A Message for Students Submitting Art Portfolios

Hello fellow art student!

If you are in the process of submitting, or have submitted a portfolio for an art program, and are eagerly awaiting the faculty’s response, I’ve written this series of blog posts for you.  It is no small endeavor to squeeze your creativity into specific shapes on a page, especially shapes that could be easily read and compared by the teachers marking them, so you should feel honoured with yourself for even having attempted the process.  This is also probably the first time in your artistic journey that you will be compared so critically among such a large set of other students, another milestone to pat yourself on the back for. When I applied to Sheridan’s Animation program for the first time I was foolish and overconfident, because I had no idea what I was up against.  I also had no sense of appreciating how the process of learning actually happens; don’t be me.

When I was in high school, I was one of if not the top students of the art classes.  I got art awards, all of my friends and even acquaintances knew me as the one who draws.  I felt like I would get in with little effort. I did very little research into what other successful and unsuccessful portfolios looked like, and I didn’t even realize that when they asked for a “character design” they were looking for a “cartoon”.  I pretty much drew a remodeled version of Predator, and hoped it would pass. How wrong I was.

Sheridan is immensely competitive, and even when I squeaked by the second year I applied, I felt like Indiana Jones just making it out of the temple alive.  And this was after an entire year of Art Fundamentals, which serves as a nice introduction to college art. This program allowed me to meet the friends that I’d continue to room with for the next four years, so it turned out to be very fruitful.  When you’re in high school, you’re only really thinking about the artwork involved in getting in, but there is a lot more to the post-secondary experience then simply the work. Fundies allowed me to meet some of the students currently in animation and illustration.  I could see some of the best art from each of these programs posted up to the boards in hallways by the teachers. It was helpful, and humbling, and terrifying, to know where I stood in the artistic ladder (spoiler: not very high).

As I’ve mentioned already, I just got in the second time I applied.  I got thee passing grade of that year, 2.97.  I remember it exactly as it was burned into my mind, but all it said to me was: “Your art is the minimum amount of good to get into this program”, and on a secondary level: “You’re really going to have to work to catch up”.  I almost considered not going in and taking more Art Fundamentals courses, but my parents encouraged me to just begin Animation anyway.

What I learned from the process of getting acclimatized to animation over the next 4 years continued to be humbling.  Instead of walking through the halls to see the incredible artwork posted up, all I had to do was look around the room.  Each of the students who were in animation were all the top of their classes in high school art. Some even got in straight from high school, cough cough, Dean, cough.  Overall, it was an encouraging and exciting time, with a side dose of intimidating simmering in the background.

The funny thing about life thresholds, such as the threshold of getting into your program of choice, is that once you’re on the other side of it, all of the work and struggle it took to break through the threshold gradually lifts.  As time goes on, you never think about it again, unless you write a blog post when you’re 29 hoping to encourage students to pursue their dreams. The same is true with other thresholds, such as getting your driver’s license, or going on your first solo trip to another continent.  There’s so much mental and emotional preparation, but then when you’re on the other side, and you’ve landed on safe, stable ground, you feel a little different, but you forget about that previous version of yourself just like a snake sheds its previous skin.

If you haven’t shed your previous skin yet, and would do anything to get rid of it, it’s worth it to remember that the best you can do is your best.  Despite this, many of the students I train with don’t know what their own 100% mark looks like. Some hand in their portfolios at the 80 or 90% mark, and they should have put a little more work in.  Some hand it in at the 120% mark, which can be just as damaging where that extra 20% means a lot of things: overwork, over-analysis, fussing about. I now think of it as a teaser trailer for industry burnout (which can be common once you graduate, watch out for it), and ultimately a bad habit to cultivate.  The worst that overwork can do to you is mental, as it can make you disenchanted about the process of making art. Read that again: disenchanted about the process of making art. Remember that art you used to love making? No? Well that’s disenchantment for you.

To me that sounds like the worst thing possible, because like many others, I got into art because I loved it.  To have your love twisted into something unrecognizable is to do a great injustice to your muses that inspired you in the beginning.  Sometimes I find it helpful to think of art as serving something outside of yourself, it’s like you’re contributing to a grand eternal community of people who make these different pictures to serve different ends.  On a deeper level it’s to believe that we are all creative, and that we are all more than the sum of our parts. Put differently, what we can make is beyond what can be quantified and analyzed. Important images are beyond the grasp of analysis, as they exist on a “felt” dimension; despite this many have and will continue to try to pry them apart by analysis.  This is why many who don’t nurture their creativity look at a professional painter’s work and describe it as magic.

As young artists, you need to take every precaution you can to maintain whatever good feelings you have about making art.  When you’ve passed through several thresholds and are making art professionally, you might find yourself having to defend those good feelings about the art you make to clients who couldn’t notice the difference between “cared-for art” versus “uncared-for art”.  However bleak that might seem, it is a blessing in disguise. What it means is that you need to develop fortitude and solidarity within your own practice, and not let your sense of purpose or value be determined by others.

Before getting too deep into these “best practices” I wanted to switch gears, and talk about craft.  There’s craft and there’s creativity and feeling, and before I get too deep into the latter, I think it’s worth having a fireside chat about the value of developing your craft with OR without a College BA behind your back.  One of the greatest things about art is that the proof is only in the pudding, not in the nutritional label on the pudding.  So without further ado, let’s discuss the pudding.