Portfolio Day Tips!

risd portfolio day nyc

For the past 5 years I’ve been reviewing portfolios for RISD in Boston and now New York City every fall during National Portfolio Days, giving students tips, and digging a bit deep into who, what, and why they are. Every year thousands of students throughout the world wait in mile long lines in the frigid air seeking reviews and tips from schools in all corners. RISD tends to get several tables being one of the largest schools in the nation and many individuals wait for hours just to get a few minutes with us. I went through this experience throughout high school, so I know how disgruntling it can be.

I try to talk to each individual as much as possible, but with hundreds waiting in line it’s tough to dive deep into students personal passions, directions, and experiences without going straight to the basic tips. Many don’t get to see us, hence I thought I’d post some basic points from my experience in what design/art schools seek for incoming students. The tips after the jump!

risd portfolio day nyc

Lines wrapped around 3+ corners of the block! Lots of students flew in internationally for the nyc risd review. Personally I reviewed 5 from Korea, a few from europe, and several from out of state.

The tips:
01. Don’t draw using pictures: You don’t learn much this way. Draw not only what you see, but with emotion, what you feel and sense. Observation is key in any discipline and drawing from life is a basic means in learning this. I consider observation as key to adaptation. You can use pictures later down the road for reasons, but when learning, stay away. Also, most people can call out if drawings were made via observations or pictures when you submit.

02. Mix it up: Use different mediums; a pen, marker, crayon, paint, water, charcoal, paper, wood, plastic, newspaper, a book, metal, clay, etc. Draw something in 15 minutes, 1 minute, 1 hour, 10 seconds, use your left hand, use your right, listen to different music, draw inside, outside, and explore what is possible. One technique that I mastered was using sandpaper. Take a piece of white paper, throw ink on it and let it dry. Then use different sand paper grades to draw, or subtract. It’ll teach ya to be patient and gives you this really nice blurry fuzzy vibe. You can also do this using an eraser. Explore, have fun, be adventuresome.

03. Carry a sketchbook around: A must do! No complaints, just do it! Trust me, sometimes those 5 minutes doodle turn out better than those classroom projects that took 2 weeks. This doesn’t mean buy those crazy expensive art sketchbooks out there. Use a plain notebook, some paper and a binder clip, a old book, a calendar, a roll of receipts, etc.

04. Do work outside of class: Schools receive thousands of portfolios, and classroom projects tend to be repetitive. If your piece is a bit more unique, it shows dedication and commitment to learn. It’ll also prep you for the insomnia bootcamp that art schools take ya through.

05. Life Drawings: If you get the chance to do nude figure drawings great, but if not, grab your parents, a friend, yourself, or someone sleeping on the sofa, and draw them. Draw your hands, your feet, a self-portrait, or even people moving in the park. Try drawing from memory.

06. Nature Drawings: Draw some leaves, rocks, trees, environments, get that perspective down. Get a microscope and draw what you see down deep. Try to draw what you can’t see, wind, air, sound, scent, etc. How do you see all theses non-tangible elements in the world, how can you communicate what you experience through theses mediums.

07. Still Life’s: Grab a bunch of random objects, through them in the corner, and draw! This might seem odd, but once you do this, you’ll find yourself creating a narrative between the objects visually. Certain objects will become more important, some will fade into the background, and things interact with each other in fun odd ways.

08. Diversify: Drawings, paintings, sculptures, electronics, poetry, music, jewelry, brochures, photography, ceramics, clothing, etc. Give it a try, cause otherwise you wont know. I’ve seen several students thinking they know they want to do this or that coming into RISD, but the truth is, for all schools that you should be open to other opportunities, cause a majority of disciplines you never get to experience or even know about until your in college. Hence the point in being “adaptable” again.

09. Be yourself: Don’t necessarily submit work that you think will make schools like you. Submit who you are. Represent yourself over what you think we want you to be. Schools bring in people that fit. If you submit yourself as something you are not, you just might not like your experience later on.

10. Composition: We like to see thinking, process, visual thinking….show tons of thumbnails, composition studies, storyboard possibilities…all the stuff you tossed. Going to art school is not only acquiring a skill, but becoming an adaptive thinker.. so show us how you think through images, a story, a composition, a visual narrative.

I’ve had several students come with parents concerned about “art schools” starving artist mentality. I’ve been to both RISD and a University(GSD) and the main difference that I always see is that in “art/design” schools, the structure is to discover and realllly understand yourself. You might not come out as prepared for the real world, but that’s why most grads start their own business. In other colleges, they prep you for what the real world wants/needs, and maybe not what yourself wants. I’m not saying this is true of all schools, but in art school there is a reason you stick out amongst your university friends. Art schools structure you to self structure yourself, hence you have to do everything yourself. And if you think art school is fun, it is, but be prepared for the bootcamp that it is…rarely sleeping or partying as much as your university friends for the good 😉

risd portfolio day nyc

RISD has individuals across many disciplines give student crits, but generally each person spends 10-20+ minutes with each person going through work and advice when applying.

risd portfolio day nyc

Lots of students rarely get to fully understand the full RISD experience before applying. For many sophomores and Jr’s, we highly recommend taking the RISD summer pre-college course which last 6 weeks. It’s fun, intense, and a great insight to whats to come in the RISD experience.

risd nyc portfolio reviews

I started giving students on the spot tests. I’d have them draw for me. I’d take a drawing they drew in 5 hours and ask them to redraw it for me in 10- 20 seconds. What did this do: It let me see their thinking process, it allowed me to see how they simplified drawings, it allowed them to see how fast drawings are almost more exciting than long drawings, it let them see how quick thumbnails help setup for longer drawings, it made them think, and it made them smile. You can tell a great deal from watching a person draw. Perhaps I’ll have them draw me next time. I also asked them to draw the same drawing, but asked them to make it as if classical music was playing in the scene. I’d ask, how do you draw sound when you can’t see it…I want to visually feel it. Yes, its a (simple)challenge, but thats what RISD is about.

13 Responses to “Portfolio Day Tips!”

  1. ammre Says:

    9 years of art classes, and now I sit around all day making all text forms in indesign, while sneaking glances at your posts.

    I miss school.

  2. tango! Says:

    yes, school rocked, because we had no reason to create, we just created! I wished the real world was a bit more like this…where creativity king over money…it’s slowly evloving to this…but for now, it’s making money, missing school, and ranting out my little finds and thoughts on a blog for fun, being creative, and sharing the love 😉 (while not making any money for it)

  3. Sarah Says:

    I’m a senior in high school and I just like to say thanks so much of the words of wisdom! Sadly I missed the Portfolio Day in our area this year but it great to know what people are looking for next year’s.

  4. tango! Says:

    glad to hear this post made it to some high school students cause it doesnt do much good for peeps already out of school. 😉

    Please pass it around to ALL your art friends around school or your teachers to pass around for years to come!

    Best of luck…send some comments if you have any q’s about your own work.

  5. BenGreen Says:

    Posts like this make me realize (again) how little direction I had coming out of high school and how much I would’ve loved going to a school like RISD. I’m one of those unfortunate souls that is interested in pretty much everything though, so after RISD I’d still have an unquenched yearning for all the stuff I ended up studying. If only I could just go back to school again and again and again.

  6. tango! Says:


    heya, RISD+other schools have Continuing Education programs wherever you might be located.
    Interested in everything…ahh, as you can see from my blog, I am the same…
    Just keep at it, perhaps start your own blog about what keeps you inspired, what yoru intersted in, etc…and someone will contact you about what you like… Blogs are free. just need a computer w/net access and some time to documents all yoru finds. 😉 do it!

  7. Dougie FRESH Says:

    GREAT post Tango. This really sums up most of the things we end up saying (about 40 times in a day) as the hopeful souls file through.

    Every time I help out at portfolio review day it brings me back to the good old days of RISD – so much excitement, so much fresh energy! It’s important to keep that going throughout life – keep mixing it up, stay inspired and curious and always keep searching for designverbs!

  8. Riley Says:

    “Don’t draw using pictures” as in dont draw from like photographs taken? Im a bit confused. Meaning they want things that are drawn based on real stuff instead of photographs taken of them? Im not from united states (living somewhere else) and i’m wondering how i should submit a portfolio. Do i mail it to them or go over to them or just take photographs of the works and submit online?

  9. tango! Says:

    riley, if you draw looking at a photo, your are simply copying what you see. If you draw from real life, you are learning to draw instead of copy.

    As for submission, I’d go to a specific school website to see how they prefer you to submit your portfolio.

  10. DesignVerb! – Boston: Portfolio Day 2010 Says:

    […] reviewing portfolios for RISD again so look out for me! If you cant make it, be sure to read my 10 tips from previous years here. Generally each person gets about 10-15 minutes dependant on the crowd, but RISD generates a huge […]

  11. Candace Says:


    I’m a volunteer mom at a Bay Area HIgh School. We’d like to promote the Portfolio Day coming to San Francisco next year. Is it possible for us to use one of the photos from this web site to illustrate the post? If so, will you link me?

    Also, I’m trying to help put together a work shop to educate our high school art students about how they can go about compiling an electronic portfolio. Any thoughts on how those are viewed by art schools?

    Thanks for you help!

  12. _tango! Says:

    Sure, use any of my images.
    electronic portfolios are a bit newer to me…if just a simple gallery, they can you any basic blog, tumblr, or the hundreds of free web templates out there.
    As for work, i’d stray away from digital work…most school look for essential skills first…..hand drawing, observation, then imagination….

  13. Chelsea Says:

    I’m a student preparing for RISD. Thanks for all the tips you’ve written, it’s a great help! I’ve been working on my portfolios lately but I’m not quite sure I’m going on a right track with my works and I don’t anyone near me who works in art field. also since I don’t live US, I might not be able to go to portfolios reviews coming up. I’m working based on your tips (drawing from what I see, etc) but I thought it might be nice if I had someone who could give me tips from time to time or tell me if I’m going the wrong way!

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