Top Tips to Make an Amazing Portfolio for Art College (16/11/2015)

Portfolio Artwork

Part of one student's portfolio - illustrating their observational drawing skills (2015)

The closing dates for applications to the various art colleges and courses are drawing nearer and nearer – so the top teachers at Artzone have put together some tips to help you ensure your portfolio really shines. Artzone’s Portfolio Preparation Classes are run by two of our most experienced teachers – Art Director Gillian and Senior Teacher Louise D. Between them, they have over 35 years’ experience in preparing students for the application process, so they really know what they’re talking about!

The Basics


It might seem obvious but it’s amazing just how many students can shoot themselves in the foot by not planning properly. At its most basic level, this means knowing exactly when the deadline for applications is for your college. Make sure you put reminders in your phone, write them in your diary, spraypaint them onto your bedroom wall, whatever it takes for you to remember them!

College Deadline
NCAD 5th Feb 2016
IADT 14th March 2016
Ballyfermot CFE Applications open 2nd Dec 2015
DIT (design courses) 4th March 2016

It’s important that you leave yourself enough time so that your presentation will complement the standard of your artwork. A messy portfolio isn’t going to say ‘I’m a genius artist’! All it will do is distract and annoy the judges. For example, ask yourself if two pieces side by side contrast each other. Does this add to the overall effect? Have you removed any extra dirt marks on the paper of your art? Is it all clean and tidy?


Remember that each college specifies exactly its own entry requirements, where it outlines exactly what they’re looking for. Read these briefs! Some colleges might require you work with certain themes; others might want you to use an array of artistic mediums. Some colleges might want to see the various steps of your artwork from inception to completion – others might only want the finished product.

You might be the most talented artist in the world but if you give them only half the number of pieces they’re looking for, or if you just give them drawings when they were looking for a variety of media, it’s not going to reflect well on your application.

Remember to label all of your work!

Be unique, be yourself!

Your application is the perfect opportunity to showcase your personality and your range of artistic skills and experiences. Many courses are interested in seeing the process behind your creations – so creating a visual diary of your support studies, your early sketches and your planning will all help the assessor see how you plan and execute your vision.

While some colleges might require you work to a particular theme, they’re not interested in reviewing hundreds of formulaic entries that won’t excite them. You can take a standard idea or theme and then twist it by focusing on an unusual aspect or by taking a different artistic approach and really show own your creativity. NCAD’s Portfolio brief requires taking an object from one theme and altering it to resemble an object from a different theme by changing its physical or visual characteristics. The example they give is imagining a piece of spaghetti (theme: cooking) became a pylon (theme: connector). Playing around with the innate characteristics of objects is a fantastic way to unveil your creativity.

Medium & Subject!

Pen and paper? Acrylics? Sculpture? Working with a variety of different media is a brilliant way to show that you are a diverse artist. You can use certain media to highlight certain skills that many colleges are interested in. For example, free observational drawing of an object can show that you understand shape, proportion, tone, texture etc. It’s important that you avoid just copying photographs of objects or another artist’s work – remember it’s your own creativity that will ensure you score highly.

Choosing your subject matter is a careful balancing act at times. You need to make sure it is diverse but also interconnected as well. Repetition of an idea can end up boring the assessor.

Working with the theme of 'veins' (2015)

Get help!

Each college wants you to be selective in the work you create and submit to them. IADT’s application tips says they’re looking for ‘quality not quantity’ and they want to see your portfolio demonstrate your ‘hard work and commitment’.

Therefore you have to be absolutely ruthless with your portfolio and this can be tricky to do at times. It’s important you step back and try to objectively assess your work. You might have spent months on a particular piece, painstakingly crafting it until you’re confident it deserves a place in the Tate Modern, but that’s the wonder of Tunnel Vision!

Check in regularly with a qualified art teacher – someone who has helped guide their students through the process many times. They’ll have the technical knowledge and experience to be brutally honest with you and let you know when something just isn’t working. This could be your art teacher in school or someone on a Portfolio Prep Course like Artzone offers.

Best of luck with your application and remember; if it’s not your very best work, leave it out!

Wrap Up

What you need to remember is this:

  • Know your deadlines
  • Check (and double-check) the portfolio requirements
  • Showcase your personality
  • Show a range of media
  • Use a variety of subject matters
  • Get help by checking in with an art pro!
Portfolio Example 2

One student's example of working with different textures (2015)

Leave a Reply