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The Artist's Presentation Portfolio

There are few rules as to exactly what must be included in an artist or designer's presentation portfolio.
It is important to understand what role a presentation portfolio plays -- what is it supposed to do?

An artist's portfolio visually organizes and presents an artists recent creative works along with the ideas, goals or influences embodied in those works.


First Impression:
The portfolio presents you and your abilities to a potential employer, to a gallerist, or a potential client. The portfolio often makes your first impression to a stranger -- it says "here is what I do!"
In our business, that is a very important role. Your creative works cannot be described solely with words, only imagery comes close to representing your creative direction, potential and accomplishment. For many viewers, your portfolio will be the only encounter with you and your work -- make it a memorable encounter that motivates viewers to want to see more of your works.
Opening pages and the initial works presented need to focus clearly on visual or written info that will quickly declare your distinct interests and focus.

Only the Best:

Do not include everything you have created.
Show strong, accomplished, innovative work.

Quality over Quantity!


Think about the viewer of your portfolio. What is important to them? How much time do they have?
The viewer needs to get an impression of your work, but does not have time to linger over every piece you are proud of, every medium that you have tried.
Select strong representative works -- typically 12 to 20 works.
If you have many smaller works, you might group them as a single work or as a collection on one or two pages.

Select the most pertinent works for your Goals:

Include strong works that emphasize what you are most ready and willing to create more of -- what is the direction you would like to go as an artist? Your portfolio needs to graphically answer that question.
If you are a studio artist pursuing commissions -- show works that demonstrate what you would like to get commissions for.
Are you offering services as a portrait painter? Show portraits.
Are you illustrating children's books? Show varied approaches to diverse stories and characters.
Are you an art educator looking for a teaching position in a grade school or junior high? Show a diversity of media that you are capable of working with.
Are you an art therapist applying for graduate school or for a councelling role? Show works that explore and express emotion, feelings, memories and point of view. Include written discussions of the motivations and back-story of the works.

Don't show everything. Select what is relevant.

Content Checklist:

Below are the "things" usually included in a portfolio.
The order is general, not absolute.

A Note on Contact Information:

Make it easy for a viewer to find you -- a portfolio must help prospective clients and prospective employers communicate with you.
Your cover and/or your title page *must* include your contact information. Your name, your email, possibly a phone number and mailing address. Any social media accounts you actively use.
Basically, help the reader when they want to contact you.

A wise move: include your email address on every page -- small and discreet, but available.
You might create a footer that has your email in a small but readable type, with a visible but not bold or garish color.

* Cover and/or Title Page: Welcome & Identify whose work this is!

The cover or cover sheet(s), should immediately indicate that this is your work.
Basic contact information may be included (email, phone, address). Contact info must be easy to find.
The cover page might be text only, or it might be designed to reflect traits characteristic of your work -- you might even include images of your work or details from several of your works.

* Artist's Statement:

Introduce yourself as an artist.
An artist's statement can often be little more than an answer to some of the following questions:
What do you attempt to do through your work?
Why do you make art at all?
What motivates you to create your work?

How to write advice | Writing Artists Statements
Examples: Chihuly1

* Resume/Bio/Background

What is your educational background?
What have been your jobs or experiences related to art and design or teaching?
What awards have you won?
What exhibits have you participated in?

You may include a full resume.
This may be placed at the end of the portfolio.


List of Works: Facts/Data Sheet

This is a sort of table of contents for the portfolio -- or, if you like, an inventory.

Not all portfolios inlcude this, but for most first-time viewers, it is a helpful summary of the entire portfolio. It enables the viewer to get an overall impression of the works as well as a sense of how the works are organized.

If there are categories dividing your works (e.g. paintings vs. ceramics, or portraits vs. landscapes), represent that here.
If you are an art educator presenting your diversity of skills, you might present your ceramics works, then your drawings, then your paintings. Create a heading or a division between each section. The section break could include an explanation of the works that follow, and a statement of what motivates those works.
If you are a painter, you might present your portraits, then your still lifes and then your abstractions, for instance. The goal is to make viewing, and thus understanding your work more logical.


*The Artworks: Quantity, Quality & Organization

Most of the pages of your portfolio show examples of your work.
That is, of course, the main point of a portfolio.

Labeling your works:
Every work needs to be labeled accurately and clearly.
Absolutely include key information on, or next to, each page of images.
Generally, include the same information that you would include on a gallery label. (except price):
Title, medium, date, size and a brief artist statement, context or motivation for the work helps orient the viewer.
Include the medium and the dimensions of the work. (Remember, the photos of your works to not convey size. When assessing a work, the viewer does need to know the scale.)

A note on label color/layout: if your portfolio pages are black, please do NOT use white labels of text pasted onto a black background. Doing so causes the white text block to "shout" -- distracting from the artwork you are presenting.
So if your portfolio layout is on black pages, print your labels and text in reverse (white type on a black background.) You may need to select a slightly bolder sans serif typeface to print well in reverse. Test the printed results before you finalize typeface, type weight and type size. Make sure all is readable.



Selecting your works.

Select few strong works rather than many adequate works.

When a viewer sees your work for the first time, you need to impress them.
Weak work can make a big impression — a poor impression. Sometimes weak work can overshadow other strong pieces. Thus, be very tough when eliminating less-than-stunning pieces.
Try to recognize pieces that you just like for sentimental reasons, rather than for qualitative reasons. Your favorite portrait of your favorite pet may well be important to you personally, but it must be conceptually and compositionally strong, and well crafted to the viewer's eye in order to be included in a professional portfolio.
Cut works that you only like; keep works that are strong.
Ask other artists, designers, professors or dealers for feedback on what to include.

Take time to consider just what qualities you are attempting to demonstrate through your portfolio. Your portfolio is designed to communicate who you are as an artist/designer.
Are you demonstrating very strong technical skills? ...familiarity with a particular medium or process? ...exploration of a particular theme, concept or point of view?
Can you demonstrate depth of thought?
Are you aware of current social or cultural issues?
Are you responding to the works of other contemporary artists?
Can you demonstrate consistent accomplishment in some area? Which pieces do so? How many are needed?

Your portfolio needs to demonstrate the range of your developed skills. It should not, however, represent every craft, style or exploration that you have tried. Your reviewer will understand that you have explored many things not presented in a professional portfolio.
If you are an art educator aiming to work at the elementary or high school level, you likely need to demonstrate a wide range of basic media and skills that represent what you can demonstrate and teach to your students.
If you are a painter aiming to get into an MFA program, you need to demonstrate depth and accomplishment within your body of work —  a collection of pieces that explore a particular vision or approach. You might include some strong works that demonstrate other efforts or experiments, but these should usually not dominate your portfolio.

Be sure that there are samples of any skills or efforts that the viewer should be aware of.
If you have skills or experience in a particular niche that the reviewer might be interested in, then one or more works that demonstrate that skill set should be included. Do not, however, flood your portfolio with more works than are necessary to demonstrate skills or content relevant to the viewer. In professional practice, you will edit and re-edit your portfolio for specific client interests -- often producing an online or a PDF portfolio customized for them.

Remembering that fewer strong works is preferred, aim for 12-20 very strong pieces. Consider 15 a max unless demonstrating a diversity of skills is important.
If you are an art educator demonstrating diversity, you might present more works to show the breadth of media you have experience with. However, think about the viewing experience. If you give a reviewer a 50 page portfolio, are they actually going to take time to look at it all? Or will the by frustrated? Assume that the viewer is busy. Assume they want to be impressed with quality, not quantity. Select your most impressive works -- leave the rest out. If you feel you absolutely must include more, either a) create a secondary "other works" or "early works" portfolio or b) include a second section in your portfolio that is very obviously divided from the main portfolio that you expect the reviewer to peruse.

How do you sort your works?
There really is no one-size-fits-all answer.
— Be sure to impress them with the first two or three works. Get the viewer's attention and draw them in -- make them want to see more. First impressions matter.
— Conclude with a very strong piece. Create a high point or crescendo that leaves an impression.
— Figure out some logical way of organizing your work. It could be roughly chronological —  older works to newer. It could be organized by themes. It could be organized by media.


Photographing your works, and getting prints.

If possible, shoot each of your pieces under identical lighting (same amount of illumination, same color of illumination, etc.)

Turn off the flash on your camera.
In most situations, the on-top-of-the-camera flash will create harsh glare, uneven lighting, and flattened forms. Occasionally, your camera's flash is the best available solution, but not often.
Ideally, use side-lit studio flashes or ambient lighting from the sides... a typical recomendation is 45 degrees off of the picture plane of your works .
Shooting outdoors on a cloudy or overcast can work well -- as there are no harsh shadows nor glare to deal with.

Editing digital photos:

Square any skewed images (Photoshop demo CS5; GraphicConverter tool (BEST!); PhotoshopElements ). Ideally the photos you shot were squared -- shot while facing directly at your artwork. In practice, that can be tough under ordinary shooting situations in which lighting, reflections and glassed artwork conspire to ruin a direct shot.
crop to the essential image; edit brightness, contrast and color; save as JPG;

Photo-Editing Software:

Photoshop, iPhoto, GIMP, Photoshop Elements all have most or all of the tools you're likely to need. For many large editing jobs, I'll use either GraphicConverter, or Photoshop. Aperture and Lightroom will also offer professional-quality batch photo editing tools.
(if you don't own Photoshop or have access to a graphics lab, try: Mac: GraphicConverter MacAppStore (it will do all of the above well, and has batch processing and scripting tools to save time ... for the experienced user. Costs $39 but also offers a free trial period. )

Laying out the pages.

If you are planning a printed photobook, consider the templates offered. However, most online book templates are frankly far too gaudy and cutesy for a professional portfolio. You can lay pages out in InDesign, Illustrator, (or MS Word? why not?) and then export as PDF. Most of the photobook printing sites can work from a multi-page PDF. For my work, thats the preferred option.

Ordering the prints/books.

Be sure you allow time for any printing and binding. If you are having a service print your pages or your book, find out how long they will need -- then give them a bit more time in case they are busy or run into problems.


Very good overview of portfolio-prep and gallery-approach issues (targeted towards a photography portfolio, but broadly applicable)
Portfolio advice Article/Comments from a children's illustration agent.
Interview with an Artist- Digital-Interactive-Book Agent.
Portfolio Tips



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