Let’s pretend I’m reviewing your art portfolio in person at a Portfolio Day event.
I’ll start by asking you to take out your work– all your work, every single piece you brought. It’s a good idea to bring a little bit of everything.
Some high school art teachers get very involved in helping their students prepare for art portfolio reviews. Some parents do too. It’s great for them to help, but it can also make it easy for you to rely too much on their opinions.
A quick note for parents and teachers
Don’t give general instructions for portfolio preparation. Every school has unique instructions and they want to get a sense of your student.
The work your students bring shouldn’t be a finished edited portfolio. It should be a bigger collection of work, usually 30-40 pieces that the portfolio reviewer can help them edit.
How I Review an Art Portfolio
Art Portfolio Presentation
Portfolio Review Questions
Art Portfolio Examples
I love to see sketchbooks because they help me understand how you think visually. Sketchbooks show me what topics and ideas you’re most interested in and what kinds of images and references you collect and bring to your work.
I know this sounds like a lot and you might not have that much work. But I want to set expectations. There are absolutely students that you’ll be in art school with that are creating that much work in high school. I have met hundreds of them.
Art Portfolio Presentation
Next, I like to look slowly at every piece. I prefer not to hear your presentation or explanation while I’m looking at the work.
This is a chance for me to give you two different interpretations of your work. The first is a cold read. I get this by looking at the story your work tells me without your interruption.
You won’t be there to explain when your school reviews your portfolio for admission. It’s good for you to hear those quick impressions and comments. Those are what come up during admission and scholarship reviews.
Next, I’ll give you a second read, after hearing from you about what you’d like to share, and what you want me to see.
Another note about explaining your work
I know that many teachers and blogs recommend having an elevator pitch about your work. For me, explanations about media and processes are usually annoying. Your work tells me the media you’re using and how you’re approaching it.
Those details don’t matter as much as the work itself unless you’re doing something really unusual or inventive. For example, painting with fruit juice from your parents’ fruit farm.
Explanations about what you were attempting don’t help either. Your portfolio isn’t evaluated on what you’re trying to do, it’s evaluated on what you’ve done.
I don’t spend a ton of time critiquing each individual piece of work. Growth and development comments are super useful to guide conversation during a critique, but a portfolio review isn’t a critique.
Portfolio reviews aren’t about the potential of a single piece of work or how to improve each piece. It’s about how your edited collection of work operates.
A great art portfolio review is about how it all works together
It’s what your portfolio tells someone about your skills, ideas, and potential as an artist.
I understand that each work of art in a portfolio can take a long time to make. I also understand the process of making certain portfolio pieces is intense. It’s easy to form a very personal attachment to any project because of the time invested and the risks that you take.
It can be tough when a portfolio reviewer seems to skim over all your artwork. That silence can feel dismissive, scary, and vulnerable. This will sound harsh, but get over it. You’re going to need to practice getting over it if you want to create professionally.
Artists don’t get grades, not in any way that matters. You don’t get to check a list that says you’re good or bad. There will always be things that you’re doing right and things that you need to work on. There will always be presentation details you should be thinking about that you are not yet.
Portfolio Review Questions
As I look through a portfolio, I ask a lot of questions. I’ll ask things like:
- Do you like to work in black and white or color?
- Have you worked large-scale or do you mostly make small work?
- Do you like to draw or paint better?
- What are you reading right now?
- Do you have a favorite subject in school?
Sometimes I’m confirming hunches or trying to figure something out. As we talk I’m trying to learn about your interests and personality through your work.
Some artists will do everything fast and others take too much time. Other people draw for other people and others draw only for themselves. Some filmmakers copy the films that they see friends making online. Other creators try to copy professional filmmakers.
Understanding how you approach making and what motivates you helps me give you feedback that you’ll actually use.
Next, I’ll ask you to make some choices for the work that you shared. I’ll ask you to do some editing, by asking questions like:
- Which piece is your personal favorite?
- Which is your most recent piece?
- What is your best piece?
- Why is it your best piece?
- Which piece do people that you respect think is your best?
- Do you agree? Why or why not?
I go through your portfolio and organize the work in different groupings. Then we’ll talk about the ways these different groupings change the way the portfolio looks.
I sometimes also say the way the work operates instead. I know that sounds fancy, but a portfolio is a kind of machine, and each piece of your work forms part of the machine. The way you edit your portfolio determines what that machine does and how fast and far it can go.
Art Portfolio Examples
These are five different groupings of my art from high school. I’m using my own work from high school because I can see how it might feel strange or invasive to see artwork dissected this way if I used the work of a former student.
I’ve been doing this kind of experiment on my own work for years, and I show students how it changes their work when I edit their work during a portfolio review. I understand that my portfolio might not be considered great by today’s standards. There is a part of me that wants to defend my high school portfolio, but honestly, it is what it is. If you’d like to see my current work, my current portfolio is on my website.
The first art portfolio edit is in chronological order.
In the remaining portfolios, the order of images is important. I’ve included the best piece first since that sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the portfolio. The second I’ve edited to show technical skills like drawing from observation and working with different media.
The third and fourth portfolios are variations on a concept or theme. I was a little all over the place, but there are similarities in subject matter, technical exploration, and mark-making that I’ve tried to emphasize in the editing.
The fifth art portfolio example is a combination, it’s the kind of portfolio I would put together if I was advocating for a student in a scholarship review.
Editing a portfolio
The process of editing a portfolio tends to come easier for photographers because so much of the work of photography is editing. They’re constantly analyzing different shots and deciding what to keep or print.
It tends to be much more difficult for traditional artists because each piece can take so long to make. This makes it a little horrifying to leave anything out. That feeling of horror goes away over time, mostly.
Art Portfolio Inspiration
After I’ve talked to you about editing, I’ll share some ideas as you continue developing your work.
I usually write down some artists that I think you should look at. Sometimes I offer artist names for inspiration, but I mostly do this because I see something of their work in yours. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think your work is original.
If you continue on the path to becoming a professional artist, people will compare your work to other artists. It doesn’t always feel good to have something original that you’ve made compared to something that’s already out there. But you should know what it means when someone compares your work to John Currin or Kota Ezawa or Alfred Steglitz.
I also offer these artists names because I want you to look at them for yourself. I want you to decide if you see the similarities that I see. Choose whether you’re for or against that comparison. If you’re for it, look at that artist and explore those similarities. But if you’re against it, do something about it, make some big changes.
If I write a long list of artist names or an art history book, that usually means that I think you need to stop making art in a hole.
What I mean by working in a hole
Inspiration has ebbs and flows. Sometimes you want to feed your eyes with hundreds of images and sometimes you’ll want to shut out the world and invent on your own.
Art makers in holes tend to either rely entirely on their own ideas or rely on a single source of inspiration. This limits where the work can go. If you spend too much time working in a hole you’ll progress slower. Also, you won’t know whether you’re copying other artists.
Humans unintentionally scan hundreds of images minimum every day. Those images come into your work whether you want them to or not, so it’s a good idea to feed your eyes the best images you can.
Give yourself room to experiment
If you spend too much time looking at other people’s work, you can become so flooded with inspiration and visual information that it can be difficult to create a visual style that’s all yours. A mixture of feast and famine in terms of the images that you’re looking at is good.
At the end of the day, I want you to make the best work possible. You took a huge risk sharing your work with me, and I want to give you as much valuable information as possible so that I can help you reach your goals.
I know some of what I say will feel really good to hear and some of it will be a little hard to take. Just know that I want you to be great at what you do. That’s what an art portfolio review is for.