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Learning how to build a portfolio to apply to art college

Toby Duncan,
Written by
Yusuf Tamanna
Published date
16 October 2020

For Toby Duncan, passion is everything. Here, he tells us how doing the Portfolio Preparation short course at Chelsea College of Arts helped him get reacquainted with his own passion for illustration.

Despite always having an interest in graphic design and illustration, Toby Duncan didn’t pursue it academically when he was first at university in Manchester.

“I ended up doing an undergraduate degree is something completely unrelated and because of that I didn’t enjoy my time there that much,” Toby tells me.

After finishing his studies, Toby opted to stay in Manchester and work odd jobs alongside focusing on the band he was a part of it. But Toby found he lost the passion he had for the band and in the Autumn of 2019, he found himself at a career crossroads, contemplating what to do next.

“This is what led me to the Portfolio Preparation short course at Chelsea College of Arts. I felt that I wanted to find a way back into illustration and graphic design but wasn't exactly sure how to go about doing that.”

“I eventually decided I wanted to apply to the MA Illustration course at UAL, and that the portfolio preparation course would be a helpful step towards that. Especially as I had done an unrelated undergraduate degree, I wasn't fully sure what they wanted to see from me.”

More than that, Toby set his sights on the short course because he wanted advice and support from tutors affiliated with the university he was aiming to apply for. “I wanted to make sure my MA application was the strongest it could be and I also wanted the opportunity to experience teaching at a UAL college before starting a full course there,” Toby says.

“I ended up getting 10x more from the course than I had gone in expecting! I built up more confidence in my artwork, ideas, and process in such a short period of time. Having one-on-one time with a tutor like Sean Myers, who is extremely encouraging and experienced, was amazing for helping me get a clearer sense of my style and the best way for me to produce and organise my work.”

Since completing the short course Toby has maintained an incredibly busy schedule and says alongside applying for his MA, he is working as a barista, securing freelance work, doing a spot of dog walking and carrying out some in-house graphic design for a company he’s known for years. Where does he find the time to work on his art?

“All of this actually maximises my free time at home! This in turn helps me to spend a fair amount of time working on art and music,” he tells me.

For students considering doing a short course, Toby is all for it. “If you want a way to experience the environment of UAL then this won't disappoint. I gained some great knowledge, experience and friends from taking this course. I’m also applying what I learned to my everyday artistic process and practice and will keep using it to push myself to new levels.”

But perhaps more poignantly, Toby circles back to passion to be the real driving force for any creative person and without it, you can only go so far. “You need passion for what you do. I see that in music as well and that's why I left the band I was most recently in. I'd lost the passion and belief I once had in the music we were making. If you don't believe in what you're doing and love what you're making, then nobody else will.”


If you’re a mature student considering going back to full-time education, check out how our Portfolio Preparation Online Short Course can support your return to education.

Perhaps you’re a teenager or a parent of a young person who you think could benefit from a bit of guidance in building up their portfolio of work. Our Portfolio Preparation for Art School for 16 to 18 Year Olds (Online Short Course) is designed to give students a head start.

If you're not sure where to begin with building a portfolio that best showcases your work, our article How to create a graphic design portfolio will help you get a better sense of what you need to do to really stand out.

Or maybe you have a creative passion you want to dedicate more time to? Our varied collection of online short courses are here to give you the space to express yourself however you want.

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