Image scanned from some really old reference material I inherited from my grandfather. Source unknown. Circa the 1930s or 40s.

Image scanned from some really old reference material I inherited from my grandfather. Source unknown. Circa the 1930s or 40s.

This post is one of a multipart posting. I’ll be talking about the importance of portfolios in the differing stages of a Graphic Designer’s career.

Every good artist needs a good portfolio. But even before you become an artist, you have to become an art student. And that depends on a portfolio as well.

As far as I know, every fine art, illustration, graphic design and animation program out there usually requires a submission portfolio. This post will focus on that.

First things first.

The best advice I can give anyone starting out on a submissions portfolio is to read through the submission portfolio requirements. Make certain that each piece in your portfolio relates to the course’s requirements. It won’t matter how good you are, if you portfolio doesn’t meet the portfolio requirements, it’s a pretty good chance you won’t be accepted into the program. Back when I was a design student, there was a portfolio submitted where the hopeful student had a very strong and mature style already. The work was beautiful and would have probably made a great student to teach. But there was some real question about whether or not the applicant had met all the different requirements. I believe it was determined that the student had in fact completed all the requirements. But it does show that not meeting the requirements is a very important part of the submission process.

The secret of life.

Most people I know who get into graphic design are often very involved with comics, cartoons, and anime. And more often than not, a self-taught artist. Probably means copying the artwork and styles of favourite artists and pop culture characters. Sadly, most art instructors get pretty jaded towards this. EVERYONE submits comic stuff. Or most everyone. The people who don’t get noticed right away. At least this was my experience years ago when I was in school. I imagine its pretty much the same today.

Early Example

I am embarrased to say this was an early work of mine. I was in my early teens when I did this. It never made it into a portfolio (thank God), but it is a prime example of what I am talking about – blatant copying of existing comic book work with very little understanding of the underlying shapes and forms that make up real life objects in general and the human body in particular.

A really great way to combat this is drawing from life. Life drawing is a fundamental skill any decent artist has to master. It helps you really focus on your drawing subject matter. Drawing from memory (or just making stuff up) is fine, but the human mind tends to store things abstractly, so things start to look a little cartoony if drawing from your memory or imagination alone.

Life drawing studios are a time-honoured tradition. I’ve attended one on and off for over thirteen years. Not including the life drawing class I took while I was in my graphic design course. You should be able to find one in any major city. Joining one can really help a beginning art student develop a style outside of comics and cartoons.


Of course, life drawing studios are generally focused on drawing the nude human form. Though not always. Some focus on a person usually dressed up in some sort of costume. Or still life. Some may even venture outdoors for some landscapes or sityscapes. But the ones I am most familiar with are focused primarily on the nude human form.

This does present a bit of a problem.

Life drawing will help you out in fleshing out a memorable student portfolio, but as a beginning art student you might also be minor and life drawing studios might be tough to join. At the life drawing studio I am now attending, there is one young man who is currently in grade 11. I believe that would be his sophomore year for our American friends. Anyways, he is quite talented, has made it quite clear he is interested in attending an art program in the States, and he seems fairly mature for his age. At the very least he doesn’t seem to mind hanging out with people quite a bit older than he is. And considering all the things a young man could get himself into, drawing nudes is the least questionable thing he could get involved in. So it may be possible for younger people to attend life drawing provided they have talent and are mature enough.

Otherwise, there are plenty of online resources (I know what you’re thinking, and TRY AGAIN) such as YouTube drawing tutorials and the entire Loomis catalogue is now online. And trying to convince family and friends to pose for you (fully clothed) is actually pretty easy.

Isn’t this misrepresenting myself?

There are those of you where comic book, graffiti or other forms of pop art defines your artistic expression and changing everything to conform to this different style may seem like misrepresenting oneself at best, or selling out at worst. Most portfolio submissions I am aware of have at least some part set aside for a few personal pieces outside of the programs requirements. This is the time to let your personal creative side through. And trying to merge the basics of life drawing exercises into even fairly abstract or cartoony drawing forms will vastly improve your work. ANy artist will benefit from this.

Tackle the whole page.

Years ago, while attending a drawing class, there was someone attending who was interested in maybe attending Sheridan College in Ontario where they have a very respected animation program. He showed up with a tiny little lined paper notebook and a pencil to draw in. He spent most of the class hunched over these little pieces of paper, drawing tiny little drawings. For our last drawing, someone else in the class took pity on him and lent him a great big piece of newsprint and a huge chunk of charcoal. He then proceeded to draw a tiny little drawing in the corner of the paper, in much the same size as his little notebook.

I’ve never tried to get into Sheridan College, but I can only imagine the profs there would not be too impressed with that. If you have a large sheet of paper, try to fill the whole thing up.

Lastly, care about your work.

Try to represent your work in the best possible light. Folded or torn pieces of paper do not make for a great presentation. You are going to want to make certain your work is seen in the best light possible. And making certain your work is presentable shows that you are interested in your own artwork.

So that’s it. Please consider these was words of wisdom from someone whose has been there. Your mileage may vary with these helpful hints depending on the particulars for the different art programs out there. Which makes my very first point – making certain your submission portfolio meets the basic requirements of the course – the most important piece of advice I can give. The rest will depend on your own artistic style and what you hope to eventually get out of your art career.

Next week: You’ve graduated. Now what?