Setting out your stall: creating the best art portfolio

Your portfolio is at the heart of your application to an art and design course

The major difference between applying for a creative degree and a non-creative degree is that the former requires a portfolio. The idea is that it should demonstrate your potential as well as your commitment to art and design; what it does not have to do is reveal that you have already achieved enough to win the Turner Prize.

“I was initially apprehensive about showing paintings and pieces that didn’t work,” says Andrew Bentham, a graduate in fine art from Manchester Metropolitan University. “However, I was convinced by tutors that when it comes to an interview, someone who brings in a lot of experiments that might not have worked out – rather than a rack of similar portraits – will have a far better chance of winning a place.” Bentham also ensured that each piece had a story to it. “I think the key is to be able to justify why you have done something in a certain way.”

It’s the thought that counts

Remember, a portfolio is all about concepts, says Glenn Tutssel, director at The Brand Union, which supports up-and-coming graduates in art and design. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a half-drawn sketch or a highly finished piece – it’s all about ideas and the real value that a designer or artist can offer. Never use highly finished work to disguise a bad idea – it will never get you through.”

Have a sketchbook

A sketchbook is a key part of any portfolio. “It should be paramount in showing how you work and how you think, telling the interviewer something about your personality,” says Tutssel.

Reveal your personality

Helen Heery, who teaches art and design at the University of Salford, agrees that personality counts for a lot. “It’s no good promoting house styles, as that makes all students’ work look the same. If a student is showing a piece of work from a course, it’s important that it also shows a personal theme.”

Make sure you prepare for the rest of the interview too

When it comes to the interview, don’t assume it will be entirely devoted to your portfolio, says Heery. “You should be able to talk about the broader art world.”

Also be ready to discuss artists you admire, says Patrick Lowry, who teaches fine art at Cornwall College, Camborne. “Research the course and subject too – I don’t think students realise how committed they need to come across as being.”

Don’t waste time and money

Although presentation is important for your portfolio, don’t spend loads of time and money buying flashy folders advises Wendy Rochefort, who is studying a foundation degree in fine art at Cornwall College. “Simple mounts and a tidy finish are fine. Also, don’t put everything you’ve ever produced in your portfolio. Edit it down to the pieces that matter for one reason or another.”

Be original

Emma Rose, who works in the faculty of arts and sciences at Lancaster University, advises that students include some self-generated work – not just the projects that have been assigned on courses. “We want someone with that extra spark – perhaps you’ve gone off with a camera to take interesting photos.”

Know the art world

You must be prepared to talk about what exhibitions you’ve been to recently. “Amazingly, some people can’t answer that question!” says Rose.

“Talk about arty interests other than the subject you’re applying for,” says Clara McMenamin, a third-year sculpture student at Lancaster University. “I did theatre outside school, and they were interested in that.”

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