Avoid These Mistakes to Build an Effective Art Portfolio

by Carolyn Edlund

In a recent conversation with my friend Ashwin Muthiah, we broached the subject of artists, portfolios and presentation.


Carolyn Edlund, founder of Artsy Shark, and Ashwin Muthiah of Easely

Carolyn Edlund, founder of Artsy Shark, and Ashwin Muthiah of Easely


Carolyn: I think every artist can name others they know who have elevated their businesses and have gained sales of their work, commissions, or exhibitions. Often, they are artists who are well-known, and who gain a lot of attention because of their body of work.

Ashwin: When I think of some of the artists that I personally admire, I can visualize their artwork. They have a very strong and individual style that identifies them.

Carolyn: Having a distinctive, memorable portfolio is so important. It’s not hard to identify a mature body of work built by an artist who has spent significant time going in their desired direction. What ties your work together? Technique, size, subject matter, or the palette of colors you’ve chosen to use are some of the elements that present well.

Ashwin: I love to see something fresh and unique in a portfolio, with a very distinctive look – not work that is derivative, or trendy. Artists who have portfolios that include disparate, varied work in different styles are just confusing. It makes me wonder, “What is it that you really do? Are you still trying to decide?”


Hows Your Portfolio


Carolyn:  It’s certainly not unusual to see artists who work in several mediums. When elements of a signature style transcend mediums, it can all come together nicely. When the artist works in very different styles and mediums, though, it can easily detract from their presentation. That’s a problem.

Ashwin:  That’s true, and my suggestion for artists with several very different bodies of work is that they may want to consider having separate websites to display them. There may be very different audiences for their different styles, and the artist will have to present their work appropriately, and share a message that resonates with each audience.

Carolyn: Another dilemma I’ve seen artists deal with is what to include in their portfolio. What should they keep, and what should they remove? One rule of thumb is to only show your best work. Your presentation should be cohesive, and every work of art in the portfolio should belong together. Take a hard look at each piece of art that you now have in your portfolio. Is there anything that isn’t quite as successful as the others? Take it out. Because, ultimately you will be judged on the weakest piece.

Ashwin: Another issue I’ve run across is that sometimes artists will include very old work that isn’t even in their current style. If you are showing old artwork to pad your portfolio, take it out and replace it with newer art. You don’t have to include your college work. You don’t have to include work that you created years ago, especially if it doesn’t do anything to enhance your current body of work. And, most importantly, keep your portfolio current with your latest art. You never know when you might have a great opportunity and need to show your best work at a moment’s notice.

Carolyn: Sometimes I get the question, “How large should my portfolio be?” This type of question often comes from artists who have only a small collection of really good art, especially after they have weeded out the mediocre pieces that didn’t belong. And if they work slowly, this can be a concern.

Ashwin: Here’s a suggestion for artists with small portfolios: even if you have only a few really quality pieces in your portfolio, you can still enter exhibitions, at both brick and mortar galleries and online. Upload images of your best work, and if accepted, you can get some exposure even though you don’t have a really big portfolio yet.

Carolyn: If you want to present your work on your artist website or a third-party site, though, you need to have a critical mass, a robust enough collection to show. Enough work to give a good impression and a sense of your signature style.

Ashwin:  Yes, it’s best to be ready with a broad selection of work, and one that is photographed beautifully. Blurry photos, or ones that are over or under-exposed, or have glare can really hurt your presentation.

Carolyn: That’s a great point, Ashwin. Every artist works hard at what they do. Your artwork deserves to be shown to its best advantage. What is the point of all that studio time if you aren’t sharing crisp, clear images of your work that wow your audience?


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  1. Hmmmm…. I am constantly trying to get people to have their work in one central place, under one name. A home page can be effectively used as a portal for different interests and might bring new business to the other areas. For example, if an artist is also a violin player and a massage therapist, the home page can show the three areas and you go into the one you want to explore. If you know the music, you might end up being interested in purchasing the art or getting your back fixed…

    With old work, it’s nice to see how someone has evolved and that can be archived. I wholeheartedly agree that the new work should be up front and center. I see so many websites where nothing has been done in five years or more and it raises the question about whether that artist is still working. Most likely, they hired someone to do their site and don’t have the skills to update it, but it should be a priority to update it…

    • Rachel, I must disagree with you on putting together different pursuits in one website. If you are an artist and a therapist and sell real estate, do you really want that all glued together on one Home page, even under a drop down list? To me, this screams “amateur” – and one thing I know is that people want to buy from experts. They want to buy from someone who is really really good at what they do, not a jack of all trades and master of none.

      I’ve frequently worked with artists who had a “day job” and an art business and I always recommend that these remain separate. If you are promoting yourself as an artist, be an artist. If you are promoting yourself as a therapist, be a therapist. IMHO, mixed messages on your website can prove to be more confusing to visitors than appealing.

  2. I think it really depends on the look… and whether they can be brought together as something that makes sense. If the set up for one is very commercial (like a typical real estate site) it would jar with an art portfolio. But if the real estate was about nature cabins and presented in an earthy way and the art was also about nature, it could look good together. A dentist who also makes art about teeth would have an immediate audience… 🙂

  3. Thank you for this article. One thing I am curious about is how important is it to have an artist statement and other information. Other than your best art, what else should be included?

  4. Thank you for this article.

  5. I am updating my site.

  6. Greeting Carolyn & Ashwin!

    I am curious to know when you say an artist is “well known” — what is the criteria for it? What determines it? For example: Do they have to be in the Wikipedia or their work is recognized by major Art Consultants and Art Critics? Being Googlable? Being featured on the Artsy Shark (wink) Or is there something else? Does being “well-known” also encompass “financial success”?

    I would love to visualize the steps (in a Pyramid form) towards reaching or attaining that “well-known” status. Like a GPS to that final destination.

    • Hi Roopa – thanks for that question, and I hope that you reach that final destination you have in mind! The term “well-known” can be slippery, like asking “What is success?” because it is relative. But as an example, I think of artists I know of in certain mediums who are influential, and known for their particular and recognizable style and approach. In the context of the paragraph following it in the article, it refers to having a memorable and notable signature style.

      As far as reaching your own goals, think of some artists whom you respect whose names you would like mentioned alongside your own. Look to see what they have done in their own careers, and their portfolio presentation. Although I don’t believe that Wikipedia, any particular critic or even financial success is a necessary ingredient, I think that becoming memorable and well-known does involve having a portfolio that resonates with people and that they have a concept of. On the other hand, artists who have disorganized or directionless portfolios have a problem – they need to find a direction that inspires them and present their work in a more cohesive form.

  7. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question Carolyn! It makes a perfect sense. You have affirmed what I have felt in my gut all along for years. As for defining SUCCESS — I think it is simple logic (at least to me). It is looking forward to creating art (the drive, focus & devotion) and finding the time, space (sacred studio) and the means of doing so (food in the belly, roof over the head, good health and ample art supplies). How so? Because it results in building a strong portfolio (recognizable style – cohesive body of work) which directly results in gaining increasing recognition and hence resulting in “the well known” status. I believe I have found the visual pyramid I have been searching for!

  8. Inspiring reading! I am an emerging artist focusing on realism in my style. I am focussing on floral art at the moment but see a pathway towards other genres in the future

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