might get more likes on social media with recognizable characters, but your portfolio should reflect what makes you one of a kind.  

Animé has a diverse and complex set of styles and references. It is fair to say that most portfolio reviewers aren’t up on the nuances of different animé styles, and they’re not going to evaluate your work based on the definitions of success in that world. Fan art is the same deal. That may be the art world you live in now, but it’s probably not the art world you’ll live in five to ten years. 

When you add work to your portfolio, make sure it’s as original as you are.

An easy way to do this is to feed your eyes with interesting things. Surround yourself with images that you really love. I create albums on my phone to organize images that I like, art that I like, and visuals that give me ideas. I also use the PhotoGrid app to reorganize these ideas and to create color palettes or references for my work.

Your sketchbook is another low-pressure way to come up with new ideas. Start with some doodles from your imagination or observation, then keep playing. You may also want to use your sketchbook as a place to pull together different influences and inspirations, like a scrapbook.

Here are some other suggestions for creating original conceptual work:

Experiment with new media

Have you ever tried scratchboard, oil pastels, or soft-cut lino? Working in a new medium feels more like play, and can reinvigorate your art and ideas.

If you tend to use the same colors or composition every time, change it up. Create a painting with complimentary or tertiary colors, or jump from symmetrical to rule of thirds composition in your next drawing.

Experiment with weird art materials, like making art with food, creating with something you found outside or digging through the attic for materials that have some significance to you or your family.

Critique with your work instead of your keyboard

It’s easy to criticize the work we see others doing online. You probably spend some time scanning images online, so why not make art while you critique? Save a few images you hate online and make your own best version of that work.

Work big and work small

If there’s one thing you like to draw, like trees, experiment with scale. Make a drawing of a tree the size of a postage stamp, then another of the same size as your bedroom wall. Try different supports– paper, canvas, or mylar as you scale up.

If you’ve gotten feedback that you need to work on concept, choose one topic and stick with it for a while, six months minimum. Many artists end up with subject matter they can explore for years. For example, Jasper Johns is into flags, William Wiley used maps in his work, and Louise Bourgeois made a lot of spiders. 

The concept that leads to your best art portfolio ideas might be something you’re already into, you just haven’t made art about it yet!

Industry-Driven Art Portfolio Ideas

If you have a clear picture of your dream career after school or your dream employer, that knowledge and interest should show up in your art portfolio. Some schools have major-specific portfolio requirements, while others request a general portfolio, but if you’re looking for art portfolio ideas, your dream industry is a great source of creative inspiration. 

If you’re not sure which direction you want to go as an artist, there’s no better resource than art history.

These are just a few ideas you can try:

  • Check out the online portfolio of your favorite artists and create a piece that riffs on one or two of their pieces
  • Study the visual style of your favorite game or company that you follow and make original art that mimics that style
  • Play with opposites. Look at art from industries and media that are the opposite of what you do. For example, if you’re a painter, make a video commercial. If you’re into illustration, try creating a surreal graphic novel. If you’re into animation, do some black and white photography or minimalist sculpture.
  • Go to some galleries or museums. If there’s not a lot in your area, check out online art spaces like Artsy, The National Gallery of Art, or Saatchi Art
I organize art I like in an app to see the connections between the different things I like which gives me better art portfolio ideas.

It’s also great practice to remake respected masterworks in your own style. The list below is a fun place to start:

  • DaVinci’s Mona Lisa
  • Fabritius’ The Goldfinch
  • Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe
  • A still life by Morandi
  • Munch’s The Dance of Life
  • Ingres’ Napoleon on His Imperial Throne

More Art Portfolio Ideas for When You’re Stuck

There are some other things to think about as you develop the work that will become your portfolio. It can take years to build a strong portfolio, and most portfolios are never finished. Your portfolio will change as you and your work as an artist evolve. These tips can help you reset and stay focused on creating your best art portfolio.

Focus on the work first

A clean, organized portfolio that follows all the rules is not the primary goal. Your work is the most important part of your art portfolio. Spend more time making new art pieces for your portfolio than you do building your website or working on the presentation.

Make more of your best work 

As you create and edit your portfolio, emphasize what you’re great at and cut your weaknesses. For example, I’m good at painting, value, and color, but I’m weak in proportion, drawing, and consistency.

Leave out the process 

If the finished work isn’t good or interesting without documenting the process, it’s a piece you probably want to leave out of your portfolio.

And don’t just talk about what you want to do in the future. Start making it today. If you want to be a fashion designer, make some clothes. There’s a lot you can do with draping and hand sewing if you don’t have access to a sewing machine. 

Same goes for architecture, product design, and pretty much any industry goal that requires expensive equipment or facilities to create. Do everything you can now, and you’ll be better once you have access to those tools.

Make as much as you can and plan to edit later

Sometimes a 20-minute gesture drawing is better than a 40-hour drawing from your imagination. Sometimes a messy sculpture that was fun and quick is a better pick for your portfolio than a sculpture that you spent weeks perfecting. 

You’ll have many different portfolios in your lifetime. One should be a portfolio that includes everything that you’ve made and worked on. This portfolio is just for you. It shouldn’t be the same as the art portfolios that you submit to schools, galleries, contests, or residencies.

And if your chosen school has specific prompts for the portfolio, try each assignment a few times. Your first idea may not be your best one, and it could be a fun chance to explore a new topic. Most of the assignments I’ve struggled with have taken me somewhere interesting later.

Take a break

If you’re completely out of our portfolio ideas, go to a place that inspires you. Turn off your phone and just sit in that space for a while. See what comes up.

Sign up for 90 Days of Inspiration 

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Post by Jana Rumberger