Review of National Portfolio Day 2022!

National Portfolio Day (NPD) allows prospective students to meet one on one with professional representatives from a large selection of accredited art colleges and universities and receive valuable feedback and guidance on your portfolio prior to submitting their applications.

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I had the privilege of escorting 2 aspiring artists through our first National Portfolio Day in Dallas, Texas in September. Both are Juniors in high school this year, and both considered this an excellent exploratory activity, with useful feedback from colleges.

We arrived after noon and left at 3:30pm, exhausted, but better informed than when we arrived. Portfolio feedback varied widely, from encouraging words to actionable advice. I had a pearl clutching moment as I listened to one of the college reps proudly announce a 50% employment rate after graduation, therefore I have included a link to independent statistics on each of the schools we visited. Please also note what fields graduates are primarily employed in when reviewing the stats. If your student is unwilling to become a teacher (the top employer from most art schools), these statistics might leave you scratching your head, as they did me. In fact, Jennifer Cook-DeRosa and I had a long discussion about the financial viability of such a path the next day!

Student 1 had a portfolio that included a sculpture, a charcoal drawing (observational piece), a pastel self portrait, several digital character designs on a white background, a photo of a 2 page sketch of a graphic novel page spread, a piece of digital fan art, a digital painting done from a vacation photo, a character design with different profiles, and a single digital graphic novel page with 2 inset frames overlapping a larger scene.

Student 2’s portfolio was primarily fan art (I didn’t see most of it, this is what she told me). She later said that was a big mistake, based on feedback from the day.

I wasn’t with Student 2 most of the time, so feedback below is primarily from Student 1’s portfolio, or what Student 2 chose to share with us.

Feedback given:

  • Common to all schools: add backgrounds to the work
  • some wanted more details in the work
  • most weren’t thrilled w/a lot (or any) fan art in the portfolio
  • some wanted to see a full body of work including things in the student’s major
  • some wanted foundational skills pieces primarily (RISD!)
  • Most offered Merit aid up to about 50%. Most based aid 50% on portfolio, 50% on GPA, essay, letters of recommendation, etc.
  • Most (all?) allowed transfer of about 12-15cr of gen eds. AP or dual credit. Possibly more could be accepted at a few of them if coming in as a transfer student rather than a freshman.
  • All of them commented positively on the giraffe mask/sculpture, the white on black charcoal observation piece, the colorful pastel self-portrait piece (color shift), the character design page with the character in several rotated positions, the graphic novel page with a full page and 2 insets, the 1 full page digital art piece with a background (from a vacation photo)
  • There was heavy emphasis on demonstrating the student can produce finished work rather than perpetual works in progress.

Montserrat

Montserrat Stats

  • Small school near Boston
  • He liked the piece w/full background from a vacation photo and the single person focus in the piece (it was a busy street but she included only 1 woman in red on Beale Street in Memphis)
  • He said be sure to include at least 2 pieces from direct observation (drawing from real life not photo)
  • Encouraged them both to move past fan art – he considered it good skill building, but move on to create your own work

School of the Art Institute Chicago (SAIC)

SAIC Stats

  • They want 10-15 images of your strongest pieces. No restrictions. Just looking for your style.
  • A theme or concept is sometimes helpful
  • She loved seeing the story unfold in the panels.
  • Student 1 described her love of color palette changes as you turn to a new page or to evoke an emotion, and non-standard page layout designs. She loved that and suggested maybe including that and her thoughts behind it. She noted a couple of teachers at the school who work in the industry who could help her expand on that.

Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD)

MCAD Stats

  • He liked the variety of work in the portfolio, stating it showed a broad spectrum of skills.
  • Suggested adding 1 or 2 short works of graphic novels in a completed state – perhaps 3-8 pages max.
  • He said Minneapolis is home to a large graphic art/novel community and the city hosts Autoptic Festival bi-annually.

Ringling College of Art & Design

Ringling stats page – I hear about high employment rates from Ringling, but I have to say their stats don’t reflect the praise I see online.

  • Suggested adding facial expression to the character design w/the character standing in various turned positions.
  • Suggested adding more texture w/the bees in the graphic novel page w/multiple scenes (and adding backgrounds)
  • B&W Digital piece- add more detail in some of the areas; complimented the eye twinkles and details in the eyes – they wanted to see more details in areas outside of the face (shoulders, etc)
  • Add to portfolio: sketches of things like hands and feet, more observational work (things you’re looking at in real life and drawing/painting/etc vs doing from a photo)
  • Add backgrounds to work!
  • They handed us a brochure on their $6k summer program and suggested applying early – Nov 1. There is financial aid available. The classes are taught by actual instructors from Ringling, not students/TA’s. She said sometimes the instructors will write letters of recommendation.

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD):

RISD Stats

  • focus on foundational skills (basic drawing, painting, etc skills). Everyone starts with the basic skills 1st year. 2nd year they move into courses in their major. Also, one of the admissions reps/recruiters was walking around to those in line emphasizing that their portfolio needs to demonstrate these basic skills, not just examples from your major!
  • She zoomed in on specific areas of a few pieces. On the scene that nearly every school seemed to like and commented favorably on, she zoomed in and showed the parts she liked with more color/shading details, and parts that needed more detail/shading/blending. We found this to be a very helpful action item.
  • on the white charcoal on black piece that most liked as a “observation” piece, she noted that the flat surface looked curved, and the can needed more details bc she couldn’t tell what it was, and more curvature added. Again, on point actionable advice! I honestly didn’t notice these things until she noted it.
  • She wasn’t terribly excited about fan art.
  • She liked the giraffe sculpture, but zoomed in to show where she would like to see more details added and gave specific suggestions. Actionable items! <3
  • Add backgrounds to work
  • In terms of just developing skills in the major (this wasn’t for the portfolio, just skill development in the area of interest), one of the RISD folks also enjoyed drawing comics/manga/graphic novels gave some suggestions. He suggested taking action figures with light sources and practicing drawing poses. Also, taking work you like and then redrawing it to see how favorite artists accomplished the lighting, shading, movement, etc. – then take it to the next step and do your own. He also suggested drawing to show movement by sketching things like leaves blowing, a piece of fabric blowing, or a character in motion.

Side note from RISD: There was an admissions person giving feedback to a student who wasn’t with us and I have to praise her feedback! We’d been watching the student show her portfolio all day – she’s very talented and happened to be in line with us frequently. The admissions officer gave her valuable portfolio feedback (add backgrounds, more details, tie tones together, etc) – but she also suggested that the student broaden her scope from just a Studio Art major and consider Illustration as a major because she said it had more employment opportunities. She would be able to go into a wider variety of fields like illustrating a children’s novel (she had a piece that looked like that), illustration for marketing/advertising, concept art, etc. She rattled off a long list of job opportunities and encouraged her to look at job listings to see what they were looking for. Folks – this is the ONLY time I’ve heard any college representative at ANY college fair we have attended talk about the job market and marketability in this way! I wanted to hug her! I turned to my companions and gave them a quick summary of what I’d overheard and we discussed the importance of looking at the return on investment. College is a means to an end – gainful employment and independence – it’s not the destination! More importantly, we’d like to achieve that goal without becoming lifelong indentured servants to student loan companies. We also discussed that these schools are $100-200k/4 years easily, each offering potentially up to 50% in merit aid (but don’t count on that), and that the maximum federal student loan total $27,500 over 4 years. So, that means scholarship applications are your new hobby, unless mom and dad are going to either foot the bill, take out parent loans, or cosign a loan – keeping in mind the latter options can have long term impact on your family relationships!

Strategy for the next NPD:

  1. Review the list of colleges expected in advance and see if they have a degree of interest – note Cost of Attendance numbers (so we can ask about merit aid/scholarships and what they’re based on), location, any specific questions about program, classes, housing costs and requirements, acceptance rates, any notes on portfolio requirements in case we need clarification, does aid stack or will outside aid reduce internal merit aid/scholarships, post graduation employment rates within their field and/or in general, will there be internship opportunities, etc
  2. Form a ranked list of colleges by urgency for review and discussion
  3. Note any summer programs, and any questions (are the classes taught by actual instructors from the school? Students/TA’s? Outside employees or vendors? Is there any college credit given and how does it apply to the degree? Will the instructors give letters of recommendation? What is the goal of the courses and variety? Will those pieces be used to build their portfolio for admissions or just for skill building or fun?)
  4. Upon arrival at the event, circle those colleges on the event map to find them quickly.
  5. Put ? on those for whom we have questions
  6. We noted many of the “high end” schools like RISD and Ringling had long lines most of the day, but by about 3pm their tables had short lines of 1-2 persons per line, so we were able to visit more schools by visiting them last. There is a cut off time that they’ll stop allowing more people to lineup for a review, so be aware of this, but we heard some saying their cut off to line up was about 3:15p – 3:30p and others were not busy so they didn’t appear to cut off lines early.
  7. Most of the schools had us fill out cards or an online form w/a QR code. Bringing standard address/BIO labels might speed things along, if that’s acceptable. The students received QR codes to show the schools, but none of them scanned it, unlike other college fairs that do use them. If they DO use the QR code, we suggest taking a screenshot of it and making that your cell phone’s lock screen image to hasten things along and not have to unlock your phone every booth.
  8. They both brought their portfolio in digital form on their iPads and none of the colleges seemed to have a problem with this. I even point blank asked several, including RISD and she said that the portfolio would be submitted digitally anyway, so bringing it in digital form is perfectly fine. Just be sure that any photos taken are the highest quality.
  9. Bring a clipboard and pen
  10. Bring a small backpack or bag for all of the brochures you’ll college

What is National Portfolio Day?

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