“Staged” by Ana Fernandez

Graduate School Portfolio Preparation Dos and Don’ts

by Ana Fernandez

When I chose work to include in my portfolio for graduate school, I tried to include work that showed the committee that I am a person who is “teachable.” You are applying for admission to graduate school, not applying to be in an exhibition.

Many applicants will submit strong portfolios which show no potential for growth or change. These people may not make very good students. You have to be open and willing to evolve as an artist during your residency. This can seem disruptive if you’re hanging on to the version of your work you articulate in your precious “artists statement” too tightly. Let it go and see where life takes you!

I included about five paintings (out of twenty) that I never showed anyone before because I was embarrassed by them—the kind of work you keep hidden under a stack of magazines when visitors arrive! I decided to let my guard down and include these pieces, which demonstrated my range, even though I didn’t think they were “good.” I found out later that several committee members voted for my admission based on the strength of the work that I thought were so terrible. The point is that you never know, and at this stage in your artistic career you may not even know what is “good,” so don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability.

Also, you can be strategic about the order in which you place your slides. Start out with a strong image for your first slide to make a good first impression. Then, end the presentation on the strongest image. The reasoning being that the committee usually will leave the last slide up on the wall as they discuss you. Many of them will glance up and look at the image when making their last minute determinations. You really want to impress them in this moment. Ask your favorite advisor for help when choosing your best work.

Keep it short. My artist statement was four sentences long.
It’s not a good move to bore them with an extensive jargon-laced or overly sentimental essay. It’s your statement, so do what you want. If you need to make it long, then make it long! Just be fascinating.

Slides or digital? DIY or hire a professional?

Many schools now accept digital submissions, but still accept 35mm slides. I would submit slides for several reasons. The first reason is that the admissions committee has probably been using slides for 15 years, so just keep it simple and traditional. Also, when projected on a wall they’ll get a nice big, clean image of your work, as opposed to viewing the work on a 17 inch computer screen. Don’t assume they are using a PowerPoint projector…you never know.

Some schools archive your application slides in a binder that can be accessed by prospective students and department visitors. I think slides are nice in this case because no special equipment is required to view them. There are lots of companies on the net that offer a “digital image to slide” service for about one dollar per slide.

Tips: Use plastic mounts, not paper. Plastic mounts tend not to jam as much in the carousel. Use a fine tipped Sharpie to neatly label each slide. Try not to use paper stick-on labels because they can also cause the projector to jam.

I hired a professional photographer to photograph some of my larger four-by-six foot paintings. However, I photographed the smaller work myself with excellent results. You can get a light kit and a tripod from a photo store and then you just have to match the light with the film. For example, I used 3200K bulbs with tungsten slide film. Make sure the clerk knows what kind of light you are using, so that you can use the appropriate film. This is really important since you can’t color correct a negative!

What is the difference between attending a school with an art program and attending an art school? Is there a difference in the way you apply to these programs? What decisions must you make about what you want when applying to either?

Being surrounded by thousands of art students at the School of Art Institute Chicago (SAIC) in downtown Chicago as an undergraduate was very inspiring. At UCLA (where I received my MFA) there were about 55 students in the graduate program and the studios we occupied were located off campus in Culver City. It took some getting used to.

I applied to four schools for my MFA: both art schools and universities. My application was the same for all four. I wanted to work with good faculty, which I was able to find at all of the schools that I applied to.

During my undergraduate studies I focused mainly on developing my craft. I transferred to SAIC from San Antonio Community College, where I had taken many semesters worth of drawing, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics and photography as a non-degree seeking student. When I moved to Chicago, I focused on painting and worked with excellent faculty in the painting department such as, Susanna Coffey, Susan Kraut and DanGustin. At UCLA, I focused more on the conceptual element in my work, as well as cultivated professional relationships with the art community of Los Angeles.


Ana Fernandez was born in Corpus Christi, TX, attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (BFA) and the University of California Los Angeles (MFA). She is currently preparing for a solo show next March in Los Angeles and working on a book of short stories.Ana exhibits her paintings in Chicago and Los Angeles, where she currently resides.

This interview originally appeared on Chicago Artists Resource, here.

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