Best Practices for Artist Work Samples

Every few weeks we’ll be posting tips straight from the Professional Development Program’s Artist’s Tools Handbook, a 200+ page resource we give to Core Workshop attendeeswritten by PDP Core Leaders Jackie Battenfield and Aaron Landsman. The book covers everything from writing to budgeting, websites to fundraising, elevator pitches to work samples. 

What exactly is a work sample? A work sample is a representation or document of your work. It introduces your art to the world in the form of still images, manuscript excerpts, sound and/or video clips.

Length: The length or size of your work sample will depend on where you’re sending it. Organizations accepting work samples often specify the format in which they would like to receive your samples. Read application guidelines carefully, and ask for clarification if you need it.

Some general tips:

  1. Get a second opinion, and then a third opinion. Have your work samples regularly reviewed by other art professionals. They can help clarify how successfully your images represent the best qualities of your work, identify a compelling excerpt from your novel, or capture the essence of a time-based piece.
  2. High quality is essential. You’ll often have less than a minute to impress a panel, presenter or other professional with your work samples. This means that budgeting for high-quality documentation is a must. In dance, installation, theater and performance art, it may be all that remains of your work after the show closes.

Tips for shooting still images:

  1. Present the work on a neutral background—white, black,  grey, depending on the needs of your work.
  2. Get a proper exposure. The whites should be white, not dingy grey, and the blacks should be fully black. It should accurately represent the intensity or subtly of the colors, textures and details of the art. If you will be taking your own images, learn how to calculate the white balance setting on your digital camera.
  3. Place work so that lighting is even over the entire image—no hot spots of intense light, dark corners or shiny patches of glare.
  4. If you crop the image it needs to fill the camera frame, but make sure that all the edges are shown so the entire work can be viewed. Then details can be shot to show specifics.

For video:

  1. Focus and Clarity: In a good performance video, the images are in focus, edits are clean, and the most important pieces of the stage fill the screen. Make sure the camera is positioned above the audience’s heads, and if possible, that the work is shot from center stage, rather than far off to one side. To capture specific moments and compelling details of the performance, you may also want to position one or two more cameras near the stage.
  2. White Balance: Each camera shoots the contrasts of stage or gallery lighting differently, so make sure you or your videographer do a white-balance before taping your show.
  3. Sound Quality: This is commonly the weakest component of live performance documentation. Make sure the viewer can hear the music (for dance), the dialogue (for theater and performance art), and if possible, the audience reaction. A line from the soundboard or a shotgun microphone on your camera will capture the sound of human voices onstage. Any professional videographer should be able to achieve great sound.
  4. Cueing and Editing: You don’t want to make a panel wait while a long video loads, or for reviewers to waste time trying to find the excerpt you want them to view. Select a brief portion of the work for viewing and make certain it is cued and ready to go. Find out how much time will be allowed for your piece and choose wisely. If it is not properly cued up, it may not be watched at all.

For written samples:

  1. Manuscripts must always be neatly typed and clearly reproduced. You are facing stiff competition and are at a serious disadvantage if your copy is sloppy, faded or otherwise unappealing. Simple type-script, carefully done, is best.
  2. Proofread for typos and spelling errors.
  3. Follow guidelines exactly. Do not shrink typefaces or margins to get more words to a page; rather, choose the right length excerpt.
  4. Choose excerpts carefully. Remember that the reader does not have any context for the work.
  5. If you are sending chapters, they should come from the beginning of a novel or from a place that needs no outside reference. Send one whole story rather than the beginnings of a few. Most poetry magazines want more than one poem so send related works.
  6. If you mail your submission in a 9×12″ manila envelope, include a folded self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) or you will never see it again. If you want receipt of the material acknowledged, include a self-addressed, stamped postcard.
  7. If online submissions are allowed, carefully adhere to their guidelines, formats and word counts.

Check back regularly for more Pages from Our Handbook. Coming soon: Tips on writing your artist resume and biography.

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