Put Your Best Portfolio Forward

by Carolyn Edlund

You’ve created a body of work. Now get organized and present your art portfolio professionally for maximum impact.


Colorfully painted face


Is your portfolio good enough to compete successfully in the marketplace? Competitive is a relative term. The most successful artists are not necessarily the most talented. Some artists with work that might be considered “average” have been able to gain incredible exposure and make many sales because they were relentless with marketing and promotion, and because they understood the importance of great presentation.

Meanwhile, many incredibly talented artists are not as successful as they would like to be. Their presentation may be lacking, or they don’t put in the time and effort necessary to gain traction. Knowing how to promote and market your art is critical to success. That includes putting your best portfolio out there and backing it up with information and compelling brand stories that help it resonate with your audience. Becoming a successful artist who sells is 50% talent, but is also 50% sweat.

Get Feedback

Putting together your best portfolio involves taking an honest look at your entire body of work, then selecting specific pieces through a process of feedback and self-curation. Since it can be difficult to look at your own work objectively, seek out others you respect to help you evaluate what to set aside, and what to present.

Feedback from family and friends is not always the most helpful. They are usually biased and don’t consider the big picture. As one artist said, “I need a real critique that points out where I need to improve. I don’t get that now.”

Seek out critiques, feedback and insight from people you trust who are knowledgeable about art and have credentials to help you. These might include:

  • Instructors with whom you have worked and whose opinions you value
  • Artist associations that offer critiques as part of their services
  • Local art groups and salons which meet regularly, and where you can speak with other experienced artists
  • Mentors and coaches
  • Online forums and critique groups, such as Wet Canvas or Pencil Kings
  • Social media discussion groups that exist for the purpose of serving serious artists

Keep in mind that every piece of feedback you get is someone’s opinion, and should be viewed as such. A properly given critique will acknowledge the strong points of your work as well as identifying weaknesses. A critique may include questions in an attempt to understand the art better. And it might include recommendations for specific changes or improvements.

Take what you feel is most valuable from the feedback you receive, and let go of the rest. A critique can be a great exercise to help you learn. It may reinforce your opinions or provide new information. But it’s not the final word on the value or quality of your art, or you as the artist.

Structure Your Portfolio

Once you’ve compiled your body of work, sought advice and input from others, go through the process of self-curation.  Your portfolio can be assembled in different ways for different purposes. For example you may separate your portfolio into collections by subject matter to place on your website. You might select certain pieces to be featured in a press kit. A grouping of related work might be chosen to submit as consideration for an exhibition, or for jurying into art festivals.

The images in your overall portfolio should have a sense of continuity running through them. Backgrounds should be compatible so that the group as a whole is as seamless as possible. Image size should also be similar throughout the portfolio presentation.

How to Use a Portfolio Presentation

Your portfolio might be submitted to a jury for a competition, used in a grant or residency application or shown to a collector considering a purchase. It may be employed as a visual aid to accompany an artist talk that you are giving. You could present your portfolio to a gallery for consideration or use it to get into art school.

Portfolio shots have clear marketing purposes, too. You may provide these photos for an article in a print publication. Or you might be planning an advertising campaign that needs spectacular images that really pop.

There are many reasons to have an excellent portfolio and supporting information ready to go. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to pull everything together and make regular presentations that look totally professional.

When you have a robust amount of material ready that represents your portfolio well, you will be more flexible and able to take advantage of opportunities. One artist who was interviewed for an article in a popular magazine was offered the cover if she could produce a high-res image suitable for print purposes. She didn’t have anything available at the time and lost that chance. Make sure that if given a similar opportunity, you have images ready to go.

Since you never know what may come up, building an outstanding library of images and collateral will let you grab opportunities when they happen. And it may also give you the confidence you need to seek them out!


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  1. Could you supply examples of what a good portfolio looks like?

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