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How do I create an art portfolio, to use for art school or gallery applications?

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A portfolio is a document that tries to capture the spirit of you and your work. It’s like waving hello to a stranger — to someone who usually hasn’t met you before. Your portfolio is the answer to a very specific question: “How can I best guide a stranger into my universe?“. Although seemingly basic, this question can require a lot of sensitivity, and benefits from increasing mastering of your work’s infinite complexities. 

Consider the following key strategies:

  • Understand portfolio creation as a life-long, recurring process. Your portfolio is the reflection of something dynamic: of you and your work. Both offer infinite interpretations and categorizations — as a result, there can not be a final, ultimate version of a portfolio; your ideas about your work will simply keep changing, as part of your growth into the art world, and as a consequence of your personal growth over time. That’s why it makes sense to understand the task of updating (or re-creating) your portfolio as recurring and unending, just like doing dishes: you can never ultimately be done.

  • Understand your portfolio as a service. Services can be executed incredibly well, or rather luke-warm. Some services are functionally complete, but emotionally empty — we easily understand how service qualities differ in everyday encounters, how appreciative or lackluster we are being treated: make sure that your “service of portfolio” doesn’t add to the staleness of the world.
    If your portfolio is a service to introduce strangers to your universe, then it cannot simply be a list of works, with your name on the title page. Instead, it makes sense to ask yourself how to improve your service; to include an artist statement at the beginning, or a narrative CV or even a portrait photo of yourself at the end, as your way of saying “hello” and “goodbye”. It will usually benefit from your works being categorized into work series or artistic media, with an explanation of the series’ contexts accompanying it.

  • Understand your portfolio as a new medium – one of art mediation. You might already be very good at explaining your work to guests in the studio, or might have a proper website highlighting your work. With each medium working differently though, you need to figure out how this “medium of portfolio” can be tamed to best represent your vision; how to both firmly and sensitively guide that unknown stranger into your world. As a new medium, consider analyzing other people’s approaches to their portfolio – and always remember your creative strength: if you are capable of creating art, you will have enough creativity to create an amazing portfolio just as well. Different to art creation though, art mediation requires answers to the question of how to best discuss your work; how not to trivialize or be grandiose about it.
    Your portfolio most often shouldn’t be a vertical list of works – it shouldn’t be understood as a text document with images. Instead, consider seeing it as a presentation (consisting of slides) or a short book, where already the page orientation (portrait or landscape) should be done intentionally.

  • Never delete your portfolio(s). Even if you understand your portfolio as a living, breathing service medium, it can be challenging to understand how to improve its quality. Some changes towards excellence can require drastic changes, which might feel emotionally challenging – because who knows, your existing portfolio might be better than you yet understand.
    A good strategy to solve this is to keep all versions of your portfolio – to not delete your source files. This enables you to always step back to any previous version, and removes worries or preciousness about changes – even in the case of drastic reconstructions. In addition, you might want to create different versions of your portfolio; a curator might benefit from a different contextualization and work selection than an art school or a gallery.

  • Understand the power of minimalism. While your portfolio is a medium and a service, an unexpected ideal for it is to become invisible. Viewers shouldn’t ask themselves questions about the portfolio, but about your work. Your portfolio should enable maximum and exclusive visibility of your vision, and not get bogged down by viewers asking themselves questions like “Why did they use this font?”, “Is this person aware of all the typos in here?”, “Is this layout change intentional?”, etc. Most frequently, artists will want a portfolio that doesn’t “irritate” (neither positively nor negatively) – because although irritation can increase emotional attachment, it can also lessen trust. Instead of the portfolio to irritate, you want to create space for the works within it to do so. Minimalism is a good strategy for this: to reduce anything that takes focus from your vision.

    It’s important to understand that minimalism doesn’t mean to “show little”. Instead, use minimalism to offer a maximalist emotional connection to you and your vision. Minimalist doesn’t mean “show a lot of thumbnail-sized artworks”, but will usually mean to show less works, but maybe in fuller size. If your portfolio is a title page with your name, followed by a pure list of artworks, then this might be minimalistic – but does it properly and optimally lead a stranger into your world? Finding your ideal balance between minimalism and portfolio-as-a-service can be challenging. A key ingredient in minimalism is to operate intentionally: to increase your sensitivities about any decision or micro-decision that goes into the creation process.

    You can ask yourself questions like these: Is my layout consistent? Does my portfolio really need page numbers? Does my name have to be listed on every page? Does my contact information (mails and social media links) need the title “Contact information”? Do my social media links need small icons ahead of them? Does my document need multiple fonts – and do these fonts need to be fancy? AM I SURE THAT ALL-CAPS FONTS ARE A SENSITIVE CHOICE? Are my images always at the same position within a page? Is it important to include all works of a series? Am I sure my portfolio should have colorful background images? Do I serve my vision if my portrait photo is too fanciful?
  • Make your portfolio self-contained. Some online application processes require your portfolio and CV to be separate files, or require you to enter your exhibition history and artist statement into online forms. Nevertheless, understand the power of creating a self-contained portfolio: something that offers a complete arc, from beginning to end.
    As such, a portfolio has to be a file, not a collection of files: a portfolio cannot be a directory with images, plus a text file with an artist statement – because this approach doesn’t let you influence the direction a viewer takes into the content.
    A self-contained portfolio (that is a medium and a service) might not have to include your complete exhibition history – the correct place for this is your CV. But your self-contained portfolio should likely include an introductory artist statement, and a narrative CV listing your most noteworthy achievements (specific exhibitions, residencies or art collections).

  • Understand the power of mood makers. While your portfolio will usually benefit from minimalism, it can make sense to include images that promote the atmosphere of your work – to transcend the sterility of your work existing in a digital file. Mood makers can be rare full-screen images of your studio or work environment, of your tools or setup, or a close-up of your work – or even exhibition views (although these could better exist in a separate chapter of your portfolio).

While these strategies will help you get deeper into the medium of portfolios, you ultimately have to trust your own feelings about your decision making process. As with everything we do, we first and foremost need to listen to our gut: if your vision requires an entirely maximalist approach, then you need to for it. If your vision requires you to be unintentional about your portfolio creation process, then you might be on to something powerfully relevant. Enjoy the ride!