Back to all articles

How to build an impressive art portfolio for college

Olya Losina
February 21, 2019

How can you stand out among thousands of other art college applicants? It seems impossible, especially when you face fierce competition and a limited number of spots. The best way to make your application get noticed by the Admissions is with a strong art portfolio. Here are some tips on how to elevate your portfolio quality and appeal.

You Need a Body of Work

Your art portfolio is going to be around 10-20 pieces, so some artists think that if they have 20 pieces of art, that’s a portfolio. Before you even start selecting which pieces will go into your portfolio, you need at least 100 artworks that you select the best pieces out of. How can you accomplish that before the deadline? By creating several versions of the pieces that you already have. It is easy to do, since you already resolved those pieces once, so it will take less time. Drawing or painting the same subject again (maybe even more than twice!) is the best way to improve the result, and by keeping the first one intact - as your “security deposit”, you can feel more freedom with making new renditions more flamboyant and creative. Now you will have multiple variants to choose from.

Curate Your Portfolio

Instead of organizing your art portfolio by medium or technique (which in the viewer’s experience may feel too redundant or boring), you can produce a stronger presentation and make a better impression on the Admissions if you create a nice visual flow. The flow (a thoughtful order of pieces in your portfolio) will give off the impression of unity. Even if your portfolio is not perfectly cohesive, when assembled in this style, it creates the feeling of being more mature and professional. In other words, the sequence of pieces matters: to the College Admissions committee, a tasteful design in a portfolio becomes much more memorable. Sometimes, when an artist hears that a portfolio should demonstrate their versatility and breadth, they try to accomplish that by placing very different works side by side. For example, you may have strong pieces, but if the next artwork is completely different in style, color, or genre, the Admissions officers may not be able to grasp who you are as an artist. When your pieces are put together without thought, it weakens the impact that you would be able to achieve otherwise. Think of yourself as a curator or a designer of your portfolio, not just an artist. Think, which pieces would look good when placed one after another, and one of the ways to create this instantaneous conviction that you have good taste and artistic maturity is by choosing which artworks go together by their color and style. 

An art portfolio looks strong when there is a common thread, i.e. consistency; your portfolio shouldn’t be a random group of disassociated artwork. Even if it is a mix of all kinds of styles and the pieces do not look like they were created by the same artist, by designing the flow you can create the impression of unity. Start assembling your artwork succession by placing chosen pieces in one row on the floor, until you find the order where they compliment each other. This requires a deliberate effort and some extra time, but it is worth it.

Show Your Style

To showcase your personal style, you need to know what makes you unique. Often, artists try to paint or draw like someone else whom they admire, and for them it is hard to recognize and even appreciate their own uniqueness. This frequently happens to young artists: if your work does not look like something you’ve seen as popular on social media, you tend to want to dismiss that piece. It may be hard to see that those pieces are exactly you. Every person is unique, but you may not realize that your best pieces are those that do not look like anyone else’s. Sometimes this uniqueness is perceived as “weirdness” and not seen as a value by the artist themselves. A great way to discover your unique touch or style is through observational drawings. This may sound counterintuitive, because you may think that only working from imagination can truly define you as you. That’s another typical misconception. Usually, the work produced from the mind, looks more typical and not distinguishable from other artists. Observational drawings are drawings from still lifes, live models, or anything that isn't from a photo. In most universities’ portfolio requirements you will see that they recommend to include observational work. It is not only because this is how universities judge your skills for how well you can render what you see, but also because your identity as an artist comes through in those works the truest. Observational drawings are your attempt to replicate reality in your unique “handwriting” (interestingly, your true style shows up in your work when you don’t think about style). The best way to practice observational drawing is with a coach, where you will have the opportunities to have a live model and receive guidance on what you need to work on. Perhaps an even more counterintuitive recommendation on how to find your style is copying the masters. You may think, how is it possible to find your uniqueness by copying someone else, but this is how all the great masters got trained. It is especially useful to copy the Old Masters, because while copying you absorb their skills, and then, you can take what you learned and apply it to your own art.

First Impressions Count

Your end goal is to capture the Admissions’ attention. Keep your portfolio clean, simple, and professional. You want the art to speak for itself; there’s no need to frame your pieces or embellish the areas around your artwork. If anything, this will actually be distracting from your portfolio. In that sequence of artwork assembled for your portfolio that we discussed before, the first impression and the last impression are critical. Start your portfolio with the strongest work, this is how you get attention. End with a powerful piece, to leave a lasting impression. In between, you can mix your strong pieces with your not-so-strong ones, by alternating good ones with more ordinary ones. Make sure not to clump the weaker pieces together and remember to maintain the flow!

There are more factors to your portfolio than just your art. You’ll also need to come up with captivating titles, and attach information on each piece: the size, medium(s) used, and the notes! In SlideRoom there is a special field “Notes” for writing your comments next to each artwork. Many college applicants believe that writing notes is less important and leave that area blank, but you should consider notes to be second in importance to the artwork itself! Notes is where you can give the college admissions a glimpse into your philosophy, show your way of thinking, express who you are. This is where you enter additional information about how you made the artwork and what is unique about it. By means of eloquent notes you can change the impression from your artwork and make a piece appear more impressive and conceptual. These notes (as well as your titles) should be written beforehand: they should be interesting to read and even be surprising in some way. Spending time on that part of your portfolio application may mean the difference between just getting accepted and getting accepted with a scholarship.

Always Get a Second Opinion

Before you submit your portfolio, you will benefit from getting a second opinion on your presentation by someone with formal art education. Everyone has an opinion. Your friends, family members, school teachers may be happy to offer it to you, however, even some art instructors may not be properly trained to help with a portfolio. Portfolio is a very different entity than just typical art critique. The problem with asking people around you is that they most likely have no expertise in art college applications, don’t know what art colleges are looking for, and may not understand the value in an artwork that was intentionally simplified or stylized. Also, your friends and family who know you as a person - and maybe even as an artist, don’t know your artistic potential that Admissions will see in your art. The eye of the Admission officers is trained to detect not just the artist you are, but the artist you can be.


Your art portfolio can include a few pages of your sketchbook, where you show how you work through issues, and it should show a progression: starting with an idea, and working through it to completion. Your sketchbook should show not just your artistic growth, but more importantly, your ability to evolve. Your sketches do not have to be pretty, they can be very raw and unsettling. Show that you tackle difficult subjects that young artists normally rarely touch. Don't hesitate to include the sketches or drawings where you made corrections and adjustments, because it demonstrates your evolution. Growth means getting better at something; evolving is a process of refinement, by learning from what works and what doesn’t.

When your art portfolio is made to your best ability, when a practiced eye sees it, your portfolio should speak for you. A well designed portfolio allows the Admissions to spot you as an artist with potential. Art colleges are looking for people with potential, not necessarily “good artists”. Your art may be better than others in your age group, but that’s not enough. What you want to hear from art colleges is: “Wow, she is only 18 - and she is doing this! What will she be doing when she is 25!” 

A winning art portfolio does not show how good you are, it demonstrates how far you can go, it’s evidence of your ability to absorb and evolve into someone interesting and unique - a future star artist. 

Good luck in your college submissions! Prima Materia Institute wishes you the best!

Be one of the successful applicants admitted to top art universities in the US, Europe, and Canada, 

together with Prima Materia Portfolio students who were accepted to:

  • RISD
  • Parsons
  • Pratt
  • Cal Poly SLO
  • CCAC
  • Gnomon
  • Stanford
  • Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)
  • California College of the Arts
  • San Francisco Art Institute
  • University of Arizona
  • Chicago Art Institute
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • NYU
  • SCAD
  • Parsons New York
  • Parsons Paris
  • USD
  • Brown
  • Columbia
  • Kingston
  • Fulmouth

...and more!

Need help with your college portfolio? 

Information about the College Portfolio Program here

Contact us for a free session with a Portfolio specialist: 619-777-6007 or

Purchase a private portfolio review with a specialist.