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Return to - Notes for a Perspective on Art Education

Notes from: Art School Admissions/The High School Student's Guide to Portfolio Preparation - Presented by The Consortium of East Coast Art Schools 1986

Portfolio Preparation

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Art School Admissions
The High School Student's Guide to Portfolio Preparation Presented by
The Consortium of East Coast Art Schools, 1986

Cooper Union School of Art
Maryland Institute College of Art
Massachusetts College of Art
Nova Scotia College of Art and Design
Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design
Parsons School of Design
Philadelphia College of Art
Pratt Institute, School of Art and Design
Rhode Island School of Design
School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Tyler School of Art, Temple University


Introduction
When exploring colleges and universities to further your training as a visual artist, you will discover that they fall into two general types: professional colleges of art and liberal arts colleges. You will also notice that the degrees offered by these colleges will vary

Liberal arts schools at which you can major in art usually confer a Bachelor of Art [B.A.] or a Bachelor of Science [B.S.] degree. The B.A. usually signifies that 25% of your course work will be in studio art and the rest in the area of liberal arts [English, history, science, philosophy, etc.] the B.S. indicates a split of 50% studio art and 50% liberal arts. Most professional colleges of art confer the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree [B.F.A.] or a Diploma. The B.F.A. is usually comprised of 75% studio work and 25% liberal arts, while the Diploma usually indicates almost 100% studio work and art history.

The B.FA. and Diploma Curricula are generally viewed as the most specialized type of program for students who wish to pursue professional careers as artists or designers. Most art schools and some university art departments offer the B.F.A. or Diploma. The National Association of Schools of Art and Design is the national accrediting agency for colleges and programs in this field.

Admissions standards, and particularly portfolio requirements, tend to be more rigorous for B.F.A. and Diploma programs than for those leading to the oher types of degrees noted above. However, you should keep in mind that B.F.A. curricula always include a full component of liberal studies. Thus your "academic" course average and performance on the SAT or other standardized tests will also be given careful attention by the Admissions Committee of a B.F.A. granting college.


What is a Portfolio?
In addition to reviewing your academic record, most Admissions Offices will require a collection of approximately 10 to 20 pieces of your art work. This is your portfolio. A portfolio for admission to an art school will be quite different from that of a professional artist. The professional artist compiles a sampling of highly specialized work to gain employment within the art field. It is not expected that your portfolio will reflect this type of specialization. The Admissions staff will be reviewing your art work and record to assess your aptitude and potential for a visual arts education, and will evaluate your level and skill in relationship to your background and training


What Should I Include? Is There a "Perfect" Type of Portfolio?
In selecting work for your portfolio, it is most important to keep in mind that there is no formula for devising a "good" portfolio. Your portfolio will represent your individual development and should represent your own interests and strengths. The following considerations are intended as suggestions to aid you in making an effective presentation of your potential as an art student. There are no "right" or "wrong" pieces to include, but there are a number of elements in which most art schools will be interested. The following elements are of importance.


Drawing
Drawing is a way in which all visual artists communicate. Even if you are considering a major in an art and design area that does not appear to rely heavily upon drawing [i.e., architecture, crafts, photography, or interior design], you will invariably find the need to communicate your ideas through drawing. This ability will come more naturally to some, but drawing is a skill which can be developed though discipline and practice.

Your ability to draw should be represented throughout the portfolio. Drawings from observation are preferable to those derived from other sources. Try to avoid copies from photos or from other artists' work. The drawings you present might include still lifes, landscapes, self-portraits, figure drawings and representations of other objects from your daily environment. This type of work presents you with aesthetic, interpretive and design decisions as to the placement of the forms on the page, as well as the challenge of personally interpreting those forms.

Pages from sketchbooks can be a valuable component of your portfolio. Your preliminary sketches for finished pieces or sketches which simply represent your thoughts or reactions to your environment are often interesting to an admissions committee. You should not feel that a sketch or partially finished piece will hurt your presentation. Your ideas and the development of those ideas on paper can be as meaningful as the finished product.


Color
Color is an area of considerable importance and is often neglected in portfolios. Your use of color can be demonstrated through a variety of media: colored pencils, pastels, watercolors, oils, acrylics, marker pens or collage, and should be visible in some of the projects [designs, paintings, sketches, etc .] that you present.


Composition
Your sense of composition, that is the arranging of shapes or forms on a page, should also appear in your portfolio. If you are including still lifes or landscape drawing and painting, your compositional ability will appear as a natural part of this work. Design studies, collages and photographs will also show your ability to relate compositional elements together on a page.


Three-dimensional Work
Three-dimensional work, i.e., sculpture, ceramics, or architectural models, should be included if they have been areas of interest. Most college art programs will include courses in three-dimensional work and offer majors in these areas. However, do not feel that you must include a sculpture in your portfolio if you have not yet been exposed to this type of work.



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SOME OTHER QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT TO INCLUDE

Common Questions We Have Heard


"But I've never done a scratchboard!" - Although it adds variety to a portfolio presentation when a range of media and styles are included, it is by no means essential. You should not feel that you must incorporate one pastel, one scratchboard, one pencil piece, etc. The school will want to see the techniques and media that interest you and in which you have developed your skills. But you should not feel obliged to include those which do not represent your best ability.

"But I only do Sci-Fi Illustration!" - If you have already started to specialize in one type of work, you can present a majority of pieces dealing with that area. But it is important that you show your abilities within other areas. Remember that any good art program will include courses to develop a whole range of skills. As already mentioned, a professional specialized portfolio is the end product of our education. A diversity of style and content in a beginning portfolio can help the admissions committee assess your openness to the many options that will be afforded in a strong college arts curriculum.

"What about that great drawing I did when I was 10?" - Be sure your portfolio is made up primarily of your most recent work. Although it can be interesting to trace your own development by looking at earlier work, the aim of the portfolio is to represent your best overall ability at the time of application. Present older pieces only if you are sure their quality is similar to that of your most recent pieces.

"Should my portfolio include only class assignments?" - Your portfolio can contain a mixture of class assignments and work you have produced on your own. Your assignments provide evidence of how you solve given problems, while examples completed outside of class will show your own choices for personal expression. Try to choose class pieces that involved creative problem solving rather than ones involving a simple instruction like "draw a vase."

"Is it best to show as many pieces as possible?" - Most schools will want to see between 10 and 20 pieces. Fewer examples will not show the diversity of your abilities or represent areas in which the admissions committee may be interested. A portfolio of more than 20 pieces can become repetitive. The editing process is important: inclusion of weaker pieces or older pieces may only dilute the overall impressiveness of your presentation. Your aim is to show your most interesting and skilled work.

"How do I choose what to include?" - One way to make selections for your portfolio is to gather together the total body of your work and begin to sort your pieces into categories. You may wish to arrange them into three piles: pieces you surely want to include, pieces you might include, and pieces that don't merit inclusion. You may want to seek your art teacher's advice for your final selections. However, after considering the suggestions presented here and your teacher's recommendations, it is important that you be the final judge of what work you want to represent you . To repeat an important point: the portfolio is a collection of work that shows your own creative development; there are no rules as to what it should include, and no certain "look" that it must have. In short, your portfolio should contain examples of your best, most recent work. It should include elements of drawing, color and composition. Through these your skills and ideas will be revealed.

"What is a home exam?" - Some art schools will ask you to complete a series of specific art assignments called a Home Exam or Home Test. Be sure to check the catalogs of each school to determine whether this is a part of their admissions requirement.

The home exam usually consists of a series of four problems to which you are asked to respond at home, rather than in a test-taking situation at the school. These assignments will usually include drawing, composition, and problem-solving elements. Generally, you will be asked to submit the solutions along with your portfolio.

Most schools will want to see the original home exam pieces rather than slides, and they have very specific size requirements. Home exams can be a very important part of your application, because they afford the school a chance to give you assignments that focus your technical and conceptual abilities. Also, the home exam is usually retained and may be reviewed by the entire admissions committee or the scholarship committee.

So do not skimp on time when preparing a home exam. For those schools that require it, the home exam will be a critical part of the visual material you provide for your application.


"How should I present my portfolio?" - Check the catalogs of the art schools to which your are applying to determine whether they will require a personal interview. If you are going on an interview, you will probably be bringing our portfolio of original work with you for review. You may wish to invest in a portfolio case with handles. These are efficient and will protect your work. Please remember, though, it is not the case that will be judged but rather the quality of the work inside. Some very strong portfolios have been brought to interviews in shopping bags [though we don't endorse this method!]. Since you will be using a case throughout college, you may want to make the investment now.

The overall neatness of your presentation can be important. If you present a drawing that shows traces of your morning breakfast, or a nice graphic design that has been toothmarked by Fluffy or Spot, it will detract from the content of your work. Although these types of accidents can happen at any time, a portfolio full of "accidents," smudge marks and bent corners can indicate that you don't have much respect for your work or that you are undisciplined in your work habits. If you are applying to a number of schools, you should check the individual catalogs to see whether they requite matting and mounting. Most schools do not.

You may want to arrange your portfolio pieces in chronological order of earlier to later work, or group them according to types of media or size. Grouping is usually not necessary, however, and should be left to your own preference.

You should not attempt to carry large sculptures, paintings or fragile work to your interview. They are not only cumbersome, but there is a possibility that they could be permanently damaged in transit. It is advisable to take slides of these pieces. When presenting slides of sculpture or other three-dimensional work, try to submit views from several angles.


Mail it [making slides]
If you are not going to the school for an interview, you should make a set of slides to submit by mail. Although some schools will ask you to send the originals, most will prefer slides. Check college catalogs or contact each admissions office for this information. It is always advisable to make a slide record of work, whether needed or not for an admissions review. Stolen or damaged work that has not been photographed is lost forever. Protect yourself by making a slide record of your pieces and keeping several sets.

If you do not own a 35mm camera, try to borrow one from a friend. To do your work justice, you will want to duplicate the detail and color of your pieces as closely as possible. The best results will be achieved by using a 35mm single lens reflex camera.

You may set up your work outdoors in natural lighting or indoors illuminated by flood lights or other intense lighting. Be sure to use a simple backdrop; it is difficult to read your work when it is set against clutter. A white wall is the optimal solution.

If you are not familiar with photographic techniques, go to your local camera store for advice. Explain what you are trying to do and whether you will be shooting indoors or out of doors. They can recommend the best film for your situation. Achieving good results can be difficult, so you may want to shoot several rolls and experiment with various settings. Remember that someone will be trying to judge your work from these slides; if the pieces cannot be seen clearly, the slides will be useless.

You may want to submit your slides in a box or in plastic slide sheets. You should check with the school as to its preference. Always include a slide inventory sheet with your work. This should be numbered with corresponding numbers on the slides themselves. Listed by each number should be a description or title of the piece, the medium, the date completed and the dimensions. Since you will not be explaining your work in person, it is important to inform the viewer whether this is a recent or older piece and what medium was used. Write your name on each slide.


"Who will be looking at my portfolio?" - Admissions representatives and/or faculty members will review your work for admission to the college. If you go to the college for an interview, you will be expected to discuss your pieces with the interviewer. You should be prepared to talk about how you reached your solutions and describe any assignments that were involved. Questions that will be asked are not meant to put you on the spot, but to gain an understanding of our attitude toward your work and the process by which you create a piece.

"How will my work by evaluated?" - A primary consideration of the admissions committee will be the amount and type of previous art training you have had. Your work will be viewed in light of the number and kinds of art courses you have experienced. If you decided only last year that you wanted to pursue a career in art, your work may be considered in a different way from someone who has had five years of art courses, and you should not feel that you will automatically be at a disadvantage.

Most schools will be looking for evidence of your potential as a student. Many factors are weighed when making decisions on applications and it is very possible for the late starter, whose portfolio has "rough edges," to compare favorably with the experienced student whose work is more highly polished and skilled. Most schools do not seek a certain "look" or "style" and prefer to have students with varying approaches and backgrounds.

In the same way that the "late starter" will be evaluated differently from an experienced student, the admissions office will also consider the type of art program from which you have come. A different level of work will be expected from students trained in large, well-developed art programs. If you have been enrolled in a small school where art has not been a curriculum priority, this will be taken into consideration. Most art schools will be viewing your work on an individual basis, considering your educational background in relationship to what you have produced.



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In Summary
Remember that your portfolio is just one part of your application to an art and design college. It is important because it provides the visual evidence concerning your potential to grow as an art student. The admissions staff will be evaluating your application with this visual evidence in mind, but will also consider academic and motivational characteristics that are an integral part of your application to their school.

As there is a diversity of fulfilling careers open to visual artists, so is there a diversity of art colleges to offer you training. We encourage you to write for catalogs, speak with students and staff, and visit the campus of each school you are considering. And when you visit - bring your portfolio--even if it's only a preliminary one.



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The Consortium of East Coast Art Schools
The Consortium of East Coast Art Schools is an association of the major art colleges on the East Coast of the United States and Canada. [The Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles is also included in this membership.] The Consortium was founded in the mid-1970s with the intent of sharing common interests among the member schools.

A student exchange program is one of the important features of the Consortium. This provides a unique opportunity for students at one member institution to spend one or two semesters at any other member school. The exchange is designed primarily for juniors and provides students with an expanded range of curricular and environmental experiences. The intent is to offer students a widened exposure to approaches and subject matter within their college experience. The exchange program requires no additional course work or tuition assessments other than those normally required at the home institution.

The Consortium also seeks to enrich its students' visual art education by sharing faculty, exhibitions, and information relevant to common concerns. To obtain further details about the Consortium, please contact the program coordinator at any member institution.


[Notes from:Art School Admissions/The High School Student's Guide to Portfolio Preparation - Presented by The Consortium of East Coast Art Schools 1986]




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