31 Dec 2014

As a professor of fine art for over twenty years, I have often reflected on the most meaningful contributions of my career, asking myself, “What is the most worthwhile, and useful contribution I have given to young and hopeful art students?” Having worked with hundreds of young students, my answer is always: helping them develop a good portfolio. Often it’s also one of the last projects they ask me to review before they graduate. As an artist and educator, I hope that this article will help the homeschool community, and the many talented young artists and their parents by demystifying the portfolio itself, as well as the selection process. There is nothing more exciting than that acceptance letter to attend a university art school or institute.

Standards and Quality

Today, art and design schools and institutes work diligently to uphold standards by looking to national agencies. The National Association of Schools of Arts and Design (NASAD) is the premier agency specific to the fine and graphic arts disciplines. A college program may apply to receive this specialized accreditation, although it is not mandatory. NASAD accreditation is optional, and there are many excellent quality art programs that exist without the NASAD stamp of approval. All accreditation agencies emphasize the development of a portfolio by every student as a part of their career-seeking resume.

To a prospective employer, gallery or museum, the portfolio will outweigh the business card, personality or outside influence. Portfolio in hand, a young art student is ready to move ahead with tangible proof of their talent and training. A sharp portfolio will make the case for acceptance into art school, win a prestigious scholarship or net a coveted job. College art schools’ sites regularly post specific portfolio criteria such as quantity, size and other guidelines and also announce Portfolio Day schedules and locations. If an art school is in your sights, do your research and keep a log of various criteria and several potential programs. Portfolio reviews are typically held during the spring semester, so that accepted students may be notified in the fall semester.

Evidence and Evolution

For artists, a carefully and well-compiled portfolio is the key factor in moving up in the art world. Although there is never a simple formula for success, the portfolio is an excellent first step. A prospective reviewer cannot physically see you as you work. The portfolio is the representation of your talent, inspiration and drive. But keep in mind—it will always remain a work in progress. Don’t strive for perfection; just strive for your best. Your portfolio is a combination first-impression, résumé, and creative endeavor. Because the contents of your portfolio should reflect both your personal and professional growth, it will always be growing and changing.

It’s important to remember that the creative process is not magical. A body of artwork is the culmination of considerable time, effort and expense. For the artist, art-making has a built in personal satisfaction button. Subsequent praise from parents, family and peers is often followed by the anxious query, “Could I ever make a living at this? How do artists sustain themselves in the real world?” The answer to the first question is yes. Answer to the second question: Mainstream societies and economies all rely on a visual communication. Today is a very visual world. Still, launching into the arts is as daunting as it is rewarding. You should take some time to objectively review where you are as an artist, asking some key questions: “What type of artist do I want to become? Why?” Also, I believe the support of your parents can be key in this process.

Let’s assume that homeschool parents and a budding artist are moving forward, that art-making is a true passion, and the student is ready to pack the college bags. Let’s take a look at how to compile an art portfolio.

Portfolio Preparation


Taking the most objective view one can muster, begin with self-assessment. All students should ask themselves: “Where am I on the journey to becoming an artist—beginning, intermediate or advanced in the field?” “What foundational skills have I mastered?” “What skills do I need to refine or explore?” Students and parents should consider a consultation with an expert. There are numerous art services available in arts communities and art centers where you can find a career artist or professor who specializes in this type of service. An expert assessment is a valuable and helpful exercise that will help you pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses. North Carolina is home to an outstanding collection of museums and a vibrant arts community. From the Mint in Charlotte to Asheville’s Biltmore, there is a wealth of fine art and art experts poised to nurture the homeschool community.


If you are and always have been a prolific artist, you or your parents have treasured every macaroni Eiffel Tower sculpture and hand print, this is not what you want to consider for inclusion in your portfolio. What you do need are your most recent, skillful, expressive and, most important of all, completed examples. Take stock of different categories of your work, such as pen and ink, pencil, graphics or portraits and landscapes. If you have a book on design fundamentals or skill instruction somewhere in your library, use this to separate the solid from weak examples in your collection. Also important are examples of truly personal and innovative style. Most often, this work can be found in your journals. The personal work illustrates the window into you, the passionate, aspiring, genius—still under construction. A personal journal need not be neat and tidy like the earlier examples but serves as an exciting banner of signature style and originality.


A professional zippered portfolio case with plastic sleeves for each artwork can be expensive; however, it may be worth the investment. If it is part of how you envision a confident entrance as you approach the review table, by all means make the investment. It may bolster your confidence during the oral interview. Keep in mind—it’s what’s inside that counts.

There are inexpensive alternatives, such as a nicely covered duck canvas over two foam boards, hinged together and a gross-grain ribbon tie and handles. You may wish to personalize your case, but don’t go overboard. A do-it-yourself portfolio using Velcro strips would easily resolve open sides and a roll of transparent medium weight Mylar would be great material for individual plastic sleeves. There are a number of methods to waterproof the cover. Again, it’s all about what is inside.

During the portfolio review process, the portfolio is handled by the reviewer. The student may be asked to open or unzip the portfolio case for them. The portfolio must be easy for the reviewer to open, flip the pages back and forward and close. In order for a reviewer to easily appreciate a collection of artwork in the short time span allotted, the artwork should be grouped into categories or groupings. Ordinarily art titles or descriptions need not accompany the artwork. A reviewer’s essential concern will be foundational skills.

I strongly recommend the following order: basic drawing (pencil or ink) or charcoal sketches (black and white), color studies (pencil, marker or paint) and then high impact graphics and/or photography and, of course, if you have one, your personal journal. You may consider the formal portfolio as the main meal; the personal journal is dessert!

Portfolio Day

I highly recommend reviewing the scores of online clips that capture art portfolio events and arenas posted on YouTube (Marvel, Fashion Institute, Pratt Institute, etc.). You will note that regardless of the school or the reviewer, comments center around knowledge of basic skills, design and art history. In the arena of college competition, preparation is the key, so a little public speaking is a good skill to hone so that you can relax and be yourself.


North Carolina’s homeschool community extends its commitment to fostering excellence and love of learning to all areas of study, including the creative and performing arts. This is why the momentum behind homeschooling will not only produce tomorrow’s finest scientists and researchers, but most assuredly, also its most talented artists.