How to Stand Out: The Difficulty With Portfolios

I don’t know about you, but over here in Scotland we’ve been running around trying to put together our portfolios for the last few months.  It’s not much fun, let me tell you.  There’s a school of thought that says collecting your best artwork and showing it off should be fun, however there’s also a school of thought that says preparing your taxes is fun (no offence to any accountants or money-people out there).

The truth is that preparing your portfolio is nerve-wracking.  You do all this work, some of which you may not even feel that happy about in the first place (it happens, and we all know it), then somewhere down the line you’re expected to sift through it all and choose the best.  Except, that you’re not to choose the best; you’ve to choose the best within certain categories.  Life drawing, still life, abstract, imaginative (not gothic or manga, apparently art schools don’t like those).

So off you go to sort through what you have again, make the dreaded self-portrait, find more life drawing (because you think that the stuff you have isn’t anywhere near good enough), and spend a few weeks or longer stressed out, worried, and miserable.

Sound familiar?

The Problem with this Approach

The main problem I see here is that by following the guidelines universities set for your portfolios, you’re going to send in work that looks very similar to someone else’s.  This is fine if you’re really, truly good at what you do (though why would you be going to art school if that was the case?).  For the rest of us, this is a death sentence.  There’s always going to be someone better at life drawing, still life, and other very specific drawing skills like that than you are; with the amount of applications that universities receive chances are there’s going to be several people there that are technically better.

Further, because 3D and Art students all have to produce traditional work for at least part of their tutorial, the art students are likely to be better at it.  Even if you’re applying for an animation course, they may well have an edge there (unless you can pull it back with your other pieces, we’ll get to that in a minute).  Not to dismiss what art students do – I find their work amazing actually – but I ask you, does this seem fair?

Rise up and Revolt!

“That’s great,” I hear you say, “but what am I meant to do about it?”

I’m not suggesting that you cut out life drawing and traditional arts from your portfolio.  They are necessary, and they do show your technical ability; this is still important, if you can’t draw you’re not going to get very far.

Here are some things we CAN do about this though:

  • Be yourself.  By this, I mean go ahead and create all the requisite pieces of artwork (life drawing, self portrait, etc) but do it in a way that only you would have thought of.  Pose for your portrait in a costume, draw someone in a dynamic pose that no one else is likely to have, whatever it takes to make your work scream your name.
  • Bend the rules.  Good at drawing animals, but not so good at humans?  Why not draw a human with an animal?  That way, you can show your competency with animals, and steal attention from the less-awesome human rendering.  Or draw them with interesting props, possibly partially concealed, you get the idea here.
  • Have a theme.  Since most student portfolios (at least from the uninitiated) have a very eclectic feel to them and no real coherent message, you can get ahead by having something in each image that ties it to the others.  You see this a lot in professional portfolios and it seems to work for them, so why not steal the technique?
  • Stubbornly refuse to not have fun.  It’s your artwork, just have fun with it!  It may seem scary to think that someone you don’t know is going to sit and look through it at some point, and that your applications depend on it… but ask yourself this; if you were sorting through portfolios, would you rather see something soulless or something full of energy?
  • Get advice.  Preferably from your art teacher/tutor; they’ve been working with you for a while now; they know what you’re like as a person.  Chances are they’ll know how to portray yourself so that you’re seen in the best possible light.  Go ahead and ask, go through your work with them, it’ll help a bunch.
  • Change the way you present it.  Careful with this one; you’ll want to check with the universities you’re applying to before you mess about with too much here because in some cases they won’t accept portfolios unless they’re presented in a certain way.  Some things to consider if you can get away with it; Create a self-published book with your artwork, make a DVD, take photos of everything and mount them into a sketchbook, create one of those flip-file things people carry around in their wallets… use your imagination.  But again, only if your university will accept it.

Or… Play by the rules.

Personally, I don’t see why you’d want to follow their requirements exactly to the letter.  However when you’re running short on time and all you want is to finish your portfolio so that you have something to show during your interview; just do the best you can to make sure that all they ask for is in there.

Also, bear in mind, you don’t have to submit the maximum amount of artwork you’re allowed.  Usually universities have a minimum amount too; if you’re pushed for time (or even if you’re not) it’s worth considering only submitting as much as you need to.  So long as it’s the best you have you’ll do well enough without the extra, possibly less proficient, bulk to slow you down.

Conclusion:  How I’m dealing with it this year

I wish I’d realized all this at the start of the academic year.  By the time I figured out that I could tweak things like this, I’d already put together most of my portfolio.  That said, my self portrait isn’t what I’d call typical, some of my life drawings are… odd, and my method of delivery is different.

Still working on it; but after I take photographs of my traditional artwork (mostly in pencil, so this is a bit of a challenge) I’ll be submitting my portfolio for self-publishing.  I’m also going to build a quick DVD interface for my animations and 360 views of models to include with it.  I’ll let you know how that goes when I have an interview!

So what does everyone think – how are you going to make your portfolio stand out from the crowd?  Any more tips to add? Let me know in the comments below.


Self Publishing – Lulu

Portfolio Websites

Portfolio Tips

Photographing Traditional Work

Upgrade your Drawing

12 thoughts on “How to Stand Out: The Difficulty With Portfolios

  1. Eric

    First I’m just going to straight up let it be known that my latest blog post is not ‘the way I blog with ease’ and is ‘lets help each other’ since CommentLuv isn’t working right and I’m not sure why.

    On your post here, Heather, you have some very valid points I thought I’d add and one I like is about bending the rules just a bit. Taking the distraction of not being able to draw something so well by doing something just a bit different and being creative with it. I like that. That should do a lot as even with web design, your eye automatically flows to the left top of your monitor. Do something creative with your site without distracting your visitors eyes and reveal the same effect.

    Good tips, Heather! 🙂

    Re-Tweeting now.
    .-= Eric´s last blog ..The Way I Blog With Ease =-.

    1. TylinaVespart

      Thanks Eric! Glad you were able to take something useful from this. 🙂 The way I see it, so much of design and art is tricking your senses anyway – why not embrace it?

      I think CommentLuv is down for everyone just now, hope its fixed soon…

      Thanks for the ReTweet 😀

  2. Eleanor Edwards

    Morning Heather 🙂
    I know by now you’re getting used to us un-arty blogging types hanging around so I’ll hope you’ll forgive me for what I’m about to say because it’s not really specific to 3D work, more to life in general.

    What I loved about your post was the suggestion to be unique. You’re quite right, if you follow the crowd and just do what everyone else is doing, you’re going to blend in. That’s safe and works for some people. However, why be beige if you can be sunshine yellow and make someone smile? Sure, sunshine yellow can make your eyes hurt sometimes and yes, living outside the box isn’t always the most comfortable place to reside. But it’s a lot more fun 😉

    Good luck with finishing your portfolio 😉

    P.S. I’ve been meaning to e-mail and kept getting side-tracked. I just wanted to thank you for giving a brick. It is much appreciated 😀

    P.P.S Thanks for your help with Alexa 😉
    .-= Eleanor Edwards´s last blog ..#GiveABrickTwitterChallenge =-.

    1. TylinaVespart

      Morning 🙂

      That brightened my day quite a bit Eleanor, thank you. As you said, I don’t mind the non-arty people hanging around, it’s kinda cool too.

      What I was trying to bring across was that there’s a lot of people around that follow what you’re meant to do, and chances are that there’s going to be some much better than you at it. Doesn’t mean you should play with them on their playing field – show what you have!

      Thanks for the luck, and no problem on either count 😀 Your review was great, thank you.

  3. Ben

    I think there’s some lessons here for life too (sorry did say I wasn’t technical ;))

    To be unique in life you also need to be yourself, bend the rules a bit, get great advice and have fun.

    Nice post, that I’ve taken out of context and taken a bit of inspiration from. 🙂


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