Teachers’ Resources

Get a Handle On Your Portfolio

Part of the application process is to present a portfolio. Here are some helpful hints to put one together:

What should you include?

It may be easier to start with what not to include . . . old work should not be considered since your most recent work will usually be your best. Try to choose from work done in the past year. At Memphis College of Art, we ask to see 10-20 examples. Think about quality over quantity! In other words, don’t include more work for the sake of having a lot to show, but be sure you are showing your best work. We recommend not including any of the following: anime or cartoons, viking warrior men or women, tattoos, unicorns or other mythological creatures or any other overused imagery whether copied or original, copies from magazines or portraits of celebrities. This might be what you prefer to draw, but colleges look for a different type of original work. (Keep in mind, however, that nothing is absolute. If you are interested in illustration and want to submit one or two representations of work from reference material, limit this to one or two. The bulk of your portfolio should be drawing from direct observation.)

What is the admissions committee looking for?

We are looking for drawing from direct observation. This means looking at three-dimensional objects and translating that to the two-dimensional surface of your paper or canvas. Draw still lifes, portraits, self-portraits, landscapes or cityscapes from life. When you draw from a photograph, half of the work has already been done for you. The composition has been laid out and your values captured by the camera. It is important that you learn to visualize these things on your own.

That’s why we encourage drawing from life. You may also like to draw from your imagination, but again, we want to see the direct observational drawing to look at your ability to see and make the translation of image from life to your two- dimensional surface. It is more difficult to draw from life and may be frustrating at first, but as you strengthen your visual skills you will see a remarkable improvement. Self-portraits are a wonderful addition to your portfolio. You can be your best model. You are always available when you are ready to draw. Variety is important. Varied subject matter, media, scale, techniques, even working methods will show that you are not afraid to experiment with new ideas, techniques and materials. You should not be locked into a particular style yet. You will want to show some flexibility and diversity in your work. Add some work done in color. These along with your black and white drawings will really add strength to your portfolio. Although you do want to show variety, you do not want to do that at the sake of adding something in an unfamiliar medium. Do not show the first watercolor that you ever attempted. Practice will make you comfortable and more proficient in your media and techniques. Some of your pieces can be carefully rendered while others may be quick studies, contour line, or gesture drawings that take less time. Both are appropriate to include.

If you are considering a career in graphics, illustration, photography or another specific discipline, you may submit a few pieces from those areas. In graphics, where craftsmanship is so important, pay careful attention to your lettering, your layout and your design. The concept is just as important as the final pieces: both should be carefully executed. Illustrations often require working from reference material and not direct observation. Illustrators do work from photos to create images that a camera can’t capture. This is one of those exceptions to the rule where your work may not be solely from life, but don’t forget that the bulk of your portfolio should be.

Other important considerations:

Interesting subject matter with varying textures or focusing on and enlarging an area of a still life can lend interest as can cropping an object off at an unusual angle. Concentrating on a series can be interesting as well. It also shows an admissions committee that you can take a problem through several alternative solutions. You might explore the use of one subject with varied media or a series of one technique with varied subject matter.

Composition is important. Try to avoid the typical composition of an object stuck in the middle of the paper. Consider placement before you start your piece – don’t leave it to chance. Do preliminary sketches or thumbnail sketches. From these sketches, choose the composition that you find most interesting. Letting your image run off the edges of the picture plane can break up the negative or background space. Be sure to show a full range of values in your drawings, whether you are drawing in black and white or color. It is important to show value contrast, which is achieved by making shaded areas very dark and your lighted areas light. Consider your background as important as the imagery in your drawings as well. Don’t just concentrate on the image and quickly throw something on the background to get it done.

What should I draw?

You should never lack for ideas about your art (what to draw or what to try next). Explore other artists’ work by looking through current art publications such as Art in America, Graphis, and by visiting galleries to see what contemporary artists are doing or by going to art museums and reading art history books to see what artists before you have done. Not only can this be inspirational, but you can apply some of these ideas to your own work.


Presentation of your work will speak of your craftsmanship and professionalism. It’s like going on a job interview. You want to make the best impression possible. Take pride in your work and in how you present it. Keep it stored in a safe, clean place – not under your bed or in the attic collecting dust. A portfolio case can be purchased at any art store or you can make a case with two large pieces of cardboard taped together. Once you have made decisions about which pieces you plan to include in your portfolio, clean them up as much as possible. It is not necessary to mount, mat or frame your work.

Can I submit my work digitally?

Never give your work away or sell it without documenting it first. You can take digital images of your work and email them to us at portfolio@mca.edu. Be sure to put your first and last name in the subject box. You can burn them to a disc or even save them to a flash drive. You may also include a description sheet detailing assignments and other information you feel the committee should know about each piece. Images of your work should focus on the work, not the background. Crop in as close to the work as possible. The best way to photograph your work is on a black cloth that covers a large space like a wall or chair. Place work out of direct sunlight, but in a light area. Be sure to take off any reflective covering of your work such as acetate or glass.

Three-dimensional work, sculpture, ceramics or any work that is not flat should also be submitted in digital format. You should include no more than two views of the same piece.

If you are attending a portfolio day, you will be required to provide the equipment necessary for viewing your digital work such as your laptop computer.

Do you work on art each day?

A great way to get a feel for what art school is like is to keep a sketchbook now. Working in a sketchbook is a good way to keep your art–and your ideas about art–with you at all times. Memphis College of Art’s admissions committee really likes you to submit your sketchbook as one of the pieces in your portfolio. This tells of your thought processes and ideas and shows that you do work on your art out of class. Your sketchbook should be complete–all 100 pages. Now if you wrote a grocery list on one page or so, that’s fine, Picasso did that in his sketchbook, too. (To see Picasso’s sketchbook, you could go to a library or bookstore and ask for Je Suis Le Cahiers–that may give you some other good ideas.)

How should you submit your work?

If you are planning to mail your portfolio, it is important to package it in a sturdy box. Your local U-Haul or Mayflower moving company has mirror boxes that are just perfect for mailing portfolios. Of course, you should not submit pieces that are under glass because of breakage. But protecting your work is a good idea. If you have mailed your work to us, we will U.P.S. it back to you, C.O.D., insured. If you are submitting your work electronically, you’ll want to send a description page describing the medium you used, the dimensions of your work, and the year the piece was completed. Many schools, including Memphis College of Art will look at your portfolio during a portfolio review event and can accept the portfolio component of your application at that time so you won’t have to send materials later. You can send your work via email to portfolio@mca.edu. Be sure to put your first and last name in the subject box.

Where can you get help?

One great way to get more help with your portfolio is to come to one of the National Portfolio Days (for event dates go online to www.npda.org). These are hosted at colleges and universities across the country, so there is bound to be one within driving distance to you. Schools such as Memphis College of Art, Parsons, Rhode Island School of Design, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and Art Center in Pasadena participate. National Portfolio Day is a time when Admissions representatives and faculty members will talk with you about your work and about their school’s programs. Each of the schools represented at National Portfolio Days is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). This is the only national professional accrediting agency for educational institutions in the visual arts recognized by the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation and the United States Department of Education. Check to see if the college or university you are considering is accredited by NASAD.

Drawing Problem : Volume of a Human Head

After students have spent a good deal of time learning linear perspective and drawing from observation, which usually involves still life, it is time for a challenge. Drawing a human head offers plenty of complexity without overwhelming them with a full figure. I think it is best that students work from a sitter however a self-portrait from a mirror will also suffice. Have them work from a three-quarter viewpoint and include whatever is in the background.

Students should draw the head using only lines and employ a ruler in the drawing of all lines. Using the ruler should simplify the student’s line work and emphasize the planes of the head and facial features. The block-like reduction of the head should allow students to relate the head to perspective and focus on proportion and volume. Emphasize to them that this problem is about volume, not likeness.


  • Conte, Charcoal Pencil or Ebony Pencil
  • Hard eraser
  • 18″ x 24″ Bond Paper

Click here to view information on the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers

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