Application to art school: the portfolio process

“What do my hands say” self-portrait – photo by Obaida Elamin ’20

Summer has fallen to autumn, and with it comes the season of college applications. For Sixth Formers, these months might be the most stressful of the year, with college essays to complete, teacher recommendations to request, and first-quarter grades to maintain. Few would call it an appealing way to start one’s last year of school.

     For Sixth Former Noah Rubien, who is one of the students this year applying to art school, his application is something significantly more intriguing and creative. Unlike other colleges, art schools require a portfolio of ten to twenty pieces of the student’s artwork in addition to other application necessities.

     “[E]veryone else is writing their supplementary essays and caring about their grades and GPA and standardized testing,” Rubien said. “A lot of that’s secondary to me, because the main focus is my portfolio.”

     “Colleges look at your portfolio first, and then they’ll see all that other stuff. If your portfolio doesn’t cut it, then all the other stuff doesn’t really matter,” Rubien said.

     Unlike other Sixth Formers, Rubien doesn’t have to worry about supplemental essays, because most art schools, like the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), don’t require them. Instead, most of Rubien’s focus has been on his art portfolio, which requires a lot of effort to impress admissions.

“Giddy Up” – courtesy of Noah Rubien ’20

     “[A] lot of time has to go into making the pieces,” Rubien said. “If you want to go to art school, you have to know a little bit in advance before you decide to apply… because you have to get this whole portfolio ready.”

     Art Department Chair Mr. Christopher Fox agrees with the importance of beginning work on the portfolio early.

     He said, “Very often my advice is: ‘If you think art school’s even an option, you need to get started on that application right away.”

     Mr. Fox said, “At the last minute, you can push the submit button and send your grades and SAT scores to any liberal arts college, but at the last minute, you can’t decide, ‘Ooh, I’m going to whip together 20 of my best artworks for a portfolio.’”

Figure drawing – courtesy of Noah Rubien ’20

     The portfolio takes “about two years at Haverford,” according to Mr. Fox.

     “[T]hat’s when [us art teachers] start thinking about at the junior and senior level classes—we all designed class projects that we know as teachers are going to demonstrate the certain skills that should you be applying to an art school…” Mr. Fox said. “So, that’s why we call the top level class ‘portfolio,’ meaning you’ve actually got a body of work that is impressive, shows off skills, [and] shows off your own concepts.”

     Most art schools don’t have requirements for the pieces in an applicant’s portfolio, just general guidelines.

     “They want to see your technical skill, and they also want to see your creative skill and your problem-solving skills,” Rubien said.

courtesy of Noah Rubien ’20

     Some of the things that Rubien is preparing for his portfolio include a self-portrait made from “different materials like cardboard and paint, and squares of charcoal,” as well as an animation of one of his drawings. Rubien often has to work outside of the Haverford art curriculum, because “[the schools] don’t want to see just technical pieces you do in class; you got to do stuff outside of school so they can see your interests and what materials you like to use, what kind of subject matter you like to use, what’s going on in your head—that kind of stuff,” Rubien said.

     If one’s portfolio is good enough, Rubien says, one can be directly accepted by a school, similar to athletic recruiting.

     “[If] you have a really good portfolio early on and you go to one of those portfolio reviews…[the schools will] just accept you and be like, ‘As long as you have these scores, just submit your portfolio and you’re in,’” Rubien said.

     Some schools also have specific art prompts that applicants will also have to complete; for example, RISD offers a different problem every year.

     “For a while it was a bicycle,” Rubien said. “You just had to draw a bike. I’m sure after years they got every single iteration of a bike they possibly could see.

     “[T]his year, they really upped the ante, because they were like, ‘Pick a natural phenomenon or object and create a visual reaction to it and then create an alteration to the visual reaction at any scale possible.’ It’s absurd. It’s really hard, but they just want to see how you problem solve and respond to a challenge. That’s what they’re looking for.”

courtesy of Noah Rubien ’20

     Another difference between applying to art schools and regular universities is, according to Rubien, there are fewer options. While there are many universities and colleges for the regular applicant to choose from, with many different variations of academics, student culture, athletics, and research and job opportunities, “there are only a couple art schools.”

     “[Art schools] vary in their location, their size and rigour, what they offer—if they’re going to take you on a curriculum or you get to choose your own curriculum—stuff like that,” Rubien said. “They differ, but there’s really not too many, so you don’t have to look very far.

     “Unlike its depictions in popular culture, art school is not just making art or drawing or painting or making sculpture,” Mr. Fox said.

     “Generally, an art school curriculum involves three studio classes and two academic classes,” Mr. Fox said. “So if you were a painting major, you would be taking painting and drawing classes. If you were a design major, you’d be doing different kinds of studio classes, and your academics would relate to studio work that you’re doing.”

     “If you’re in an industrial design or architecture program, you’ll be taking calculus that’s appropriate for that work,” Mr. Fox said. “You’ll be taking materials science where you’re learning about wood and steel and concrete and how those things behave.”

     Mr. Fox also points out that the academic requirements for art school are more intensive than a regular university.

“You can tell the good art schools—the ones where stuff is really happening—if you go into the studios and you look in the racks where people keep their paintings and you see sleeping bags because people…work all night, crash, get up in time to go to class.”

Mr. Chris Fox

     “There are more credits usually involved in a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree than in a regular bachelors degree from a liberal arts college,” Mr. Fox said. “You can tell the good art schools—the ones where stuff is really happening—if you go into the studios and you look in the racks where people keep their paintings and you see sleeping bags because people…work all night, crash, get up in time to go to class.”

     Mr. Fox said that “Haverford’s not necessarily the pipeline into art programs directly—some people take the circuitous route to get to art or design or architecture or filmmaking or all of those creative professions.”

     “Art school, even the thought of going to art school sometimes from a place like Haverford seems incongruous. There’s a lot of social expectations of the kinds of schools you go to. And art school isn’t always one of those,” Mr. Fox said.

     According to Mr. Fox, most Haverford students who became artists didn’t initially attend an art school.

     “Sometimes I’ll get an email saying, “Oh, I took a painting class,’” Mr. Fox said, “and I’ll hear from them again, saying, ‘Oh, I’ve changed my major,’ and then, “oh, do you want to come to my senior show, I’m now exhibiting.’

     “And that’s fine by me. If you’re not sure, and then when you get away from art, you realize that’s really the thing that makes you happy and you come back to it that way—fine. I don’t really push art school as the thing you have to do. I think if you’re interested, you should apply…Nothing says you have to go if you get in, but it might be nice to have a choice.”

     “Art school isn’t really for everybody,” Mr. Fox said. “You really need to be passionate about the work, it really needs to mean something to you…There are guys who from Haverford go directly to art school. There are guys who just realize, ‘This is what makes me happy. I don’t mind working all night on a painting or drawing—it’s satisfying.’”

     Rubien was set on attending art school in the summer before his junior year, when he attended the RISD Pre-College program.

     “I did the RISD pre-college program, and I just really liked it,” Rubien said, “and I don’t particularly enjoy school. Why would I want to do four more years of someone talking to me if I don’t like it? But I really like making art.”

“Before entering the pre-college program… I was pretty unsure, because everyone was better than me. At the end, I really improved, and I actually saw my improvement.”

Noah Rubien ’20

     “I also like seeing my growth as an artist,” Rubien said. “Before entering the pre-college program… I was pretty unsure, because everyone was better than me. At the end, I really improved, and I actually saw my improvement.”

     Rubien’s passion for art comes from his satisfaction from completing a creative work entirely on his own.

     “[I]f I put in the effort on a piece, it always comes out the way I wanted to. If I put effort in, I’m rewarded for that effort. Almost always. A lot of pieces I start off hating, and then I just put in a ton of effort into it, and then I end up liking it.”

     Rubien pointed to one of his paintings, a still life, that was on an easel nearby.

     “Like this piece,” he said, “for about a month, I hated this. It was terrible. I absolutely despised it and I hated working on it. But then, after a while, I kept putting in the work and now I really like it.”

Author: Toby Ma ’20

Toby Ma is an editor-in-chief of the newspaper, previously serving as managing editor and assistant editor of the Features section. Three of his recent articles earned Gold Keys from the 2020 Philadelphia-area Scholastic Writing competition. He also contributes poetry and fiction to the school literary magazine Pegasus, and is a member of the Haverford VEX Robotics Team 169 “The Cavalry” and Model UN. His favorite subjects are English, history, and science. Outside of school, he enjoys reading and fencing.