How To build an impressive art portfolio for college

February 21, 2019

How can you stand out among tens of thousands of applicants? It seems impossible with the sea of college students, all hoping to be accepted to the same school with a limited amount of spots. One way that we know is tried and true is having a strong art portfolio. In this article, we’ll talk about the five top topics to keep in mind while putting together your portfolio.

You Need a Body of Work

Before you even start selecting which pieces will go into your portfolio, you need at least 100 art pieces to select from. Your art portfolio is going to be around 10-20 pieces, and you don’t want to limit yourself with the selection. The biggest shortcoming that most people have when they come to our studio is their lack of a body of work… we’re talking about less than 15 paintings. With this amount of work, there’s no sense of “them”, you can’t even tell who they are. It’s like having a brief conversation with someone and trying to understand who they are.

Curate Your Portfolio

Many people say you have to organize your art portfolio strictly by medium or style. We say, ditch that. This is your chance to make your pieces look as strong as possible; use this opportunity as a way to make your pieces stronger together. If you have amazing pieces, but put them together without thought, it could damage the impact. Think of your portfolio like an exhibition in a gallery - you need to curate the show. Keep in mind color harmonies, styles, and mediums. Will a detailed piece look too harsh next to a piece with a lot of background showing through? Does the piece with a lot of warm colors compliment the art piece with a lot of cool colors? Should you put the 11x14in on the page next to the 6x9in piece?

Your work needs to have a common thread; your portfolio shouldn’t be a random group of dissociated artwork. People think random works shows strength because it shows breadth” but in reality, it lacks depth. You need to spend time to develop some sense of consistency.

If you're presenting your portfolio virtually, a website that showcases your work will look much more professional than Google Slides. Pixpa is recommended because it's a website made specifically for art portfolios.

Show Your Style

To showcase your style, you need to know what your “weirdness” is, why you’re a unique artist. A great way to do this is through observational drawings. Observational drawings are drawings from still lifes, live models, or anything that isn't from a photo. These drawings are how the university will see your ability to replicate what you see in your unique style. The best way to do this is by practicing with a coach, as they'll give you the opportunities to have a live model and they'll help you see what you need to work on. Another way to find your style is by studying the masters and their art: dive into art history and copy the masters paintings. Go from the Old Masters to Contemporary Masters and search for what you like most. There is nothing wrong with copying a painting to find out more about yourself as an artist! From there, you can take what you learned and apply it to your own art.

First Impressions Count

Your end goal is to stop the dean of the university in their steps with your portfolio. Keep it clean, simple, and professional. You want the art to speak for itself, so there’s no need to decorate the cover of your art portfolio, or add embellishments to the matting of your art. If anything, this will actually deduct from your portfolio. We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to curate your portfolio. Start with a strong piece, this is how you hook ‘em. End on a powerful note, to leave a lasting impression. In between, mix your strong pieces with your not so strong pieces, making sure not to clump the weaker pieces together.

There are more factors to your portfolio than your art, however. We recommend investing in a 18x24in portfolio case that opens like a book so your work won’t be wrinkled or folded. If your work is bigger than the portfolio, you will need a high quality scan as a replacement. You’ll also need to think of captivating titles, and gather information on your pieces such as the sizes and mediums used. Choose a consistent format and apply it to all of the pieces you include ie. putting the placard at the bottom of the page. Remember to remove the fingerprint smudges from the covers!

Always Get a Second Opinion

Before you submit your portfolio, you need to have a second opinion on your presentation, preferably done with someone that has an art education. Friends, family, school teachers, and even some art instructors usually aren’t properly trained in art, thus making them unqualified to be art coaches. The biggest factor that makes it difficult for someone who knows you to be an effective second opinion is that they don’t see you as your artistic potential. An art coach, however, sees you not as the artist you were, but as the artist you can be.


Your art portfolio should show how you work through issues, and it should show a progression: starting with an idea, and working through it to completion. You need to show artistic growth, but what’s more important is how your portfolio shows your ability to evolve. Growth means getting bigger and better at something; evolving is a process of refinement, by learning from what works and what doesn’t.

When your art portfolio is made effectively, when a practiced eye sees a winning portfolio, you portfolio can explain itself without words. In fact, a well designed portfolio does not need you to be present for the admissions to see that you are an artist with potential. Art colleges are looking for people with potential, not necessarily “good artists”. Your art has to be better than others in your age group, but that’s not enough. What you want to hear from art colleges is “Wow, you’re only 18 - and you’re doing this! What will you be doing when you’re 25?” Remember, a winning art portfolio does not show how good you are, it indicates how far you can go, it’s evidence of your ability to absorb and evolve into someone interesting and unique.

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

A List of Colleges Our Portfolio Students Were Accepted To:

...and more!

Interested in making your own college portfolio? Check out our College Portfolio Program here!

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