Creating an art portfolio for an excellence program or an art school submission isn’t as daunting as it sounds!

I generally work with a lot of kids who want to create portfolios for art excellence programs in high school and a few for tertiary studies, and I get asked regularly, “How do I create a portfolio.”

So this blog piece will be based around the kind of portfolio required for submissions to art excellence programs, as that’s the area I have a lot of experience in, however, most of the concepts can be transferred to any kind of art school portfolio.

Making a portfolio for a job, or a career however is fairly different, so this might not be as relevant, but you never know what you might discover!

Whether you’re applying for a tertiary position or a place in an art excellence program at high school, they are all looking for similar things.

art portfolio



Here are my 10 tips for creating an art portfolio!


Tip Number 1 – Put yourself in the place of the decision-makers.


The first piece of advice I give my students is to think about what the art school wants to see. The main objective that any art school has is to create a cohort of passionate artists, who are autonomous and adventurous. They don’t want to accept people they are going to need to motivate or someone who is super closed off and won’t step outside their comfort zone.


I always get my art students to look at the school as a viewer of our art. In our studio, we often talk about the difference between making art for ourselves, compared to making art for a viewer to see.


In this instance, we are making art for a viewer, so we want to think about what we want the viewer to feel and think when they are looking at our portfolio.


That’s one of the most important parts of making a portfolio. Every single piece that is included in the portfolio needs to support the final goal which is –  we want the viewer to think we will be a great addition to their program.


A lot of times we often think about including only our best and most technical work in a portfolio, but I think that’s the wrong line to think along.


We should include pieces that will make the viewer believe that we will use our initiative to experiment and that we will be relatively autonomous in our work. And also include pieces that show that we can progress. Some portfolios I have helped put together have included a small thumbnail of a previous related artwork in the corner of a finished piece.


For example, one student I was working with, recreated an artwork that she had painted 6 months ago. The difference between the two artworks was incredible, so we took a scan of the old artwork, dated it, printed it off in  A6 size, and attached it to the page of the portfolio which was showing the new artwork, which we also dated. That’s a great way to show that they were naturally progressing in their abilities, and can have a positive effect on the decision your art school makes if they believe that you already possess the ability to improve skills on your own.


Tip number 2 – Be familiar with the requirements.


Every art school will have different requirements and some even have specific assignments or prompts that you need to create artwork based on.


Some schools have portfolios up on their websites, so you can see what other people have done, and some will even chat with you over the phone to give you advice on what they require.


Tip number 3 – Choose a diverse collection.


Art schools are not always looking for the most amazing artwork ever. Remember they are accepting you with the view that they will be teaching you, and will want you to improve while you are under their tutelage.


What is more important to them than having very highly technical work, is that they can see you are open to their teaching. You can show them how versatile you are by including artworks that show a range of styles and media, even if they are not all your absolute best artworks.


Filling up an entire portfolio of anime character drawings, or only including paintings copied from the internet of famous people’s faces will not show your versatility or your passion. That kind of portfolio could make an art school think that you’re stuck on a single road, without imagination or artistic flair.


If you feel like you are getting stuck trying to come up with ideas, join any art-related events that are going on around you. Often being in an environment with artists you’ve never met before can get your ideas moving along.



Tip Number 4 – Don’t rely on your artwork from art classes.


Taking art classes can be great for developing portfolios, but don’t rely on your artwork from lessons to fill up your portfolio.


During lessons, you should be learning, new techniques, and new skills, and quite often you’ll be using the subject matter or project that your art teacher has set.


Your artwork will feel so much more natural if you use artwork that you have dreamed up yourself.


Another issue with using art class projects for portfolio work is that just knowing that you are creating for your portfolio can hold back your ability to learn. Learning takes experimentation and mistakes, when you let go of the outcome of your project, you learn so much more because the mistakes don’t bother you. If you decide your art class project needs to be perfect, you likely won’t have the space to learn the skill you’re being taught that day.


I always suggest to my students that they take the skills and techniques they learned in class and recreate those techniques at home multiple times, with subject matter that they are super passionate about. Don’t label any of the artworks a portfolio piece until you are finished with a few, then choose the one you love the most.


I’m not saying the piece you did in class isn’t the one you’ll choose, it’s just that deciding it will be the piece before you start will be detrimental to both your learning and your portfolio – and probably also detrimental to your confidence.



Tip Number 5 – Make memorable pieces!


Think about creating pieces that are different from anything else the art school will be seeing so you can stay in their mind.


Yeah, a still life of a fruit bowl could be an amazing piece that shows lots of technique and excellent observation skills… but how could you make that fruit bowl unforgettable? Take Caravaggio’s Still Life of Fruit on a Stone Bench. Instead of your traditional fruit bowl, it’s a medley of cut-up fruits and vegetables which make it more interesting to look at, as well as more memorable.


You can try setting up a still life with interesting things from around your house, with dramatic lighting, or in an unexpected arrangement to give your artwork unforgettability.


Or perhaps try drawing or painting a person’s face with an interesting expression. Here’s a bonus secret tip.. drawing humans with wrinkles or scrunched-up faces is easier in most cases, because the wrinkles in the skin give a great variation and more defined delineation of shadow and light.


Tip number 6 – Choose pieces that are a mix of real life and imagination.


You want the art school to see that you have the discipline to create pieces from real life, but you also want them to see that you have a vivid imagination.  Quite often it’s our imagination that displays our passion.


So I would often suggest that 60% of your portfolio should be real life and 40% pieces from imagination. I don’t know if that’s true actually… I just pulled those percentages out of nowhere, but you get the point.


Show that you can do both things.


Tip number 7 – Finish your pieces.


All your artwork should be fully resolved before making it into your portfolio.


This means filling in the background right to the edges of the page. If you don’t want to add detail all through the background, you can create a blurred background, or even just shade the background in. Don’t include pieces that have finger smudges, or are just a subject on a white background.


Not finishing your pieces can make your portfolio look like you don’t care that much. Which is a huge red flag for the art school.


You may like to include a quick sketch, or a gestural drawing, which can be useful as well, but make sure they look as finished as they can, perhaps date them and add notations, so the viewer can see that you assessed and learned from your drawing.



Tip number 8 – Enter some art exhibitions and competitions.


A quick Google search will give you a long list of art competitions you can enter, and keep your eye open for local student exhibitions that are calling for submissions.


Entering competitions and exhibitions can be a lot of work, and art schools know this, so being part of competitions and exhibitions shows the art school that you are serious about being an artist and are willing to put in the work.


Tip number 9 – Present your artwork to its best standard.


Think of your portfolio as your first impression.


I like to suggest my students present their artwork in an A3 presentation folder, with a black card in each sleeve and the artwork stuck to the back card. There are many ways to present a portfolio, and as long as it looks neat, it’s fine.


Make sure your artworks are balanced on the card, and that you have guillotined any rips edges, or torn corners.


Rub out or disguise any fingerprints that shouldn’t be there.


Keep your portfolio clean, and flat. Handing in a dirty folder with scratches or cracks in the cover isn’t going to show that you are serious about your art.


One of the curriculum outcomes that art teachers work to is showing that you can present your artwork to enhance the meaning of it to their viewers.


Once again, think about what the meaning of your portfolio is that you want to get across.  For an art school, the meaning of your portfolio should be, “I am passionate, I am serious,  and I love my art.


Tip Number 10 – Have faith in school

A lot of submissions won’t get accepted. That’s ok. It doesn’t reflect on your or your art.


The people choosing who gets to be part of their art school or excellence program have a big decision to make and lots of work to look at. Just because they choose someone else over you, doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to do everything with your art that you want to.


One of our assistants at the studio has not been accepted into her school’s art excellence program for the last two years she has applied. She is an amazing artist, and she currently works in an art studio, while developing her portfolio for future submissions. So as far as we are concerned, she is a successful teenage artist!


If you don’t get chosen, try again next year, and in the meantime just keep loving art for what it was to you in the beginning.


Remember you don’t need to be in an art school or an art excellence program to call yourself an artist.


So there you have it, 10 tips on how to create a portfolio.


The tips in this blog are all based on my experience, so here’s a great website you can also look at to get another point of view!


If you do need help developing a portfolio, please feel free to contact us at Artlis Studios at in**@ar****.au