Art Schooled: How I got into art school

Illustration student Greg McIndoe reflects on his experience of applying to art school, and offers a few words of wisdom to his former self.

First off, I feel I should start this post with a little disclaimer: I do not hold all the answers on how to get into art school. If that’s what you hope to find, then I apologise for the post’s title! Unfortunately though, no one does. I have however applied to art school three times, and picked up the odd piece of advice along the way.

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A print project entitled “Bye Bye Birdie”

Secondly, welcome to a new term of Art Schooled! My new term doesn’t commence for another couple of weeks. So today I thought I would reflect on the application process instead. Like many art schools, the application process for applying to DJCAD involves a digital portfolio first. This is then usually followed by a full physical portfolio…if you get to interview stage that is.

A year ago, I was frantically putting my digital portfolio together, while preparing to go travelling. I was still abroad when my interview was scheduled so I did my interview over the phone, and the interviewers only had my online submission to base my application on. All the images included within this post are from my online portfolio. I am in no way saying that it is the perfect folio and I am definitely not suggesting anyone copies anything from in it.

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A personal project entitled “Space Cacti”

Looking at each slide from my digital portfolio reminds me of a different lesson I learnt in the years between my applications. I first applied to art school five years ago when I was seventeen, and had I known some of these things then maybe I wouldn’t have had to apply the second time… or the third!

Here are 8 things I wish I had known/ remembered when I first applied to art school…

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Branding for my Headless Greg design blog

1. Show you are self motivated

Firstly, the biggest difference with my final portfolio was that it included work I had done outside of education. Personal projects will show that you don’t just fancy doing this for a couple of years to avoid facing reality, but that you have the passion to make an actual career out of it.

A little under a year before I applied, I had launched my own design blog called Headless Greg. Including the website’s branding as a project in my portfolio also gave me the chance to talk about my work as a writer. Specifically I spoke about how it had helped me connect with other creatives. There is nothing wrong with deliberately prompting questions, as long as you are subtle about it.

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Drawings from All The Young Nudes birds of prey event

2. Work should prompt questions

Whether you are face to face or over the phone, you will need something to talk about. You can talk about your process and what materials you use endlessly but they will most likely have heard it all before. Instead, it could be more interesting to talk about some creative experiences you’ve had.

I included these drawings, created at life drawings event held by All The Young Nudes life drawing club in Glasgow, which – as well as nude human models – also featured birds of prey. As predicted, it prompted some interesting conversation. We chatted about how oddly easy it is to objectify the models during a life drawing class.

I also told a little anecdote about how unnerving it was to be warned at the start of the class that, as I was sitting quite close to the model, I would very likely be shat on by a bird at any moment. Luckily I wasn’t, but it was on my mind for the entire session.

Greg McIndoe
art school, portfolio, Art Schooled, design, illustration, education

Life drawings from All The Young Nude Glasgow

3. Everybody does life drawing

Every art school applicant will most likely include some life drawing. Don’t get me wrong, it is an interesting and worthwhile practise to take part in, but life drawing is often about showing your skill more than original artwork. Of course, seventeen year old me thought he was the most original life drawer there had ever been, and included five or six chalk and ink drawings. For my last portfolio, I whittled this number down to just two – one with birds and one without – and I think that gave enough of an idea.

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WIP sketches and colour trials from a new botanical pattern

4. Don’t forget the basics

It is important to show your more tradition skills in some way too. I created my first portfolio during a year long portfolio course at a college in Glasgow. During my time studying there I was taught many experimental ways of drawing. By the time I was putting my final collection together I had hundreds of abstract collages and blind sketches, but literally no analytical drawings. Having now studied a little at art school, I know (on my course at least) a balance is desired.

Experimentation is good but you don’t want to get to the stage where you are not sure whether you remember how to draw normally anymore.

Greg McIndoe
art school, portfolio, Art Schooled, design, illustration, education

My “leftovers” scrapbook

5. Ask yourself, “what is unique about my process?”

You will no doubt have little quirks in your creative process that are unique to you. Including examples of these will show that you know creativity and play is as important as being able to follow a structured design process. I have always kept a sketchbook which I refer to as a “leftovers book”. It’s a little brown paper scrapbook filled with collages using all the leftover scraps from my main work. Little experiments in the book often spark new ideas and it’s always fun to see what interesting shapes my process accidentally conjures up.

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“Merry Catmas” pattern designed in collaboration with Ashley Le Quere

6. Show you can work with others

A couple of the slides I included in my portfolio were designed in collaboration with other creatives. The festive “Merry Catmas!” designs above were created in collaboration with illustrator Ashley Le Quere who I actually met through writing for Inkygoodness. At some point during your art school or post-graduate career, you will definitely be required to work as part of a duo or team. The inclusion of this project showed that I not only could do so but quite happily did so in my spare time.

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Drawings and digital experiments from my time in Barcelona

7. It’s okay to be a work in progress

Not only should you include works in progress in a portfolio, but it is also okay to be one yourself.

Greg McIndoe

It might sound obvious but art schools aren’t looking for the finished article. Whatever course you are applying for, they won’t expect you to have graduate level work or a refined skilset. Teaching a bunch of jewellery students who already knew how to solder or textile students who can already weave would be kind of pointless.

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Work for a typographic poster with words by Jessica `cook

It’s also useful to remember that it’s okay not to have your whole portfolio tailored just for one specialism. Most of my portfolio was clearly illustration, but not all of it. I had previously studied graphic design and so a few of the projects had a more typographic focus. The digital and composition skills I learnt whist studying graphic design are applicable to many specialisms so it made sense to showcase them a little.

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A personal pattern project and some tattoo ideas

8. Weird is memorable

My final piece of advice would be don’t be afraid to be weird! In an art school, no one is going to judge you or, in fact, be remotely phased by you being a little odd. During an interview, you are trying to make a lasting impression and your most memorable projects will be those you fill with the most eccentric ideas you can find in your brain.

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An editorial illustration for a piece about meditation

Overall, this also relates to the main overarching piece of advice I wish I had known. That is that you should make your portfolio as personal to you as possible. Having made my fair share of folios I know it is easier said than done, but try your best not to people please. It’s impossible to work out what a small group of interviewers will react best to. If you make a portfolio you are proud of – and which feels personal to you – then it will be much more memorable, easier to talk about and help you find the best art school for you. Looking at my portfolio now, there are things I would change but it does still feel uniquely mine. Odd horse-dinosaurs and plants pots with faces are the best way I could describe myself…and I am okay with that.


Posted on Feb 1st, 18 by

Greg McIndoe - also known as Headless Greg - is an illustrator and design writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. He regularly writes for design magazines and online platforms, interviewing fellow illustrators and leading creatives.

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