Most recommendations for how to build an art portfolio focus on the work you should make. That’s important, but there are a few other things you’ll want to know if you’re doing portfolio preparation for art college. 

These are some simple steps that can help when you’re building an art portfolio for college that can make it less stressful and confusing. 

How To Build an Art Portfolio for College in 8 Easy Steps

Here’s a quick outline of the steps it takes to build and submit your college art portfolio:

1. Create your work
2. Save all your work
3. Document all your work
4. Review the directions and recommendations for each school that requires an art portfolio
5. Edit your art portfolio
6. Format, name, and save your digital portfolio files
7. Write and put together any required documents, like a portfolio inventory or artist statement
8. Submit your digital files online

What Is an Art Portfolio?

An art portfolio is really just a collection of your art or design work. Most high school artists build their portfolios with a combination of work from art classes and work they do on their own. Some will include specific portfolio assignments, like the infamous RISD bike, but the similarities stop there. 

Benefits of a good art portfolio

The portfolio is the most important part of your admission or scholarship application. In addition to meeting a requirement in the application process, your portfolio sets expectations for your advisors and teachers as you enter a new college. It is how you will create a name and a path for yourself with your work and the way that you choose to present it.

There are many different ways to approach building and editing a portfolio and the decisions that you make for your portfolio will have a major impact on your future success. Whether you’re hoping for admission to your top school or resubmitting for a killer scholarship, this article will show you how to build a great art portfolio for college.

Art School Portfolio Preparation

1. Create your work

Many people think that the most important aspect of an art portfolio is technical skill. While drawing skills are a major component of a great college art portfolio, equally important is showing your ideas and interests. 

A portfolio with technical skill alone is a snoozefest, and technical skill by itself will not get you admitted, especially at today’s competitive art schools. At the same time, conceptual skills without technical ability make for a messy portfolio too. I’ve seen my share of conceptual art portfolios that we would have made better research papers. 

A great art portfolio should demonstrate a range of work and a diverse display of ideas. In addition to the work you’re doing in class, don’t forget to experiment with new techniques and media.

If you put in the practice to demonstrate technical skills in your portfolio, find a way to bring your personality into your work. Make art that covers topics that you have a strong opinion on. It may not be a typical topic for artwork, but who cares? If you really care about an issue or idea, make some art about it.

Portfolios that have great concepts but poor technique often come from students who want to try everything. Please keep trying everything! It is wonderful that you are trying everything! 

That said, try to make more of everything. For example, if you’ve been into ink drawings with brush pens, don’t make just one drawing, make 30. Having fun with collage? Create one every day instead of one each month. 

The book Art and Fear talks about quality versus quantity in art. It says that those focused on quality will not only make fewer pieces, but those pieces will be of lower average quality. At the same time, artists who go for quantity will make higher quality work, make more work, and have more fun. This is partly because it is less stressful to make a lot of drawings than it is to make one perfect drawing. This may change as you mature as an artist, but it is the best strategy for students or anyone else who feels stuck in their practice.

It’s easy to get stuck as you start making work for your art portfolio. If you’re not sure what to make for your portfolio, these art portfolio ideas can help you create more work that will meet the expectations of your dream school.

2. Save all your work

Set aside a safe, clean spot in your home the first week of your freshman year of high school. After you complete each assignment, put your finished artwork there. This way you can make sure any pieces that may find their way into your portfolio are free of smudges, tears, and creases. 

You might not think that work from freshman year could ever make it into your college portfolio. But you never know, and it’s good practice to properly store your artwork.

Don’t forget works-in-progress

Don’t even throw away unfinished work, because it may be useful to you later. If your stack of saved art is getting too big for your space, ask yourself:

One of the challenges of building a portfolio is that what you’ve done doesn’t matter as much as what it looks like you’ve done. Let me repeat that. What you’ve done doesn’t matter as much as what it looks like you’ve done.

Now that you have a process for deciding what to save and saving your work in a clean, safe space, it’s time for the next step.

3. Document all your work

Take pictures of every piece of work you finish, no exceptions. It’s also a good idea to bookmark favorite drawings in your sketchbooks and document them too.

If you have limited space to store your physical work, start documenting your work as you make it. You can also photo document your art portfolio every few months. 

These are great instructions for documenting your portfolio that don’t require a special space or expensive equipment. Get into the habit of documenting your work. Don’t forget to save your digital files in a place on your computer where you can organize them and make them easy to find later.

Art Portfolio Requirements for College

4. Review the directions and recommendations for each school that requires an art portfolio

Most art portfolio instructions for college are specific, but still kind of vague. Because of this many students just toss their hands in the air and submit the same art portfolio to every school. 

This strategy is not a strategy. It also means that while you may get admission or scholarship from the school that’s ready to meet you where you are, it will be tough to get what you want from your top school with your college art portfolio.

If you read carefully, every art school has slightly different guidelines for portfolios. Within these are select words that can give you hints about what the priorities are for each school. We’ve broken down the general portfolio requirements for Rhode Island School of Design, RISD, and School of the Art Institute of Chicago, SAIC, below:

Art school portfolio preparation instructions from a top art school
Art portfolio requirements for college at a top art school

It’s important to understand what is similar and what is different between schools so that you can edit your work accordingly. These tiny details could help you achieve admission and the highest possible scholarship from your school of choice. 

Your art teacher and the school you’re applying to may have different perspectives about your strongest work. One way to get an edge on college art portfolio expectations is to schedule an in-person portfolio review or attend a National Portfolio Day (NPD) near you.

It’s important to start getting feedback early. Many students go to more than one NPD. There are often long lines. It can be a little overwhelming and there is a lot to do, so I recommend following this schedule:

Sophomore year

Head to an NPD near you and shop schools and majors. Grab all the literature you can. Take a quick look while you’re still at the event, then fill out an inquiry card for each school that looks interesting to you.

Junior year

Depending on the NPD schedule in your area, your junior year may be the last time you can speak to your school of choice before the priority application deadline. 

Portfolio Review 101 has everything you need to prepare for a portfolio review experience that can help you feel confident making an art portfolio. 

Your junior year is also a great time to schedule campus tours and in-person portfolio reviews at the schools you like best.

Senior year

This is a great time to speak to schools about finishing touches for your art portfolio and to get feedback for scholarship reviews. 

If you are approaching your portfolio with this level of attention and dedication, chances are you’ll be in a good place for admission. That said, you may still have more work to do to put your portfolio in the running for competitive scholarship awards from your top schools. You can see some art school portfolio examples here.  

Major-specific portfolios

Many schools including Laguna College of Art and Design and Art Center, have major-specific portfolio requirements for undergraduates. Major-specific portfolios are an entirely different beast, so I’ve written a separate post for major-specific college art portfolio requirements.

Industry portfolios

It’s great if you’re already aware of what an art portfolio looks like in gaming, interior design, or other industries. Industry portfolios and standards are a smart thing to be aware of if that’s your career of choice. 

At the same time, keep in mind that what makes a great art portfolio in the industry isn’t necessarily what your college of choice is looking for, and vice versa. 

For example, process drawings and collages of images that show a complicated project in process are usually welcome in professional portfolios. Not so much for many colleges.

Always do your research on the expectations and standards of your school before you begin editing your art portfolio.

Making an Art Portfolio

5. Edit your art portfolio 

Editing is the most challenging step when you’re making an art portfolio, but if you’ve followed the steps up to this point you already have a head start on most college applicants. You’ll start with your documented images, then begin editing to create a slightly different portfolio for each school.

Editing isn’t something you do once, it’s a process you’ll repeat over and over for the rest of your career as an artist. Find ways to make it fun. 

If you’re not sure how to build an art portfolio, start editing early and give yourself a lot of time.

Portfolio editing exercise

After you photograph your work, get the photos printed so they’re all the same size. Arrange the photos of your portfolio on a wall, and put them in different orders or groupings. 

Sit with each version of your portfolio for a few days. Think about how the editing decisions you’re making change the way you see your work. Think about what that edit highlights and what ends up fading into the background.

Another exercise to try: Print the work of your favorite artists or favorites that you found online. Put those photographs on your wall next to the photos of your work. This can help you see areas where you can improve technically and find strengths you might not know you have.

You can do this art portfolio exercise on your phone too, but the process of physically moving photos around can help you see something new in your work. 

You know how moving a painting to a different room or hanging it on a wall with more light changes the way you see that painting? This process works the same way. It helps you see your work through new eyes.

Detach from your work

As you edit your portfolio, try to look at it as though it’s someone else’s work. Better yet, imagine someone you don’t like made it. Really get into that mindset. 

Pretend you don’t know the people in the picture or their stories. Pretend you don’t know how many hours it took to paint the grass or the hair. Put yourself in a mindset where you don’t know whether or not that piece got a good grade in art class or won first prize in a local show.

To edit a stellar portfolio it’s important to step back from your personal relationship to your work and see it the way your college might see it.

For example, maybe your sister is sick and in the hospital. That’s a hard thing for you and your family, and that’s why you’re taking a series of black-and-white photographs of her during treatment. As a portfolio reviewer, I recognize that this is a painful experience and that those photographs are powerful to you and the people you’re close to. 

But the subject matter doesn’t make it good art. If I can’t feel that story in your photographs without you telling me what’s happening, it’s not good visual communication. 

This is one of the things that makes it very difficult to be an artist. You’ll need to learn to separate your finished work from your personal experience of it. Once you put it out into the world, your art doesn’t just belong to you anymore, and there are a lot of people who will have different opinions about it.

That is difficult for most artists, but it gets easier with time. Detaching from your work as you edit your portfolio is good practice for the future, and it also helps you build a better art portfolio for college.

Portfolio structure

The order of images in an art portfolio matters. Most reviewers won’t see your portfolio all at once. Instead, portfolios are usually viewed in a slideshow or projected in a room. 

The order you show your images matters. The first image will set the tone for the rest of your portfolio, so it’s the most important. After that, you can do just about anything, that’s why it’s so confusing to edit a portfolio.

But don’t just put your pieces in chronological order. It doesn’t matter what order you made your work in, and if you include your oldest piece first it may set the wrong tone for the rest of your portfolio.

Also, don’t fall into the idea that your most recent piece is your best. It may feel like your best because you spent a lot of time on it recently, but that’s not always the case. 

Don’t throw in recent work just to fill a technical hole. If you can, give yourself time to separate yourself from new work before you add it to your art portfolio.

Quality over quantity

More is not better. As you edit, ask yourself these questions: 

This process will help you decide which pieces belong in your portfolio in which you should set aside.

A word about animé, fanart, and DeviantArt

It is great to be a fan. It’s great to appreciate what your friends and other people your age are making. It’s awesome to experiment with new ideas around characters that you already love. 

Copying is a great way to learn too, and if you love the anime and other styles that you see on DeviantArt it makes sense that you would copy them. It also makes sense that this would be the art that you love most.

But your portfolio is not the right place to show your copies and fanart. That’s because you can’t become a professional making that kind of work alone. It doesn’t show your original ideas or technical skill in the way that colleges are looking for. 

A college art portfolio isn’t just the work that you’re passionate about. It’s the work you love and want to make professionally. 

So, if you’re interested in illustration, character design, animation, or comic books you should be showing your original creations. Changing a character’s costume color or hairstyle isn’t enough.

You’ll also want to start looking at art outside of Deviant Art and other fan sites. There are a lot of other amazing places to look at art online. 

These are just a few great sources to feed your eyes as you build your portfolio:

These are some of the places that college portfolio reviewers are looking for inspiration online, and where they are learning about what’s new in their industries.

6. Format, name, and save your digital portfolio files

Each art school you apply to will have specific instructions for how to label your digital files, so follow the instructions carefully.

Many schools today use a digital platform for art portfolio submissions like Slideroom. It’s a good idea to review the application requirements in the Slideroom platform in addition to the school website because there are sometimes formatting details like file size that can make it easier for you to prepare your portfolio for submission.

A quick note on physical portfolio submissions

Some schools don’t include physical art portfolios in their instructions. If you choose to send your physical drawings or other works to supplement your portfolio, don’t expect to get it back for several months, if at all. 

Processing portfolios can take a lot of time. The people who manage college applications have a long to-do list during the rush of application deadlines. Application extras that fall outside of the requirements don’t have a set process for checking in, storage, or return so it’s possible that your work could get lost or damaged in the shuffle. 

If you’re not comfortable with those possibilities, find another creative way to showcase your work digitally and include it with your online portfolio submission.

Another quick note, just being real

Yes, you will have a better chance of success if you actually read and follow the directions, but you can still succeed if you have great work, even if you ignore the directions completely. 

Your lack of interest in rules, human kindness, and responsibility will annoy everyone, but you will still have a chance of success if you make mind-blowing incredible art. This decision will probably backfire on you later in your career though, so tread carefully.

7. Write and put together any required documents, like a portfolio inventory or artist statement

Most colleges require a portfolio inventory, and some will also require an artist statement.

Portfolio inventory

Some students add a lot of explanation to the portfolio inventory. This information is usually skimmed, not read in detail, and rarely adds anything to the work. 

With your portfolio inventory and artist statement, less is more. Your work should speak for itself. Try to limit the text in your inventory to the title, medium, dimensions, and sometimes the date of completion of the work.

Artist statement

Not all schools ask for an artist statement, and those that do will often have instructions that feel a bit vague. Let’s look at examples from CalArts and San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). 

How to build an art portfolio statement from a top art college
Building an art portfolio statement requirements from another top art school

In general, an artist statement is an opportunity to share a little bit about who you are, why you make art, and what your intentions were with the work you decided to submit. 

Please avoid starting your statement by saying how long you’ve been making art, especially if you’ve been making art since childhood. Everyone does this, and it gets painful after you’ve read a few hundred artist statements. 

Try to write the first paragraph of your artist statement last. Share information that is unique to your life experience. Tell stories that relate to the work you’ve made and why you made it. This might mean talking about a friend in your life, a special trip, or another powerful moment or experience. 

It can help to take notes while you edit your portfolio about why you chose one piece over the other. Let the school you’re applying to know why the art in your portfolio is important to you and what you want to do with it.

College Art Portfolio Submission

8. Submit your digital files online

Once you’ve pulled everything together, you’re ready to go online and submit your art portfolio. Follow the directions carefully, and double-check everything before you click submit. 

Congratulations! You’ve learned how to build your art portfolio for college!