Compiling a portfolio can be an overwhelming task for art school hopefuls. It can take months, or even years, to put together and once it’s submitted your fate is in the hands of the admissions committee. Don’t panic! We spoke to Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts (VCUarts) Admissions Counselor Colleen Marino and Melanie Patterson, Admissions Officer from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Based on their advice, we put together 7 tips to help you get into your dream school.
Your studies at art school will help you grow as an artist, but make sure your submissions demonstrate that you’ve already got a solid grasp of the design principles you will need to excel.
“We are looking for applicants who exhibit the potential for growth through their investigation of their chosen materials; their pursuit of technical proficiency; and development and understanding of key compositional concepts such as line, shape, color, texture, depth, proportion, light, and value,” explains Colleen Marino, VCUarts Admissions Counselor. She continues, “one way this is expressed is by including technical drawings from observation.”
It’s more challenging to draw the world around you as you see it than to take inspiration from photographs, but it’s the best way to demonstrate mastery of concepts admissions staff want to see. As Melanie Patterson, RISD Admissions Officer says, drawing from a photograph can lead to “flattened or distorted drawings”.
Marino from VCUarts warns, “[because] a photograph is two-dimensional, the artist cannot fully experience or express line, depth, proportion, light, and value in the same way they could when observing from life. When drawing from observation, the artist experiences the shift in light and hue as the sun rises or sets. They must learn to deal with tiny movements both in nature and when observing the human figure. There is a much greater sense of depth and contrast.”
She continues, “[when] drawing from observation, the artist is in control of the composition. Therefore, no two images drawn in the same spot will ever be represented in the same way. A photograph does not afford the artist this same creative freedom or exploration.
Technical skills are important, but your portfolio is about showing that you are able to create something unique rather than recreating something someone else has already done. Leave out the portrait of your favorite singer or anime character.
According to Marino, “[creating] a stand-out portfolio is about curating a personal narrative. A strong portfolio will tell a committee who the student is and what their interests are through their chosen mediums, creative concepts, exploration and development of both materials and technical skills.”
Remember that the school wants to see your individual style and personality in your art.
“In general, RISD looks for art that has a point of view,” says Patterson. “Show us what inspires you! We also like to see developed concepts and evocative ideas, not just technical exercises.”
And of course, be selective and include only your best. Patterson says, “[we] ask that you select 12-20 of your recent best works for your portfolio. We value quality over quantity, so be sure to edit down to your strongest pieces.”
Playing it safe is not a way to get noticed. Remember that the admissions staff see a lot of submissions! Marino advises, “Don’t submit work you think a committee wants to see; submit work that has engaged your interest, that represents your skills, and that you are genuinely proud of.”
Get outside your comfort zone and try new media. “RISD does not require work in any particular medium,” explains Patterson. “It’s a good idea to include more than one kind of art form. Consider including some observational skills in drawing or sculpture. Experiment! We value experimentation with different materials and mediums, taking risks, and going beyond the obvious solutions.”(RISD)
It’s important to get as many eyes on your work as you can. Start by asking your art teacher and any professional artists you have access to.
Don’t miss out on attending a National Portfolio Day! They’re free and open to the public, and it’s especially helpful if you can attend one where the institution(s) to which you hope to gain admission will be in attendance.
Want even more feedback? Patterson recommends you “upload your portfolio to the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD). Through AICAD, you’ll receive an email from multiple art institutions. Every art school looks for something different, so it’s great to get a wide variety of advice.”
Marino advises, “[make] sure that you have marked important dates, e.g., open houses, scholarship deadlines, and application/portfolio deadlines, on your calendar. Make sure to ask your reference at least a month in advance to write a letter of recommendation. Keep in mind that you may not be the only student asking this individual for a letter of recommendation, and that writing a letter of recommendation can be time consuming.”
Don’t procrastinate! Marino continues, by submitting last-minute “[you] run the risk of your application materials not being received or processed by the application deadline. VCUarts continues to review applications on a rolling basis, but individuals who submit their applications by the deadline will be given priority.”
Many art schools will require a digital copy of your work, so be sure to take a good photograph of each piece (natural light is best). Creating a digital copy of your work as you complete each piece will help you avoid any last-minute panic.