What's a portfolio for?
A portfolio is a collection of your best art. It shows off your skills, strengths, interests, work ethic and creative process. Your portfolio is also a conversation piece. It gives you and your interviewers something relevant to talk about while all of you try to figure out if you'll fit in, contribute to and benefit from the opportunity on offer.
A. The best way to develop your first portfolio
- Reach under your bed.
- Drag out the big old folder of artwork you've been keeping since grade seven.
- Start from the top with the most recent art.
- Pick your best twelve to fifteen pieces.
- Go to the living room and do The Dance of Smugness.
Not only are you finished preparing your portfolio, but you have an answer for everyone who ever said "Why do you still have that mountain of stuff under there?"
B. The worst way to develop your first portfolio
- Discover your inner artist a week before the deadline for submissions.
- Congratulate yourself on avoiding the influence of teachers, galleries, or art education of any kind.
- Buy the best of everything (pens, paper, portfolio case) to make your art look better.
"Bad art on great paper is better than great art on bad paper, right?" "Wrong. A conservator can fix bad paper."
- Pull an all-nighter to throw together some drawings and paintings.
- Settle for your first draft.
- Ignore instructions.
"The world makes exceptions for exceptional talent, right?" "Sure. Usually posthumously."
C. A realistic way to develop your first portfolio
- Start early. You want time to make lots of art, spot the good stuff, and make more.
- Ask someone knowledgeable to look over all the art with you.
- How many pieces do you already have that are really ready for prime time?
- What did the portfolio submission guidelines*** ask for?
- Where are the gaps?
- Finish with your best piece of art.
- Start with your second-best piece of art.
*** Portfolio submission guidelines may, for example, set a maximum number of pieces of work to include, or ask you to bring photographs of your sculpture rather than the original. They might want to see a focused portfolio dedicated to a particular skill (e.g. figure drawing) or medium (e.g. photography), or they might ask you to show breadth with a lot of different types of art. They may have specific assignments they want to see (e.g. "Bring a drawing of the cross-section of a cabbage") or types of art that they don't want to see (e.g. "No Disney characters").
If they ask to see a sketchbook, the interviewers are hoping to leaf through authentic examples of your creative process over a recent period of time. They want to talk with you about how you approach projects and try out ideas. They are not expecting to see a bound volume of perfect finished little school assignments, so don't feel obliged to glue in good copies and tear out the working drawings. TIP: Bookmark three or four great pages that showcase your creativity and skills; now you're prepared to flip the sketchbook open and talk without dread or delay.
D. Surviving a portfolio interview
Before the interview:
- Practise shaking hands with someone who knows how.
- Practise introducing yourself.
- Practise opening your portfolio case and leafing through the artwork. You may be seated across a table from the interviewer, so prepare to talk about your work while seeing it upside down.
- Find out about the opportunity. Visit the web page. Read the brochure. Ask if anyone you know can tell you more.
- Prepare three or four questions of your own for the interviewers. What do you need to know to decide whether you want this opportunity?
- Bring a notebook. Better still, take notes in a sketchbook, if your sketchbook is ready to be shown off. (See above, "If they ask to see a sketchbook".)
During the interview:
- Greet the interviewer.
- Introduce yourself.
- Be yourself.
- Don't make self-deprecating comments about your art, don't apologize for the quality of your photographs, and don't explain the symbolism in your art unless somebody insists.
- Be prepared to talk about some artists you find interesting, by name.
- If anyone is generous enough to give you advice, say thank you and take notes. Be quick--you don't want to delay the interview--but show them that you hear and respect their advice by writing it down.
At the end of the interview:
- Say thank you and be prepared to shake hands again.
- Make notes to yourself about the interview.
- Who did you meet?
- What were the answers to your questions?
- Is there anything you need to do as a follow-up?
- When can you expect to hear results?
Best of luck!
You might get turned down. Remember that a portfolio interview isn't a test to find out if you're "good enough" to be an artist. It's to find out if these interviewers think you'll get something out of the opportunity, contribute something to it, and be interesting to spend the time with. If you get turned down after a portfolio interview, it doesn't mean you're a bad artist, or a bad person. It means you weren't the best fit.
Take heart. Take notes. Try again.
If they say no, keep making art anyway. There will be another opportunity. If they say yes, keep making art anyway. There will be another opportunity.