Portfolio review image with a miniature art portfolio and two paintbrushes

Portfolio Review 101: A Complete Guide

A portfolio review isn’t just a chance for you to talk to someone about your art or photography. It’s not a time to make your case for admission to your school of choice or the scholarship that you want. It’s mostly an opportunity to connect with someone who understands what you do and how you can do it better.

Portfolio Review 101: A Complete Guide

What Is a Portfolio Review?
Benefits of a Good Portfolio Review
Portfolio Preparation
Digital Portfolios for Review
Time-Based Portfolio Reviews
Mental Portfolio Review Preparation
Practice for Your Portfolio Review

What Is a Portfolio Review?

A portfolio review is a chance to build a relationship with a person who could be an advocate for you as you work on your goals. It’s a teaching moment. A portfolio review is a time to learn about your habits and challenges from the perspective of someone you’ve probably never met before.

Your teachers, family, and friends know you and they see each piece in your portfolio through a filter. That filter is you– your favorite jokes, the movies you like, your favorite colors, and songs.  

You have habits and the little things that you do every day impact the art that you make. A portfolio review is your chance to hear what someone thinks about your work without that filter.

Portfolio review 101 covers everything you need to know for a successful art portfolio preparation

Benefits of a Good Portfolio Review

Being an artist can be pretty isolating at times. It’s mostly the kind of work that’s done alone, even if you’re making it in a classroom setting. And art isn’t like math or sports– there’s no clear path to winning or losing, right or wrong. 

While it can sometimes hurt to hear challenging comments about your portfolio, a portfolio review can change you in exciting ways. You’ll learn about new artists, hear about skills you may not have known you had, and you’ll have a clearer sense of direction towards your future goals. 

A successful portfolio review can help you:

  • Narrow down your school choices
  • Improve your chance of school admission
  • Push your portfolio toward a higher scholarship tier

Besides commenting on your work, portfolio reviewers often offer tips on how to document your work. Many surfaces can be tough to photograph. You want to present the best digital images possible in your final portfolio.

A portfolio review is a big step that can sometimes feel a push off of a high dive. But the rewards are the connections, comments, references, and resources you will collect during your review. They are worth the trouble and the risk.

Portfolio Preparation

If you’re going to an in-person portfolio review it’s best to bring a physical portfolio. 

What to bring to a portfolio review

A typical art school portfolio is 10 to 20 pieces, so bring 30-40 pieces of art if you can, as well as a sketchbook or two. 

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

This way your reviewer can see ideas, skills, and details that might not show up in digital photos or a small selection of work. They can also get a better understanding of the scale you’re working at. 

Don’t wait until the last minute to prepare

Use your prep time to make some choices about what you’re preparing for.

National Portfolio Day is a great event for a portfolio review and to learn about art school

For example, National Portfolio Days are often crowded. Some schools will have long lines, so choose the schools you want to talk to most in advance. Then, look at their portfolio guidelines and bring the portfolio pieces that you think best fit what they are requesting. 

You may also want to write some notes in your sketchbook or phone about why you’re selecting those pieces. Do everything you can on your own to edit your portfolio. This will make the feedback you’ll get from reviewers a lot more useful.

Be kind to your artwork

When I see a student approach my table with a collection of boxes and portfolios, handling each piece like a precious jewel, I know I am about to have a good conversation. This is because that student has shown me without any words that they care about their work enough to take care of it.

Talking to someone with smudged or folded drawings is frustrating. It usually indicates a lack of interest or massive insecurity. Don’t bring drawings that look like they’ve been recently pulled from beneath a bed. 

If you don’t care about a piece, don’t bring it to a portfolio review. If you care about your work, take care of it.

What to buy for your portfolio review

You don’t need a fancy expensive portfolio to take care of your art. 

Buy a pad of newsprint and create a cover sheet for each drawing, just fold the newsprint at the top and tape it to the back with acid-free tape. Get a can of spray fix and spray each charcoal and pencil drawing. This will keep your drawings from smudging, whether they’re large drawings or just in your sketchbook. A paper portfolio is an easy way to store your work and only costs about $3-15.

Taking care of sculpture is harder, but still manageable. Save any boxes shipped to your house and keep them folded flat under your bed or in a closet until you need them. Shoe boxes are also great for storing small sculptures. 

Put your sculptures in boxes packed with crumpled newsprint paper. This can help you make sure that they don’t get chipped, scratched, or broken when they’re not on display. 

Digital Portfolios for Review

There are a few situations where you’ll present a digital portfolio instead of a physical one, including but not limited to: 

  • An online portfolio review
  • Traveling away from home
  • If you make all your work digitally

In these situations, you’ll present your work on a digital device. If you’re going digital, keep these tips in mind.

Lighting

Lighting your work properly when photographing it is an absolute must. Dim or out-of-focus photographs of drawings, paintings, and sculptures create an awful experience for any portfolio reviewer. You can’t get good feedback on your portfolio with crappy documentation. 

Learning good lighting is the quickest and easiest way to get good photo documentation of your work. If you’re not comfortable with the skills or don’t have the equipment you need, hiring a professional is a great idea.

Organize your files

Don’t waste time during your portfolio review. Try not to wait until your review to search for different images in folders all over your computer. Don’t waste time digging through hundreds of icons on your desktop. 

Digital portfolio reviews usually require a laptop like this miniature one

Prepare in advance for your portfolio review. First, create a few different folders of images of your work. It’s a good idea to create a few different folders depending on what your portfolio reviewer might be looking for.

Favorite portfolio work

Some schools want to know what your favorite work in your portfolio is. For these schools, create a folder with about 40 of your favorite images. Only include the work you love most in this folder.

Best portfolio work

Create another folder that exactly follows the portfolio directions from your top school. This should have 12-20 images. It will probably include:

  • Some drawing from observation
  • Some drawing from your imagination
  • A handful of your best work in different media

Major-specific portfolios

Create a major-specific folder that has 10-15 images and shows your work in that discipline. If your school has major-specific portfolio requirements, follow their directions as closely as possible.

Time-Based Portfolio Reviews

If you’re planning to show video, edit a short reel for your portfolio review. Your reel should be no longer than 3-5 minutes total. This is because most portfolio reviews run about 15-20 minutes maximum. The longer it takes for your reviewer to watch your work, the less time there will be to talk about it. 

For film portfolios

When you edit your reel, skip straight to the parts that best display your filmmaking skills. Slow intros have their place in film and video, but a portfolio review is not it. Try to include samples that show:

  • Scripting
  • Editing
  • Lighting
  • Screen composition

Look at your top school’s requirements if you’re submitting performance and experimental time-based work. Create a list of credits if you got help making your video. You’ll also want to have your video cued and ready to play when you get to the front of the line. 

And if you have a sound component to your video, bring headphones. Ideally, you’ll want headphones that your reviewer doesn’t have to stick directly in their ear. 

Think about bringing antibacterial wipes to clean your headphones between reviews. This way they’ll be clean and ready for the next reviewer.

More tech tips

A tablet is often easier to review a portfolio on than a laptop. It’s also lighter for you to carry. That said, a smartphone is usually too small for a professional review of your portfolio, so don’t plan to show your portfolio on your phone. 

Don't use a cell phone for a portfolio review

But, it is a great idea for you to put your portfolio on your phone as a backup in case your laptop or tablet runs out of power. 

Be sure to fully charge your computer or tablet before you get to your portfolio review. Bring an external charger in case a plug isn’t available for you to recharge your device.

Mental Portfolio Review Preparation

Many students just bring a bunch of stuff to their portfolio review and wait for the portfolio reviewer to tell them what to do. 

You will get more out of your portfolio review if you are mentally prepared for the conversation. These are a few ideas to help make your first portfolio review a better experience.

A kind word of warning

Don’t head to your portfolio review for compliments. A portfolio review experience should be intense, no matter how talented or prepared you are. So, don’t head to your portfolio review hoping for praise or affirmation that you’re good, ready, and deserving of admission or scholarship. 

You might think you want that confirmation and the feeling that you get from it. But you don’t want that at this phase. What you need from a good portfolio review is critical feedback. You want constructive information that can help you continue to develop your portfolio so you can reach your long-term goals.  

An important note

You may have a more intense emotional response to criticism during your portfolio review. Portfolio reviews make most people nervous. 

Your nerves might lead you to interpret a quick comment as too direct or harsh. You might interpret a detailed explanation as someone talking down to you. Those are normal human reactions, but they may be your emotional reactions rather than a rational response to well-meaning feedback.

Portfolio reviewers are humans too

Portfolio reviewers are professionals but they’re also just people. Your portfolio reviewer might have woken up at 4 a.m. to make their flight. They might be going through a breakup or desperately in need of coffee after hours of reviewing portfolios. What they say matters and they know it. Every person who reviews your portfolio is there to support and challenge you in a positive way.

If someone offers harsh or dismissive comments or is rude or condescending, feel free to ignore those comments. It doesn’t matter what you brought to your review, you don’t deserve that kind of treatment.

That said, even the best crit can have some frustrating comments. It’s up to you to decide what critique you think is useful and makes sense for you. 

Whether you agree with a comment or not, write it down somewhere that you can think about it later. You might see these comments and feedback differently when you’re feeling more like yourself. These notes can be useful for you in the long term.

Practice for Your Portfolio Review

Attitude is everything when it comes to accepting and putting critique to use. It’s hard to have anyone criticize your work. It’s especially tough when it’s a person you don’t know or someone you’re trying to impress. The only way to get comfortable with portfolio reviews is practice.

Ask everyone you know for critique, artist or not. Listen to their feedback and try to get a sense of what their personal preferences are. 

You’ll also want to listen to comments that come up with more than one person. A good rule is that if three or more people notice something in your work, it could be a distraction for your average viewer.

It’s normal to take criticism personally. But the more you hear it the easier it is to remember, in the moment, that most comments are for help not hurt. 

Critique practice also gives you a chance to make decisions about how you want to use the feedback you get. Some go to extremes, ignoring every comment or changing work with every piece of feedback. 

Portfolio reviews are mostly about decision-making

Creating great art and design is mostly about making decisions. First, try to understand how people see your work and the connections they are making. Next, decide what you like and what you don’t about those impressions and change your work in response.

For example, my art can get pretty dark and creepy. It’s not usually intentional, it’s just my subconscious taking over. So, if I’m creating something that I want to feel lighthearted or normal I have to try more than once. I also work slower than usual. 

Santa. President paintings by Jana Rumberger
Some of my creepy art from the series Santa President

Mostly I accept that this quality is part of my work and I find ways to embrace it. But it comes so naturally to me that it took years of critique before I understood how it was affecting the people looking at my art.

Another way to make critique easier is to practice critiquing it yourself. The more aware you are of the things that you need to work on the more interesting other kinds of critique will become.

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Post by Jana Rumberger