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THE COMPLETE GUIDE to Organizing Your Portfolio

Quick, expert advice on presenting your work to Memphis College of Art


So you’re interested in applying to art college. We know you’re busy, and you probably don’t want to devote any of your precious free time to another “how to” book. But we also know you want to maximize your chances of getting into a top-tier art college — and we can help you with that.

In this guide, you’ll learn: • Tips on drawing from life and portfolio presentation • How to reproduce and submit your work digitally • What should and shouldn’t be included in your portfolio • Where to look for additional help, as well as other important issues to consider

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THE BULK OF YOUR PORTFOLIO SHOULD BE DRAWN FROM LIFE. What is the essential component that admissions committees are looking for? Drawings from direct observation. Drawing from your personal experiences will make you and your art unique from other applicants. Translating three-dimensional objects to a two-dimensional surface shows that you can visualize a complex composition and assess values. When you draw from a photograph, the camera has already done this for you — that’s why we encourage drawing still lifes, portraits, landscapes or cityscapes from real life. Consider some of the following tips when building your portfolio.

Composition is important. Try to avoid the typical composition of an object floating in the middle of the paper. Take your image off of the picture plane.

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Consider your background.

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It’s as important as the imagery in your drawings.

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Don’t underestimate the importance of line quality. Line quality is boldness and delicateness of the line — and just like value contrast, it’s how you show form and space.

show a full range of values in your drawings.

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Make your shaded areas very dark and your lighted areas very light.

Keep a sketchbook with you at all times. You never know when inspiration will strike. Schools like to see these as part of your portfolio too.

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consider variety. Varied subject matter shows that you aren’t afraid to experiment with new ideas, techniques and materials. Choosing color work to go along with your black and whites, for example, will significantly strengthen your portfolio. Mixing large and small pieces and varying your methods or style further emphasizes that you aren’t locked into just one way of working. If you’re considering a concentration in graphic design, sculpture, photography or another specific discipline, you may also submit a few pieces related to those areas. Three-dimensional work may be submitted as a photograph.

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We do not recommend Showing any of the following: . fantasy imagery (including

superheroes, unicorns and your interpretation of Miss October)

. anime cartoons . pictures from magazines . celebrity caricatures . any other overused imagery, even if it’s original

WHAT SHOULD I INCLUDE? Recent work is usually your best work. Do not include pieces from elementary and middle school. At MCA, we ask to see ten to twenty examples of your artwork. But remember — quality over quantity! Just because you’ve got it doesn’t mean you should show it. Art teachers or portfolio review events are great resources for helping you choose the best pieces to include.

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HOW DO I MAKE MY WORK PRESENTATION-READY? • Keep pieces stored in a safe, clean place — not under your bed or in the attic collecting dust. • Purchase a portfolio case at your local art store, or construct your own by neatly taping two pieces of cardboard together.

• Avoid mounts, mats and frames for your work. They’ll just detract from your drawings. • Consider covering your original pieces with acetate and/or shrinkwrap. This keeps your work clean and prevents it from damage. • Make sure your name is written clearly on all of your pieces, on the back, the front and on the outside of your portfolio.

WHAT ABOUT SLIDES OR SUBMITTING WORK DIGITALLY? Never give away or sell your work without documenting it first with a photograph, or, when possible, with a scanner. Digital photography is very inexpensive, so take lots of pictures until you get it right. When photographing three-dimensional work, you should not include more than two views of the same piece. Slides are acceptable. However, most students photograph their work digitally due to the expense of slides. You can submit your jpeg images on disc, by email, or via your website. If you’re planning to mail your portfolio, it’s important to package it in a sturdy box. Your local U-Haul or Mayflower moving company has mirror boxes perfect for mailing portfolios. Portfolios can be emailed to Be sure to include your name in the subject line. Note that files must be under 10 MB. You’ll receive a confirmation email when your portfolio is received.

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Explore other artists’ work in publications such as Art Forum, Art News, Art In America, Communication Arts and others. Take notes and jot down your ideas in your sketchbook. The most important thing is to never stop making art. It’s what makes the world a beautiful place to be.

WHERE CAN I FIND ADDITIONAL HELP? One great way to get more help with your portfolio is to join us for one of our many National Portfolio Days. At NPDs, admissions representatives and faculty will talk to you about your work and their school’s programs. At Memphis College of Art, your portfolio can be approved as part of your application at these events — let your reviewer know that you plan to apply to MCA. Find a list of NPDs across the country at (Don’t forget: You’re responsible for providing your own laptop and electricity source if you want to show your work electronically.)

have your portfolio reviewed by MCA representatives at one of our Weekend Workshops. Weekend Workshops offer teachers, parents and students of all ages the chance to visit MCA for a day, during which time you can: . Work directly with faculty in our state-of-the-art studios . Talk with instructors about your own artwork . Learn about portfolio preparation and careers in art . Meet our students and tour the facilities and our beautiful grounds in historic Overton Park

schedule an individual appointment online at or by calling 901.272.5151 or 800.727.1088. { w w w. m c a . e d u }


Memphis College of Art is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to award baccalaureate and masters degrees. Contact the Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, GA 30033-4097 or call 404-679-4500 for questions about the accreditation of Memphis College of Art. Memphis College of Art is an accredited institutional member of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). The Art Education and Teachers Education Programs of Memphis College of Art have been approved by the Tennessee Board of Education.


Located in 342-acre, densely wooded Overton Park, Memphis College of Art neighbors the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Memphis Zoo.


Memphis College of Art has student housing available for a large percentage of our student body. Student residences are conveniently located within walking distance, directly across from Overton Park.

Student Life

Student activities and programs include the Annual Fall Canoe Trip, Pumpkin Carving Contest, Annual Talentless Show, Student Alliance/ Student Government and much more.

Campus Facilities

All student residences offer high-speed internet service, local phone and cable access and shuttle service. Students can enjoy home-cooked meals in MCA’s own Sleaze and Slime Cafe, and the on-campus Art Center keeps students stocked with supplies. The wood/metals shop provides the tools and instruction to build/make almost anything.


To apply visit or call 800-727-1088. Financial aid and scholarships are available. March 31 is the scholarship priority deadline.

apply online at

degree programs

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with concentrations in:

Digital Media Graphic Design


with concentrations in:

Drawing /Painting Metals Photography Printmaking Sculpture

Areas of study include: Liberal Studies Foundations Animation Comics Digital Media Drawing /Painting Graphic Design Illustration Metals Photography Printmaking Sculpture

Be part of an art college with an integrated curriculum that teaches the necessary skills and provides experiential learning to prepare students to transition to the working world.


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The Complete Guide to Organizing Your Portfolio  
The Complete Guide to Organizing Your Portfolio