art · student

Building a portfolio 

For many, university interviews involve research, great wardrobe choices and the ability to communicate but it’s a little different for arts students. As a fine art student I’ve been through the interview stages of university application and thought I’d share some of my knowledge with those of you preparing to apply. 

Your portfolio is a very important aspect of university application as in most cases it will be seen before you get the chance to talk about your work and the interviewers will already have formed an opinion on you as a potential student. They’re a way for you to show the pieces you are most proud of, showcase your talents and find out the opinions of viewers of your work first hand. 

Portfolio recommendations and requirements differ for every uni so I would highly recommend you read these before you begin gathering your portfolio work. 

I’ve gathered together a list of points that I have learned from interviews and my own experience to help anyone forming a portfolio, however it is to be noted this is mostly for 2D works as that is how I work. For 3D works this may differ. 

Portfolio size: For myself, I used a hard back, black A2 portfolio to hold my interview work. The size of a portfolio will differ depending on the size of your work. Don’t feel under pressure if all of your work is A3 size or smaller, the size isn’t going to be a massive issue as long as you can talk about it and justify why you completed the work in that size. 

Pockets: Getting clear pockets for your portfolio is also a good idea as this prevents the work from being damaged however it’s not a requirement. Just mounting your work neatly on card is good enough. A little tip for students who have to travel a long way with a portfolio and have used pockets, leave the pockets loose in your binder until you have arrived and then attach them into the binder as they can snap and cause a mess.

Mounting: Mounting your work is important for a clear and neat presentation. A lot of universities suggest plain cream, white or black card however if it compliments your work then feel free to mount the piece on coloured paper first leaving a thin border of colour before mounting on a larger piece of plain card. 

Keep all of your card the same size. If you have a range of pieces in A4,A5,A3 etc, that are all smaller than your portfolio size mount them on the same sized card as your portfolio for example A2. Do not place the piece of work in the middle of your mount card, instead place it slightly higher as this is easier on the eyeline and makes it look more professional. 

Labels: Always label your portfolio with your name and label individual projects within your portfolio to avoid confusion. 

Amount of work: Most portfolios consist of 15-20 pieces of work. I would recommend no more than 25 pieces as interviewers may not have enough time to spend on you and your work. Your portfolio will also become cluttered and a bit intimidating which could change the interviewers opinion of you before they’ve even looked at the work. 

Projects: The best format for a portfolio is to include projects. I realise this can be hard if you haven’t come from A-Level or GCSE as this is where you do more project based work. If this is the case include recent work in a chronological order so it is easy to see the process of how your work has evolved over a period of time. 

If you have different projects select 5-8 pieces of work from 2-3 projects that shows a range of skills used within that project and gives a summary of your thinking.

A big no is doing work just for the sake of filling space in your portfolio. This work often has no real thinking behind it. I’ve heard people suggest doing this before to show certain talents and the ability to draw but if you have included project work and a couple of drawing pieces within your project work then you don’t need to do drawings simply to fill space. The interviewer already knows you can draw. 

Photographing 3D work: It’s often hard to travel and carry sculptures or large canvases so it is suggested that you photograph these in good light, from different angles and include these instead. If you are able to take one or two 3D pieces with you that’s great but don’t freak out if you can’t! 

Types of work to include: If you’re applying for a specialised course such as photography or sculpture then clearly you won’t have a massive range of types of work to bring as it will mostly be the same sorts of medium however if you’re applying for courses like fine art, illustration, graphic design etc, it is important that you include a wide range of techniques to show what you’ve tried and that you are suited to the unpredictable nature of the techniques on that course as you will have a chance to try them all at some point. 

Sketchbooks: If you are someone who uses sketchbooks instead of working on loose sheets of paper you can still include these. Examiners really love to see the process behind a piece and the build up and this is often more important than the finished outcome itself. Sometimes it’s nice to blow up some of your sketchbook work lager and include these pieces but it is entirely up to the individual. If you have sketchbooks and only sketchbooks then it’s okay to just take these. You’ll probably save money as you won’t have to buy a portfolio case and mounting card! 

Written work: Written work isn’t necessarily important. Again, I’d suggest you read what your university has asked for. If they have asked for written work then choose a short piece of up to 1000 words which talks about a project or a piece of work in your portfolio. Print this and keep it in a poly pocket or project folder separate to your portfolio work. You may not even need a written piece but in your course you will have to research other works and critically review it so writing will be important within your course. Do not write on your mount card around your work as this looks messy. Writing is okay in sketchbooks as it shows your thinking along your projects. 

Interview preparation: Most art interviews are casual compared to interviews for medicine or teaching but you need to make sure you’ve prepared. Do a little research into the latest news of the art world and think of your opinions on it. Go through your portfolio and talk about what you liked, didn’t like, enjoyed, your feelings towards it and why you did something. Think about possible future works and how you could take your work further. Last of all think of why you want to study art, what you want to gain and why you want to study at that university. And remember to keep calm! 

End on a high: Always start and end your portfolio with a strong pieces and pick the strongest pieces to include. You want to leave a lasting impression on the interviewer so don’t include a lesser piece as the final piece of work as this is most likely what they will remember. And remember to thank the interviewer for their time! 

I hope this helps anyone applying as I know myself it can be hard to build a portfolio without help. Good luck! 


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