Tips For Artists #1: What an artist portfolio should contain

I’m often asked how I manage to exhibit my work.
And the answer is very simple: I apply for open calls.
Some artists manage to get noticed on social networks.
Yes, this is great, but let’s be honest: it’s also really hard to do so.
That’s why I decided to apply for open calls (but I do have social networks too). If you want to do the same, you definitely need a portfolio.

And there are plenty of other reasons why you should have a portfolio!

A portfolio is an essential tool in which you show and promote your work.
It also shows how seriously you take your work. You need it for open calls, but also for portfolio reviews, your website, or if you want to present your work to galleries owners …In short, this is the element you need to have if you want to show your work to the art world…and if you don’t have one, you won’t get very far!

Therefore, a portfolio should present your work in the best possible way. It should be clean, clear, organized, and professional.
It also should be simple (your work normally sets you apart from others;))

The essential elements of a portfolio

All of the elements that compose a portfolio are of crucial importance.
They have to highlight your career and your work. Some artists tend to think that their works speak for themselves…well…yes but no! It’s clearly not enough!
In fact, it’s always necessary to have additional information to know more about the artist’s intentions and the artist him/herself.
So here are the essential elements your portfolio should contain.

Pauline Le Pichon, Excerpt from my portfolio, 2021

. A Curriculum vitae:

In a curriculum vitae, you present your career and put in relief the most important steps of this latter. The CV is one of the most requested elements.

When you start a career as an artist, your CV is often quite empty.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of: we’ve all been there! And the more you’ll work, the more your CV will grow.

If you look at artists’ CVs, you’ll see that there’s no standard model. But there are some basic rules which can help you a lot in creating your CV.

In some open calls, you may be asked for a short CV, I’m going to talk about it again in a few moments. However, as a general rule, you can have a CV that is one to three pages long. No more than that, otherwise it’s too long and it gives the impression that you didn’t make any selection.
Remember to number the pages of your portfolio.

The order of sections on a CV is up to each person, but this is the order I prefer because I think it’s the most logical:

- Personal Details
- Exhibition
- Screening (for me, there’s a difference between an exhibition and a screening because the way your work is displayed isn’t the same),
- Artist residency,
- Distinction,
- (Public/Private) art commission,
- Grant,
- Bibliography,
- Interview,
- Collection,
- Professional experience,
- Formation

Obviously, section titles should be in the plural form if the sections contain more than one element (e.g. artist residency -> artist residencies).
Some people tend to put their education first. In my opinion, that’s a mistake, and it’s better to put this section last, especially when your CV grows.
An artist’s CV shows that you’re no longer “attached to” your educations but to your artistic career. Of course, your formation matters, but it shouldn’t be the first section. That’s why you’ll usually find the exhibitions right after personal details.

In every section, events must be listed in reverse chronological order: that is to say, from the more recent to the oldest.
For each part, keep your sentences short.
And don’t forget to create some space between your sections!

Be careful, there’s an important difference between a CV and a resume:
As I said, except in special cases, a CV can be more than one page long. Then it can be more developed and a little bit less selective than a resume.
Indeed, a resume is one page long. Then it must be much more concise and really limited to the very most relevant elements of your career.

Unlike “other” CVs (I guess you know what I mean), you don’t need to include your photo.

It’s not obligatory, but you can include on your website the exact dates of your future exhibitions (and screenings, awards ceremonies…) so people will be aware of them and may come to them.

. An artist biography:

A biography is a general statement about the artist’s career and work.
It shouldn’t be a summary of your CV.
In fact, it’s a - very brief and therefore very selective - mixture of your career and your artistic universe. The biography should make us want to know more about your work. It should be read quickly and easily.
The biography is one page long and generally contains one or two paragraphs maximum (you need to know that some open calls impose a maximum number of characters/words).
It’s usually written in the third person singular.

. An artist statement for your whole artistic universe and an artist statement for each of your series.

An artist statement is essential because this is the element where you explain what inspires you, what topic(s) you work on, why and how you do it, and what question(s) you raise through your work.
In short, you explain your creative process and your art.
An artist statement is also practical for the visitors of your exhibitions (we all like to have a little explanatory text when we visit an exhibition, don’t we?).
It’s a fundamental tool. You really can’t do without it.
When reading your artist statement, the reader should be able to imagine your work without having seen it. It must be written as if you were answering questions that viewers might have about your work. Then when you write it, imagine that you’re explaining your work to someone who isn’t necessarily familiar with it.

The artist statement takes up one page, with a maximum of 2 to 3 paragraphs. You can write it in the first or the third person singular.
Personally, I like when it’s written in the first person because it really shows the artist’s “commitment”.

The text should be understandable to everyone (so please don’t use pompous jargon).
Avoid talking about things that are too obvious. For example, if your work has a dominant yellow color, the viewer will inevitably notice it. Instead, explain why it has this dominant color.
However, people also like to discover artist works by themselves then you need to find the right balance between explaining well your work but not saying too much about it (I know, this is not the easiest part).
You can include one or several personal elements in your artist statement, but only if it has a clear link to your work.

The artist statement generally evolves with your work production.
So you’ll certainly need to rewrite it over the years.

You should also know that there are two kinds of artist statements:

- there’s the artist statement that explains your whole artistic universe
(the one I’ve just talked about)

- and there’s the artist statement focused on an artwork or a series of artwork. In my case, I create photos series, and each series has its artist statement. Yet all of my series are linked by my “general” artist statement.
In the case of this kind of artist statement, the principle is the same as for the “general’ artist statement”: you have to explain why and how you realized this work (theoretically, technically…).
If you studied in an art school, you probably know what I‘m talking about.
It’s really more specific, and yes, you have to write a text for every work (or series of work) if you want to show it.
Now, you might ask me: “okay but how do you tell them apart?”. Well, don’t worry, it’s quite simple. When you submit an artwork (or a series of artwork) for an open call, you’ll normally be asked for the artist statement of this latter. It can also happen that you’re asked to give both (the ‘general’ and the more “precise” ones).
If you have to send the artist statement of an artwork/a series of artwork and a portfolio, you can include your “general” artist statement at the beginning of your portfolio. It is something I do regularly.

. A book:

A book (it’s also often called “portfolio”) is almost asked every time, so it shouldn’t be taken lightly!

In a book, you show your work, your artistic universe.

Here are the guidelines to follow to have an effective book with which you can give yourself the best chance of success:

- All the works you put in your book must be linked. There’s must be a logical order between them.

- A book must be clear and clean. Do something airy. Only include high-quality photographs. Don’t forget to include your artist statements.
Verify that’s there’re no mistakes in the texts. Don’t forget to label your artwork…

- A book must be a selection of your work (you don’t put everything in it!)
Be selective and only show the best of your work. Don’t put 150 images in a book (it would show a lack of professionalism and it wouldn’t make people want to look at it ), but don’t put five images either.
Some people say that’s the right selection is between 20 and 30 artworks.
It must be something that shows what you do, on what topic(s) you work on, but at the same time something that sums up. It must catch our eye and make us want to see more.

For some open calls, you have to send a pdf file of very limited size (and we can easily understand the organisers since they receive hundreds even thousands of applications, they don’t particularly want to download so many large files!).
In this case, you should either :

  • Be even more selective in the number of presented works,
  • Or lower the file quality while obviously keeping something readable and that still highlights your work.

If you want to print your book, your images must have the maximum resolution. Obviously, poorly printed, wrinkled, folded, or smudged images must definitely be avoided.

There must be an undeniable coherence between your artist statement and your book. If you say, in your artist statement, that you create wooden sculptures to talk about global warming, and your book only presents photographs of naked men, one might wonder what’s the link between your artist statement and your book.
There must also be coherence between all the presented works: in the themes obviously, and it can also be in the technics and the chronology.
The order is up to each person, but I personally like the idea that my works are arranged by series and dates, from the oldest to the most recent.
A chronological order shows the starting point, the common thread, and the evolution between your works.

A book must be taken seriously: the way an artist presents his/her work will directly impact how the viewer considers it.

Please note that in this article, the book is a part of the portfolio.
But, in some open calls, you may be asked for :
- your CV
- your portfolio
- 10 to 15 images from the series you‘d like to exhibit
- the artist statement
In this case, the portfolio only refers to the book (so it must contain the general artist statement, the artist statement of the artworks/series of artwork, and the artwork themselves). You also have to include 10 to 15 images of the series you’d like to exhibit and the artist statement of this series.
But don’t worry, most of the organisers explain very well what they want to receive. And if not, you can always send an email to get more information.

. Optional documents

Optional documents can include press reviews (any press publications that talk about your work) and exhibitions views (photographs from your previous exhibitions so the viewer can visualize your work in different spaces).
I personally include these if I’m told that I can provide additional material.

In conclusion, I’d say that a portfolio evolves with your career, so it should be regularly updated. By update, I mean a new work, a new exhibition, a modified/a new artist statement…So it will be very frequent! Believe me.

Last but not least, even though you accompany your works with artist statements, you should also be prepared to present them orally. If you sign up for a portfolio review, you’ll have to talk about your work, and it’s always a good experience!

The second “Tips” article will normally be published in November and will concern open calls: how to select them, how and when to apply…

PS: This article is based only on my opinion and my experience. But being an artist for over seven years, I don’t think I’m wrong, am I?
PS-2: Don’t hesitate to leave me a comment if you have any questions or remarks about this topic.



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Pauline Le Pichon

Pauline Le Pichon


I’m a French visuel artist, freelance photographer, instructor and writer.