How to prepare a portfolio – an essential guide

Portfolio preparation – an overview
Portfolio for art studies – the first and most important piece of advice is to start working on your portfolio six months before you need to submit it.

Do not leave it to the last minute, because it is a key part of your application to university and will either sway the assessors to offer you a place – or see you getting a rejection email. The portfolio is crucial!

Table of Contents

  • Portfolio preparation – an overview 
  • Portfolio requirements
  • What is the point of a portfolio?
  • Hints for putting together a good portfolio
  • Subject-specific portfolios
  • Producing a portfolio –10 practical hints
  • Portfolios – final steps

Portfolio requirements

Generally, you should aim to include between 10 and 20 pieces, while 12 seems to be the most common number. Each art school or university has its own very specific guidelines, which cover not only deadlines, but the formats they accept, digital platforms they will access, whether they only want to see the finished work (this is usually the case in the US), sizes, whether they will look at hardcopy reproductions – slides or photographs – or only want to see originals etc. Moreover, certain institutions also have very clear instructions for labeling a portfolio, for example: title, date, details of materials used, while others do not specify.

Remember, too, that you may be given a portfolio assignment, which can consist of between one and three tasks. For example, the Rhode Island School of Design asked candidates to “observe and draw a bicycle”, while Parsons (now known as New School), New York’s global leading school of art and design, sets the famous Parson’s Challenge. Parson’s states: “Applicants must create a new visual work inspired by a piece submitted in the portfolio. This new piece should connect to the theme or concept of their original work. Support your process by writing one 500-word essay describing how your ideas developed. What is more, you may also submit up to two additional visual pieces that document your process”. As you can see, this will require a great deal of thought and can only be tackled after you have put together a portfolio.

You should check whether the course you are applying for asks for a portfolio or sets you an admission task.

Courses which frequently request portfolios include:

  • Arts
  • Design
  • Media
  • Film
  • Interior design
  • Architecture
  • Fashion

What is more, you may also be asked for an essay, to send in images of work which inspired you, or teachers’ references. This depends entirely on where you are applying.

What is the point of a portfolio?

Your portfolio should show that you have a strong sense of aesthetics, passion, the ability to design and follow a process. It should also reflect your beliefs, interests, personality, skills and experiences. Putting together a portfolio does not simply consist of choosing twelve favourite pieces and throwing them into a folder.
Assessors want to see a range of techniques and get a sense of who you are and the influences that have shaped your talents. It is your opportunity to express yourself, talk directly to the admissions committee, and justify your place on the course.

Hints for putting together a good portfolio

  • It is essential to show how you have developed an idea, from your original scribbled inspiration to the finished product. You can use notes, photographs, sketches, investigations of materials and technology, annotated first drafts, revised versions and written reflection to explain how you have gone from A to Z. This approach will illustrate how you think and communicate ideas, and show what type of artist you are and could become.
  • Use a range of mediums and surfaces. Show off a number of forms and processes, to demonstrate that you are ready to experiment and challenge yourself. You can include any type of artwork, from photographs to paintings, collages to 3D sculpture. Highlight your techniques and the ideas and themes which underpin your perspective on the world.
  • Stand back and look at what you have composed. Think about the relationship between objects, spaces and text. Is everything in the right position? Have you taken into account features such as shadows, proportion and the impact of colour? Show your awareness of context and make sure you are not simply throwing together individual elements, but creating a whole. There has to be an internal narrative or thematic cohesion to your portfolio.
  • Emphasise your skills in observational drawing, which is important in so many artistic fields. Choose something which exists in real life (not unicorns and fabled creatures) and transform it through a personal perspective. Bear in mind that observational drawing is NOT the same as copying. You need to make sure your drawing conveys perspective, details, shapes, spatial considerations and proportion. You can add your own spin by including new elements, giving a sense of movement to what could be a static scene (for example, a crowd at a train station), using different textures etc. Your observational drawing can be done with a graphite pencil, pen and ink, charcoal or paint – it is entirely up to you.

Subject-specific portfolios

Portfolios can include swatches of fabric, patterns, paintings, video clips, audio files, musical compositions, digital designs or pieces of creative writing – depending on the course for which you are applying. The following guidelines apply to particular subjects:


You are not expected to produce drawings of buildings, skylines, staircases and so on, but to demonstrate and evidence your observational drawing skills. You can show this in many ways: you could produce a still life of a set of tools or a piece of furniture, for example, demonstrating how it is put together and its relationship to the context. You need to show you have spatial awareness, and you could do this by making a 3D model or producing a sketch or picture which mirrors architectural forms.

Video games

Create storyboards and strong descriptions of characters you have created, their personalities and abilities. Demonstrate an understanding of the language of colour and, if you include animation clips, these must be no longer than 5 minutes, maximum.


Figure drawings are an obvious choice for your portfolio, along with documentary evidence of fashion or textile design projects with which you have been involved. Texts and historical contexts are also very helpful.


You could include screenshots from any films, animations or videos you have produced. Make sure that you provide evidence of any experience you have had working in performing arts – this could be a screenplay or creative writing. Do not forget to provide storyboards and notes which add to the narrative. Film clips should be 2-5 minutes long.

Graphic Design

Include examples of your use of fonts and typography, and any web graphics you have produced.


Whatever field you are interested in, the aim of every portfolio remains the same: to communicate your ideas and showcase your talents. Make sure that you spotlight work which has been done outside the classroom -a point raised by many institutions, including UCLA and Lancaster University.

Producing a portfolio –10 practical hints

  • If you are going to be interviewed, you will need to bring your portfolio with you, so make sure it is comfortable to carry and that it does not have any loose sheets, which you might lose.
  • When you are not offered an interview, you could upload your portfolio to your own website, or create a Behance profile.
  •  If you have produced big pieces, 3D or sculptural works, you will need to photograph them. Make sure your photos are clear and the details of the piece are visible.
  • Folders should not be decorative, or too large or small. Choose a plain colour and A3 size.
  • Make sure that the portfolio is uncluttered and pay attention to the order in which you organise your pieces. You could group items by theme, by subject or by style. Try and establish a visible link, running through everything you have decided to include in the portfolio.
  • If you have used a medium which could smudge, use fixative to prevent this problem.
  • Mounts, if used, must be neutral in colour and simple.
  • Photographs should be matt and not gloss.
  • Assess placement as well as order. Is it visually appealing?
  • Many institutions will send you a sheet to fill in with details of each piece in the portfolio. If this is not the case, add discrete labels, with the title, the medium, the size and the date.

Portfolios – final steps

Once you have decided what you will include in your portfolio, set it aside and come back to it a few days later, with fresh eyes.

Get feedback. Ask your teachers, peers and friends for their impressions and views. You may discover that they do not understand something which seems totally obvious to you, and this will encourage you to revise your choices and sequences – or even to remove one piece and substitute another.

Cast a critical eye over the presentation and check any text and notes for grammar and spelling mistakes. All done? You are ready to submit a stunning, original portfolio and secure a place on the course of your dreams.

Good luck!