Art Term Tuesday: Artist Portfolio

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Recently, every YouTube or Facebook video commercial I’ve seen is people dancing oddly to the annoyingly catchy TurboTax jingle: “All people are tax people”. As tax season approaches, words and phrases in English I thought I knew the definition for turn into an unknown jargon: gross versus net income, withholdings, deductions, and investment portfolios. Portfolio, in particular, is a word commonly used in the art world and, for the FWMoA Education department, integral to our 2020 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards exhibition. How does the art world distinguish the use of portfolio from that of taxes and business, and why is it important to know if a singular work of art you encounter is a piece of a portfolio?

            When said in the context of this sentence: “I’ve brought my artist portfolio with me”, an artist’s portfolio refers to a curated collection of their best work intended to showcase their style or method of creation, artistic skills, experiences, and interests. The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards ( defines a Senior Art Portfolio as a “series of 8 distinct works that communicate a single cohesive idea or visual investigation” made from either one medium or a diverse set of media. For an art or design school application, competition, or job pitch, the portfolio should offer the ‘best of the best’ works as examples of the artist’s skills and capabilities. Essentially, the artist portfolio is their “pitch”, to use a business term, whether physical or digital. Similar to a model’s lookbook or a journalist’s stringbook, it represents what the artist, or model or writer, can do. It is important to note, however, that first word in their definition, “series”. They both represent a body of work made by the artist, or in the case of portfolios sometimes multiple artists, in response to a central question or idea. A portfolio can refer to a series, but a series is not always compiled into a portfolio.

Both a series and a portfolio encompass multiple works that, over a specified length of time (days, weeks, months, or years), focus on the exploration of a central theme or topic. Often, it comes down to the designation of the artist: series or portfolio. A portfolio, therefore, does not have to designate a set number of works that “sell” the artist to a possible school, employer, or gallery representative. It can also be a series of works that represent an artistic period, like Picasso’s Blue Period, or theme, like Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series.

 Monet, for example, who worked almost exclusively in series, painted multiples of the Rouen Cathedral to explore the effects of light; yet, he never chose a specific number to compile into a portfolio. John Lawrence Doyle, on the other hand, who we profiled in an earlier “Treasures from the Vault” put together a portfolio of his lithographs examining different soldiers and wars in America. Titled Sharpshooter 76, it is both a series of lithographs and a portfolio because Doyle chose to compile them under one name. More often than not, artworks in a series will share the same title and have numbers, like David Shapiro’s Birnham Wood series. Not to be confused with editions, which are the number of copies of a print issued at one time by the printmaker, there is only one painting. Paintings can have numbers if they are part of a series, and often do as a cue to the viewer that a certain idea was explored over a number of canvases but doesn’t indicate that there are a number of exact copies of the work.  

An art portfolio can take shape in any media. African-American photojournalist Ernest Withers’ portfolio, I am A Man, is comprised of 10 black and white photos taken during the civil rights movement. They feature Martin Luther King Jr., the sanitation workers strike, and the integration of public buses and schools. Were these the only photos he took during that time? No, but these specific photos explored the central concept of his portfolio title by showing his community’s effort to be treated equal. The Kent Bicentennial Portfolio is comprised of 12 prints by 12 different artists who answered the same question: What does independence mean to you? Commissioned by the Lorillard Tobacco Company to celebrate the United States bicentennial in 1975, each artist did not make a series of prints but, instead, provided one perspective to create a diverse portfolio of works.

We do not refer to TV show episodes, movie franchises, or books as portfolios but as a series. I would never tell someone I had just finished J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter portfolio, so the term remains an important differential, though it shares meanings. Ultimately, however, it is the choice of the artist whether to embark on a series of works like Monet’s studies of light or whether to compile likeminded works into one body under the title of a portfolio. Perhaps the idea comes from whether the works should stay together or be displayed together; and that is why they are collected into a portfolio instead of left as a series. If you only see one, do you lose the effect of the narrative the artist is trying to tell? Often, museums will collect one work in a series to have an example from that period to help tell the overall story of the artist. With a portfolio, however, the museum may want to keep them together because the focus is on the narrative of the works and not the artist. When a museum puts on a retrospective, for example, they want a couple of works from each major period in an artists’ life. Therefore, they will want one or two works from a series to illustrate that period. With a portfolio, however, the show may center on the theme of those works together, so the museum will want them all instead of just one or two. It’s like having the first few essays in an anthology versus the first few chapters of a book. What distinguishes the need for a complete portfolio but not a complete series?

To see portfolios as collections of the “best of the best” works of artists, visit the FWMoA now through Saturday, April 11th, and check out our senior portfolio winners. To determine whether or not a portfolio should stay together to be understood fully, examine the portfolios we have in the museum by making an appointment with Sachi Yanari-Rizzo in our Print & Drawing Study Center or stop by Indiana Tech’s exhibition space to see Ernest Whithers’ I am A Man portfolio on display!

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