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

Pauline Le Pichon
8 min readSep 1, 2021

I’m often asked how I manage to exhibit my work.
And the answer is very simple: I apply to open calls.
Some artists manage to get noticed on social networks.
This is great, but let’s be honest: it doesn’t happen often.
That’s why I decided to apply to open calls. If you want to do the same, you definitely need a portfolio.

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

A portfolio is an essential tool for showing and promoting your work.
It also shows how seriously you take your work. You need it for open calls, portfolio reviews, your website, or if you want to present your work to gallery owners… In short, this is the thing 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, simple, clear, organised, and professional.

The essential elements of a portfolio

All 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!
In fact, it’s always necessary to have additional information to know more about the artist’s intentions and the artist themselves.
So here are the essential elements your portfolio should contain.

Pauline Le Pichon, portfolio, 2021

A curriculum vitae:

In a curriculum vitae, you highlight the most important steps of your career. 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 work, the more your CV will grow.

If you look at artists’ CVs, you’ll see that there’s no standard template. But there are some basic rules which can help you create your CV.

In some open calls, you may be asked for a short CV. However, as a general rule, you can have a CV of one to three pages. No more than that, otherwise it’s too long and gives the impression that you have not made a selection.
Don’t forget to number the pages of your portfolio.

The order of the sections of a CV is up to you, but this is the order I prefer as I think it makes the most sense:

- Personal Details
- Exhibitions
,
- Screenings (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,
- Commission,
- Grant,
- Bibliography,
- Interview,
- Collection,
- Professional experience,
- Formation

Obviously, section titles should be in the plural 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, this is a mistake, and it’s better to put this section last, especially as your CV grows.
An artist’s CV shows that you’re no longer “attached to” your education 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, things must be listed in reverse chronological order: from the more recent to the oldest.
For each part, keep your sentences short.
And don’t forget to create space between your sections!

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. It can then be more developed and a little less selective than a resume.
Indeed, a resume is one page long. It must be much more concise and limited to the 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 mandatory, but you can include on your website the exact dates of your future exhibitions so that people know about them and can come and see them.

An artist’s 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 selective mix of your career and your artistic universe. The biography should make us want to know more about your work. It should be a quick and easy read.
The biography is one page long and usually contains one or two paragraphs maximum (note that some open calls impose a maximum number of characters/words).
It’s usually written in the third person.

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

The artist statement is essential because this is the part where you explain what inspires you, the topic(s) you work on, why and how you do it, and the issue(s) you raise through your work.
In short, you explain your creative process and your art.
An artist’s statement is also useful for visitors to your exhibitions (we all like 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 familiar with it.

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

The text should be understandable to everyone (don’t use pompous jargon).
Avoid talking about things that are too obvious. For example, if your work has a dominant yellow colour, the viewer will inevitably notice it. Instead, explain why it has this dominant colour.
However, people also like to discover artist’s works by themselves, so you need to find the right balance between explaining your work well but not saying too much about it (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 as your work is produced.
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’s statement focused on an artwork or a series of artworks. In my case, I create photo series, and each series has its own artist’s statement. Yet, all my series are linked by my “general” artist’s statement.
In the case of this kind of artist’s 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 you have to write a text for every work (or series of works) if you want to exhibit 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 artworks) to an open call, you’ll normally be asked for the artist’s statement for that work. You may also be asked to provide both (the ‘general’ statement and the more ‘specific’ statement).
If you have to send the artist’s statement of an artwork/a series of artworks and a portfolio, you can include your “general” artist statement at the beginning of your portfolio. It is something I do regularly.

A portfolio:

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

Here are the guidelines to follow:

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

- A portfolio must be clear and clean. Make it airy. Include only high-quality photographs. Don’t forget to include your artist’s statements.
Check that there’re no mistakes in the texts. Don’t forget to label your artworks.

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

For some open calls, you have to send a pdf file of very limited size.
In this case, you should either :

  • Be even more selective in the number of works submitted,
  • or reduce the quality of the file, while obviously keeping something readable that highlights your work.

If you want to print your portfolio, your images must be of the highest resolution. Obviously, badly printed, creased, folded or stained images should be avoided.

There must be an undeniable consistency between your artist’s statement and your portfolio. If you say in your artist’s statement, that you create wooden sculptures to talk about global warming, and your portfolio only shows photographs of naked men, one might wonder what the link is between your artist’s statement and your portfolio.
There must also be coherence between all the works presented: in the themes obviously, and it can also be in the techniques and chronology.
The order is up to you, but I personally like the idea that my works being 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 portfolio must be taken seriously: the way an artist presents their work will have a direct impact on how the viewer considers it.

Optional documents

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

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!

Finally, even though you accompany your works with artist’s 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 be about open calls: how to select them, how and when to apply…

PS: This article is only based on my opinion and experience.
Feel free to leave me a comment if you have any questions or remarks on this topic.

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Pauline Le Pichon

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