In an effort to stay within the budget of the struggling artist, I checked out the Free Library of Philadelphia, to see what information they had to offer. In spite of the importance of this first step in getting your work shown, there wasnít exactly an avalanche of information. In fact, I found only three resources that dealt with artistís portfolio in general, and only one with any specific information for those interested in the fine arts. Two of the books were written from a graphic arts/illustration/design perspective. This makes sense since most artists looking to make a living off of their art go into one of these more commercial oriented fields. To paraphrase Duchamp, youíve got to eat. However, one would hope that an artist would have the good sense to use the capital and resources made available to him or her through a corporate position to fund his or her own vision. After all, you didnít plod through two semesters of color theory to come up with the latest print ad for Chocolate Covered Sugar Bombs. Or maybe you did, who am I to judge?
While this website supports artists in all of their endeavors, our focus is more acutely trained on the world of fine arts. The resource that I found to be most helpful to fine artists looking to get their work shown is titled dryly enough, How to Prepare Your Portfolio, by Ed Marquand. True to the spirit of itís utilitarian title, the book is concise and well organized, with chapters covering every aspect from preparation to presentation. Valuable information can be found throughout the book, but the second chapter, titled "Six-Step Plan for a Professional Portfolio" really cuts to the heart of the matter and can serve as a handy framework for undertaking this Herculean task. I realize that if our own revered institution carried only one resource of value, those of you who live in smaller towns with even less access to information may be out of luck. As a service to those readers, here is a rough approximation of the authorís Six Step Plan.
1) What Kind of Artist Are You?
This may seem really obvious, but I think that Marquand was wise for including it. Assembling a portfolio is essentially an editing process, one that requires some amount of introspection if itís to have any substance. In these times of instant gratification, the lessons learned from a moment of self reflection are frequently taken for granted. One may be tempted to skip this first step in order to meet the application deadline for a grant or job. I donít recommend this. By the mere act of assembling a portfolio, one is theoretically entering into a new endeavor (or so we hope.) For this reason, it is the perfect time to take stock of what weíve accomplished, what we do well and what we donít do so well, and where we want to be.
The author suggests some exercises to help us to focus. These consist of first writing down the skills where we are strong and those where we are weak. He then suggests we use this list as a guide to inspect our work, going through and pulling out examples of each. Knowing to emphasize your strengths and downplay your weaknesses is obvious and not really the purpose of this exercise. The author suggests the possibility that there may be things that we may do very well but donít enjoy very much. There may be other things that we enjoy passionately, but we lack skill. Now is the time to ask why this is so and assess what we can do about it, before we become stuck in a rut.
2) What Do You Want Your Portfolio To Do?
Aside from protecting your work, the a portfolio should function primarily as a communication tool. Marquand gives sound advice on how to do this effectively. First, unless your asked to show something specific, or your interested in a specialized field, allow your portfolio to show a wide range of your abilities. . Your portfolio can communicate some very specific information about you, if itís properly prepared. The author gives some specific examples. Include a smattering of older works to illustrate your depth, but the bulk of your portfolio should be made up of fairly recent works to show that you are active in the field. By including a certain type of work, you are not only exhibiting your ability, but also a willingness to do that type of work in the future. Donít include examples of work that youíre not interested in doing. Art galleries are less concerned with speed and more concerned with the thoughtfulness of content. A portfolio that shows that you can "crank them out like crazy" may not be very effective when approaching a first class gallery. A production potter on the other hand, will want to demonstrate the speed and consistency with which he or she can produce. Tailor your portfolio to fit your own situation.
3) What to Include in Your Portfolio: Compiling and Selecting Art and Verbal Information.
Your portfolio should be appropriate to the type of job or assignment that you are pursuing. This is basic common sense. I quote the author, "Select work that is similar in content, media, or technique to the work you want to obtain." Appropriateness is important, but quality should be your primary criteria. Donít include poor quality work merely because it is appropriate. Redo it if there is time; leave it out if there is not. The second part of this step has to do with verbal, or written information that should accompany your work. This may consist of photo captions, assignment headings or a resume. But remember, verbal information should be brief, explaining things about you that your work does not. Your artwork should speak for itself.
4) Selecting a Physical Format.
Now we are getting to the more technical aspects of assembling a portfolio. This step includes some specific information about size and materials that Iím not going to delve into here, but the author does give out some handy advice that is widely applicable. There are several formats to choose from; binder, loose-artwork, storyboard, etc. Again, this step takes basic common sense in choosing the format that is appropriate to the type of position you are pursuing. If you are going to present your work in person, a small selection of loose works may be a very effective format around which you can craft a well thought out presentation. A binder provides great flexibility in an interview situation, but it can also be mailed out if is not possible to present your work personally. A storyboard is great for demonstrating the progression of a large scale work that can not be easily summed up by a single image. Remember, original artwork is always more impressive than photos or slides, so include some if at all possible. Students and recent graduate will be relieved to know that student work is fine to include in your portfolio, but over time should gradually be replaced by more recent works to demonstrate your development.
5) Organizing Your Portfolio Thematically and Graphically
Once youíve decided on which works to include and which format to present, itís time to organize it. Your work should be organized in some sort of logical thematic or graphic progression, and not thrown together willy-nilly. Your organization should minimize the interviewers transition from piece to piece. Those of you who have ever spent six or more hours compiling a mix tape for a friend should be familiar with this process. You may want to put your work in chronological order starting with the most recent work first, to make a good initial impression, (or if you donít think the interviewer is going to look through the entire thing!) You may want to organize it by media, putting all pen and ink drawings together, all oils together, etc. Or you can organize it by subject matter, landscapes then portraits etc. Once again this is another step in which your individual circumstances will determine how to organize your work most effectively.
6) Constructing Your Portfolio
This is really a nuts-and-bolts type of step. Without going into all of the boring details, Iíll just touch on the finer points of Marquandís advice. When photographing your work, use slide film and leave yourself enough time for processing and printing, (approximately two weeks.) While your film is being processed, start gathering the tools and materials you will need. Donít skimp on quality. There is a difference in quality materials, but donít let price be your sole determinant. Talk to the clerk at the art supply store. You can often find low-cost alternatives to the more expensive items, without sacrificing quality. Also buy a little more than you think youíll need, since itís better to be safe than sorry. Unless the art supply store is across the street from where you live, you donít want to be making any emergency runs when you are right in the middle of construction. Write out a page by page sketch of your portfolio and use it as a guide. Donít work out of your head, itís too easy to make a costly mistake. If you have little experience working with a certain material, experiment with scrap first. Practice each step until you feel comfortable before attempting it for real. The most important piece of advice is to have patience. Marquand says, "If you find yourself getting angry or frustrated because youíve made a mistake, leave everything as it is and walk away for a while, or go onto something easier. Graphics materials and artwork are fragile and donít usually survive bursts of temper. Your portfolio must be constructed slowly and meticulously."
Hopefully this information provides a decent set of guidelines to get you started on the path of employment or notoriety and fame, whatever your pleasure. But remember, a job should be a means to an end. Itís easy to get caught up in the craziness of the work world. It makes us feel good to receive praise for the work that we do, but defining our own self-worth on the opinions of our colleagues and employers is a slippery slope. It feels good when weíre in their good graces, but the bottom line is that the end goals of the organization are not necessarily the same as yours. While some compromise is inevitable, be aware of what youíre sacrificing. I began this article with a quote from the artist Marcell Duchamp because I thought it conveyed the necessity of work, without placing too much value in it. Iíll conclude with another gem from the same set of interviews to help put into perspective this whole mess of art, work, life etc.
"I like living, breathing better than working. I donít think that the work Iíve done can have any social importance whatsoever in the future. Therefore, if you wish, my art would be that of living: each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral. Itís sort of constant euphoria."
Now to find someone to fund such a project, maybe a per-breath commissionÖ