First of all, you want to make sure that you give yourself enough time to put your art portfolio together. Many art students take at least a year to create the pieces they use in their portfolio, so that’s why your senior year is dedicated to your digital and analog portfolio. You need to remember to also think about your portfolio and prepare pieces well in advance of the college deadlines.

If you know what schools you want to apply to, research their portfolio requirements carefully and early, like tomorrow. If you don’t properly follow each school’s instructions, you risk getting automatically rejected, and at the very least it won’t help your application. This is the most important piece of advice that I can give you! While researching the portfolio requirements of each school, pay particular attention to the following information:

  • Application and portfolio deadlines
  • How you need to submit your portfolio (online, snail mail, or in-person)
  • If there are open days or portfolio days when you can present your portfolio in person
  • Number of pieces you should submit
  • Any size requirements for the pieces
  • If there are any special required pieces you must submit (for example, the Rhode Island School of Design requires all applicants to submit a drawing of a bicycle)

You should also look at examples of previously submitted art portfolios. Especially when you are just starting to create a portfolio, looking at the portfolios other students have created can be very helpful in developing your own portfolio.

You can also search online. Search “art portfolio example” or “[school you are interested in] art portfolio example”. This will bring up a lot of examples, often including portfolios of students who were accepted into particular schools, such as Yale University’s art program or the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Remember to use these examples only as a guide; it’s important your portfolio reflects your own talents and interests.

Plan Your Art Portfolio, Aiming To Demonstrate A Range Of Artistic Skill And Experiences, Creative Ideas/Originality And Passion/Commitment


You’ll want to show your process work – how you developed your ideas and how your work has matured. Some art schools will require that you submit your sketchbook along with your portfolio to give further insight.


All work – even observational drawings – should show that you understand how to compose an image well, arranging visual elements such as line, shape, tone, texture, color, form, and color in a pleasing way. Compositions should be well-balanced and varied – with a range of viewpoints/scales included throughout the portfolio.

Avoid drawing items floating in the center of a page unless this is an intentional, considered decision (see our Art student’s composition guide (coming soon) which explains more about how the formal visual organization of artwork. Think about the shadows, spaces, and surfaces in and around objects. Think carefully about the cropping of images and positions of items within each work.

Select and use appropriate colors, making sure that if multiple works are arranged on one page, the colors work well together too (more on this in the portfolio presentation section below).

Make sure the proportions and spatial relationships between different elements in graphic designs (such as text, images, and space) are carefully considered.

Use a range of mediums, styles, art forms, and techniques

Your art portfolio should show a diverse range of skills and visual experiences. Demonstrate that you are able to use and experiment with a range of styles, mediums, and techniques and can control, apply and manipulate mediums in a skillful, appropriate, and intentional way. Someone who is able to create acrylic paintings, sculptures, prints, and pencil drawings, for example, is infinitely more flexible than someone who is only able to sketch only with a pencil.


For most schools, you’ll need to upload your portfolio or send digital attachments rather than hard copies. Work should be saved with sufficient pixels so the reviewer can enlarge without pixelation. Use RGB color mode, and save in JPG or PDF formats. Always archive a high-resolution image for your records, and create an image inventory of your work that includes the title (if any), medium, date, and size.


Many art programs require or highly recommend including pieces created from direct observation. These are pieces created by observing real things around you. Direct observation work can include portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, still life, rooms in your house, really anything you can see. Direct observation does not include work you created by looking at a photograph or a copy of another artist’s work. Direct observation is more challenging and requires more skill, so art schools are more interested in it. They also want to see how you depict the world around you.

Many students don’t include direct observation pieces in their portfolios, so doing this can really help you stand out. Clara Lieu, a professor at RISD says that including pieces from direct observation “[W]ill distinguish your work from the crowd, and put you light years ahead of other students.”


All graphic artists, traditional artists, or any artist should always have a digital presence. In the world we live in social media and google have a huge impact on every artist. If your looking to make money as a freelance artist, or just want extra money sometimes – people need to see your work. This means you, yourself, are a business entity. And as a business entity, you need to show yourself off so people start to look at your work and hire you. This means you need to market yourself. That’s why we teach Marketing in Advertising Art.

This also means that it will likely involve taking photos or videos of your work, unless you are submitting work created on the computer, such as graphic design pieces, or are submitting pdfs of written work like poetry. Spending time to take quality pictures and videos of your work is almost as important as creating quality art itself. These pictures or videos will often be the only images admissions committees have of your work, and if they are of poor quality, they may assume the work itself is poor quality as well. If the piece is a stationary work of art, a photo, as opposed to a video, is usually sufficient.

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