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Create an Outstanding Art Portfolio

Your art portfolio is what you make of it. A series of decisions on what to present--and how.
Your art portfolio is what you make of it. A series of decisions on what to present–and how.

Why Less Is More

The first and most important rule of a great art portfolio is to use as few images as possible to show the best work you can do. A common mistake beginners make is putting all of their work into their portfolio.

At the beginning, this might be because you only have enough completed work to make a small portfolio, but as your body of work grows, it’s important to make your portfolio concise. You need to get the message underlying your style as an artist across quickly.

A bloated portfolio that doesn’t communicate the strengths of your body of work immediately and effectively will result in missed opportunities with prospective collectors, curators and gallerists.

Another problem with larger portfolios is that any below-average work in your portfolio will lower the quality of the entire collection of work. People will judge your ability based on the worst work in your portfolio.

Having a single bad piece can turn your portfolio from an asset to a liability and cost you opportunities. This is why you should keep it simple; showing six to ten images of your very best work is a great place to start.

Your Work, Specialized

When people look at your portfolio, there is an expectation that you are showing them your latest body of work and that the themes and style you present are indicative of your oeuvre. Most successful artists have a niche, a particular style or area of expertise.

You might be able to produce everything from still lifes to portraits to landscapes, and it is great that you can work outside any one comfort zone. But it’s far better to be the best at one thing rather than average at everything.

Make a portfolio that showcases the kind of work you do best. Show why you’re work deserves pride of place in a buyer’s home or gallery rep’s wall.

Do Your Market Research

Now that you know the basics, it’s time to size up the work that is trending around you. Try to find other people who have a body of work similar to yours and take a look at the portfolios on their website.

Your goal should be to make your portfolio at least as good as the portfolios that you find. If you find a competitor with a great portfolio, bookmark it and compare it to yours later to see if you have achieved your goal.

Dos and Don’ts

  • Do use high-quality images. Always use high-quality and high-resolution photographs for your portfolio. If you use watermarks on your images, make sure they are not distracting. It’s easy for a watermark to completely ruin the visual impact of an image.
  • Don’t use huge files in your portfolio. While you need a very large file size for printing, if you use print resolution files for your portfolio, it will take longer to download and may not display correctly on some devices. (Hint: At the moment, the HD standard of 1920 × 1080 pixels is a great size for files that will be accessed digitally. Eventually, the 4k standard of 4096 × 2160 pixels will replace it.)
  • Do look at your portfolio on a wide variety of devices. You want your portfolio to look great on computers, tablets, and phones. Ask your friends to look on their devices and let you know if they have any problems viewing the work you send.
  • Do watch people looking at your portfolio. Which images do they spend the most time on? If your best work is at the end of your portfolio, try moving it to the front. If people are struggling to navigate your digital portfolio, change the formatting to make it easier to view.
  • Don’t have two images with the exact same subject. Although you don’t want an inconsistent and confusing portfolio, you also want to avoid duplicates. Try to avoid having any two images that are too similar to each other or feature the same subject.
  • Create several portfolios. Artists work in many different media and focus on more than one subject matter. That can result in several bodies of work. Create portfolios that are focused on each one so you can show them off to targeted audiences or interested buyers.

Make your portfolio viewable on multiple device types

Website Portfolios

Your website should be the first thing people find when they search for you online. The body of work you are showcasing should either be on the home page of your website or just one click away from the landing page.

Use meta tags on your portfolio page to describe the subject matter of your portfolio in general terms so that people searching for those things will have a chance of finding your portfolio in an image search — contemporary landscape painting or mixed media portraiture for example.

You can use a variety of gallery plugins for your website, but the key thing is to make it easy to use and intuitive for the viewer. Once you have your artworks on view on your site, watch people looking at them. If they struggle to navigate, use a different presentation or change the settings to make it more intuitive.

Cloud Portfolios

Use cloud services like Dropbox and Google Drive to send prospective buyers or galleries the body of work you are most interested in getting sold and or put on view.

By using a cloud service, you can quickly create a folder containing the images you want your prospective client to see and send it to them instantly without changing anything on your website or web portfolio page. (Hint: If you send someone a link to a folder with a cloud service you can correct mistakes or alter your portfolio even after you have sent it.)

PDF Portfolios

PDF portfolios are the happy middle between an online portfolio and a print portfolio. You can keep a PDF of your best work on your tablet or phone to show people when they ask you what kind of art you specialize in. This way you always have a professionally presented portfolio in your pocket.

It’s easy to make a PDF of your portfolio. You can use Adobe Acrobat or you can convert a web page, a Word document, or a Powerpoint to a PDF.

PDFs are also ready to print, and you can label the works with the pertinent information a buyer or gallerist would be interested in — size, materials, etc. If you have a great PDF portfolio that you have had success with showing clients in person, why not use it as the basis for a professionally printed portfolio?

Print Portfolios

Print portfolios help you stand out in the digital age

Originally, portfolios were selections of artworks that you would show a gallery owner or collector in person, but now people often have their work available to view only online. For artists, this is not as ideal as having a studio visit where the collector can see the work in person, but it’s definitely an alluring first step.

When online portfolios first became available, having an online portfolio made you stand out because it showed that you were different. Now that everyone has an online portfolio, you can stand out by having a professionally printed portfolio or catalog once again.

It costs more, but it gives you an opportunity to show someone your portfolio in person. While you can email a client a link to your online collection for free, showing someone your work professionally presented in a print portfolio can really set you apart.

Review Your Portfolio at Least Once a Year

If you are busy, you might not realize how long it has been since you last looked at your body of work in its entirety. When you first make your portfolio, put a reminder in your calendar for the next year to remind yourself to update your portfolio.

A great idea is to always update your portfolio in the first week of a new year or the week of your birthday. Updating your portfolio is a chance to assess your progress and see how much you have improved.

Outstanding Art Comes First

A great portfolio is only a reflection of the great work it contains. The Creative Art Class: Mark-Making & Drawing video download teaches you how to loosen up and add energy and expressiveness to your artwork. The result will be a body of work with your own exciting style that has a through-line that will connect your individual pieces into a cohesive whole. Enjoy!


This article was excerpted from the 2017 Artist’s and Graphic Designer’s Market. Original article written by Luke McLaughlin.

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