3 Essential Steps to Create an Art or Photography Portfolio
by Alan SchwartzLast Updated:
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You are a talented artist and are preparing to embark on a career in the visual arts world. You have a bounty of impressive artwork, but, unfortunately, talent and inspired works aren't enough to land you the dream job. Not until your portfolio is ready.
Whether you draw, paint, design, sculpt or photograph, you will only be taken seriously in the art world when you have a well put together presentation of your creations. Whether you are showing work online, in person or both, your portfolio is key to your sales pitch. As the viewers’ introduction to your work, a portfolio tells your story and showcases your skills, interests, and attention to detail.
Presenting the right work to the right person can open up huge professional opportunities. Thus, having a powerful and effective portfolio could mean the difference between achieving your goals and falling short of your potential.
Whether your goal is to get admitted into a desired college or university, land your dream design or photography job, or simply to sell more of your artwork in person or online, improving your portfolio lays the groundwork on your path toward success. It’s your move.
This guide is designed to help you to take charge of your portfolio and achieve your artistic goals. This is written for aspiring and/or active professional artists who wish diligently, strategically, and productively market their work.
The three most essential steps in the portfolio creation process are clarification, preparation, and presentation. To thrive in any competitive scenario, every professional has to pay attention to all three, no matter what medium or you’ve chosen.
If you follow these three steps, you will have thoughtfully chosen your strongest pieces of art and organized them in a way that best suits your upcoming interview or meeting.
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Clarify your Artistic Goals
Begin with a mission
Having clarity of purpose is key to success in everything we do, and creating a portfolio is no different. To realize your dreams, you first have to identify them. Therefore, your first step in the process is to write down exactly what you want to achieve as an artist.
Invest time and energy into thoughtfully jotting down all your artistic and professional goals, no matter how outlandish they may seem. I've found it valuable and insightful to explore why I want to achieve a goal, not just what the goal is.
"If you don't know where you are going, you'll probably end up somewhere else."
~ Lewis Carroll
Secondly, and more specific to putting real power into your portfolio, you must begin with the audience in mind. How exactly do you want people to feel while viewing your work? What reaction do you hope to elicit?
Answer these questions in writing to become clear on your what your end-game is, so you can be thoughtful and focused throughout the process.
Review your first list of desired future artistic achievements and ask yourself if you’ll need a portfolio to reach those goals. The simple formula is this; if you are a visual artist then you need one or several awe-inspiring portfolios. Whether you want to be a freelance artist or photographer, be hired on as a permanent employee by a person or company, own a studio, or to make a living selling your artwork directly or through galleries, your competitive edge, your ability to create interest, resides in your portfolio. The trick is, different opportunities will require different displays and selections of your artwork.
To clarify and define your desired outcome(s), ask yourself these three questions:
Who is my target audience, and who will I be presenting my portfolio to?
What are my main areas of artistic specialization and passion?
How will I make a portfolio that capitalizes on my strengths and styles?
Once you’ve established who your audience is and to whom you’ll be presenting your work, invest some time in researching the people and organization in question to figure out what they value and appreciate.
With that target in mind, decide which of your pieces will most likely win their favor. For an example, if your dream job is to work as a National Geographic Photographer, you’ll want to design a portfolio utilizing your most compelling photojournalistic images, detailed pictures showcasing the culture and raw beauty of your subjects. You may also want to include wildlife photography and landscapes. This would not be the appropriate audience to share your wedding photography albums or even your best-posed family portraits with unless they were of indigenous tribes in Australia and in front of an erupting volcano.
If you’re going to be presenting your work to get accepted into a college or university, most art programs will clarify exactly what they’ll want you to provide. Generally, an admissions representative will ask to see works of yours that falls into specific categories such as observational art using a still life, figure model, or landscape, personal art in any media that is your own original concept and a home exam where they’ll give you something specific to draw, paint or photograph.
Prepare Your Portfolio's Contents
If you are like most visual artists, you have a plethora of work ranging in style, quality, and content. Whether you are flipping through shoeboxes full of your photographs or selecting images from organized files, your key to success is narrowing your work down to your best pieces.
What does your best artwork look like?
If you hold each piece to your highest standards, you will be more likely to impress your potential client. When judging each of your own creations, be your own toughest critic, and be quick and decisive in your judgments. When viewing your work, ask if the piece is the best work you could possibly present.
When in doubt, leave it out
Once you have condensed your collection to your favorites, seek the opinions of others. This process can be a bit painful if you ask your friends or peers to be honest and straightforward, but it is this pain that makes better artists in the long run. That said, a heavy critique may still hurt. Remember, a critique of your artwork is not a personal attack, but simply a measure of your critic's tastes and values.
It is important to remember your artwork is not your soul, but rather a singular expression, exploration or experience. An artist’s portfolio, much like a chain, is only as strong as it’s weakest ‘link’ or work of art.
Refining your collection to your best work was important, because in portfolios quality generally trumps quantity. What’s even more effective is to have precisely targeted selections aimed at achieving a specific goal. I recommend revisiting your list of clarified goals at this point in the process, and then customizing a sub-portfolio for each desired outcome. To create your master portfolio, simply unify each of the categories, as if they were individual galleries.
Each piece in your portfolio must be clean, complete, and thoroughly edited. The last thing that you want is for the viewer of your work to be thinking of what they would edit or change. It is recommended that you limit the number of images that you are showing to no less than ten prints and no more than twenty.1
According to Brian Dilg, the head of the New York Film Academy's photography school, the single most common error in judgement that people make when arranging their portfolio is that they include images from the same photo shoot which are too similar.2 Therefore, it is best you show a variety of images from a range of different events. Whether we are presenting about paintings, designs or photography, you will want to show your diversity of skills and cross-capabilities while still keeping to the central theme or style of each gallery.
Fine Tune Your Portfolio's Presentation
Your portfolio is now in it’s rough draft form, with finished images grouped together based on a common theme, such as subject matter or style. Now comes the fun part, organizing and designing the finished product.
When creating a physical portfolio, you can stick with a traditional leather or vinyl portfolio materials, although I have seen incredible examples in both wood and metal.
There are also many online businesses such as Shutterfly.com or Snapfish.com where you can create a photo book of your collection. These offer many design options from custom page colors and textures to various cover types. I recommend you keep it simple with solid color backgrounds and avoid getting fancy with custom frames and designs as they can easily be very distracting.
Remember, the goal is to showcase your work and talents
When it comes to choosing a web platform, there are many options at your fingertips. Your first decision when it comes to creating your website is to figure out if you want to create your own from scratch, use a customizable template or use a dedicated portfolio website.
Whichever platform you choose, you’ll want to research and familiarize yourself with SEO (search engine optimization) techniques. Both platform options have their benefits and drawbacks, so here is a brief synopsis.
Creating your ownwebsite can take a serious investment of time and effort, and in some cases coding knowledge. You can save time and money by using sites such as Wordpress, Flickr, Weebly, and Squarespace. Through these sites, you’ll find many customizable templates with a great deal of design flexibility. Some sites include unlimited photo proofing for your clients, which is a time-saving feature that they’ll appreciate. Lastly, beware of sites and platforms that charge fees for each upload.3
To improve your website’s speed, you should compress your images with jpeg-optimizer.com, tinyjpg.com, or tinypng.com. A faster loading site makes for a more pleasant user experience. Avoid using non-professional website names, and try to keep your site name in line with your line of work. Take the time to perfect each page, and keep an eye out for typos and grammatical errors.
Dedicated portfolio websites are a great solution for those, like myself, who don’t have any coding knowledge and simply want to upload images for views, shares, and sales. Sites like these are less customizable from a design standpoint, therefore making it a bit more difficult to brand yourself, although they also have built-in SEO, and therefore can attract traffic quickly.
Take some time to explore portfolio building sites such as FineArtAmerica.com, Foliolink.com, Zenfolio.com, FolioHD.com, Orosso.com, Photoshelter.com, Pixpa.com, and SmugMug.com.4 These portfolio services enable you to drive traffic with search engine friendly URLs and unique meta tags for your images.
Whichever platform you choose, you should take the time to optimize your site in every way possible. Make your contact information easily accessible, write a powerful and relatable biography, and include a professional photo of yourself.
Make no mistake, we are all in sales
Presenting your portfolio in person feels as much like a sales meeting as it does a job interview, and in many cases that is because it’s both at the same time. Dressing professionally, showing up on time, and carrying yourself with confidence and poise are all major parts of the whole package deal.
In any effective sales process, your goal is to find where you can provide the most value to the prospect by asking the right questions. This may sound obvious, and it is, but the most important element is to be genuinely interested in what the other person likes, wants, and needs.
If there are certain elements the buyer is looking for, it is wise to subtly point out without over-emphasizing those particular strengths and qualities in your images. Do your best to make your conversation 80% about them and only 20% about you.
Learn when to listen
There may be several points that you would like to make, or stories you’d like to tell about each piece, but remember, listening can be a powerful communication tool. The merits of your work should stand firmly on their own, although having an occasional unique story behind an image can add interest and personality. Some art appreciators prefer to believe in their own personal meaning for a piece of your artwork, and your narration could take away from their experience.
You may want to create a script for yourself so you have time to rehearse, review and revise portfolio sales pitch. Mastering your presentation will take practice, patience, and persistence.
One way to make yourself more comfortable speaking to clients or recruiters is to practice presenting your portfolio in front of the mirror. It may sound embarrassing, but it will help you to build inner strength and confidence. After that, present to your trusted family and friends. You’ll get some positive and some constructive feedback, so make adjustments as needed.
Remember, critique isn’t personal
You must be willing to weather the storms of rejection in order to achieve success, but great things come to those who believe and take action on their dreams. Remember to be polite, professional, smile, breathe easy, and let your amazing portfolio do most of the work for you. I have presented many of my portfolios over the years, and some of the most monumental successes began as rejections.
If the work that you chose to share is not exactly what they are looking for, don't lose hope. Ask what is missing and what they’d like to see more of next time. Then, without hesitation, schedule a follow-up meeting with enough time for you to make the changes that they requested.
It is important to keep in mind that relationships with admissions counselors, art directors, gallery owners, and buyers aren’t formed after one meeting, but rather take time and nurturing to become mutually beneficial. In other words, be patient with yourself and your portfolio, and enjoy doing the work that causes your art career to flourish!
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Alan M Schwartz is a contributing author for Expertise.com. He has 20 years experience as a Studio and Wedding Photographer, 10 years experience as an Fine Art Instructor for students of all ages and levels, and he has been creating original fine art paintings and photography for 25 years.
Alan attended California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) majoring in Fine Arts and Photography.