Many students get in touch with me asking questions about applying to art college and a career in the creative sector. I was recently invited to attend and talk about the topic to students at a recent career’s night. After eight years training in various art and design colleges, and working as a secondary school art teacher I know a thing or two about the subject! I put together my experience and opinion on the process.

Pursuing a career in the creative sector can be confusing. Many areas overlap and skills can be applied to various purposes for example wood working skills can be applied to Furniture Design but also for Sculpture, and it isn’t even classified as “Art” in schools.………….so where to start!?

Most work in the creative sector is skill based. Expanding these skills and mastering techniques is invaluable. This all starts with further education in your chosen area of interest.

Step 1: Choose a general creative “area” of interest.

  1. Design
  2. Applied Arts
  3. Digital Media
Design Applied Arts Digital Media
Visual Communications

Graphic Design

Interior Design

Product Design

Furniture Design


Visual Merchandising

Set Design

Fine Art:


Print Making

Sculpture etc.




Jeweller (Goldsmith)

Textiles (Fashion Design)



Web Design

Film Production


Motion Graphics

Game Design

Digital Media Design

*Remember that some disciplines can over lap; Game Design can fall under the categories’ of Design & Digital Media.Linda Byrne Fashion Illustration, Fashion Sketch, Linda Byrne

Step 2: Choose a course

Choose a course that suits your area of interest. Don’t feel that you must pursue a course in a “regular art college.” For example you can study and gain a qualification in Ceramics and Jewellery Making in the Design and Craft Council of Ireland head quarters (DCCOI) in Kilkenny.

Research the course to make sure it’s what you want. Many courses will be “multi disciplinary” so you would train in various disciplines. For example in Animation you would study drawing, painting, set design, digital media & scriptwriting!


Portfolio Prep Courses

Don’t underestimate the value of a portfolio prep course. Many college degree courses have few places for students direct from schools. The majority of their places are allocated for students from portfolio prep courses and mature students. Don’t be discouraged by this. There are different types of prep courses, aiming at different disciplines.

Further education colleges which provide portfolio prep courses include: Ballyfermot College of Further Education BCFE, Coláiste Dhúlaigh College of Further Education, Marino College, to name put a few.

You still need to create and submit a portfolio to get into a portfolio prep course. After this year long course, students generally gain a FETAC qualification in Art and Design.

Children's Picture Book Illustration "Where's Kiwi?" by Linda Byrne

Step 3: Making a Portfolio

Each course has it’s own portfolio requirements. Read the portfolio requirements carefully and make your portfolio around these. Generally colleges like to see that you have a genuine interest in your chosen creative sector.


  • If you were applying to study Animation colleges would like to see you submit observation drawings, comic strips which portray a story.
  • Textiles courses would like to see studies of fabric, life drawing.
  • Product Design would like to see perspective drawing.
  • Portfolio Guideline Example

Your portfolio should reflect your ability to create concepts (ideas) and solve problems through image making (drawing, sketching.) For three dimensional work (sculptures etc) or large paintings, take good quality photographs of the piece from various angles. Mount the photographs to black / grey paper, in a neat fashion.

Submitting Your Portfolio:

Submitting a portfolio is bringing and leaving your portfolio directly to the college or stated address for assessment. You will also be given a date to submit and another date to collect your portfolio. The art colleges will communicate with each other so they wont have submission dates that clash. They understand that you have submitted to multiple courses.

Portfolio submission season is between February and March, in many courses you have to apply for the course before December. Not all colleges operate admissions through CAO, in some courses you can apply directly through the college. ***Remember to research this for each course you apply to***

Aim to make January 30th your deadline for completion.

Portfolio Interview:

Be prepared for an interview call back. For many courses they will shortlist submissions for interviews. At this interview they flick through your portfolio and ask you questions about your work. Be prepared to talk about your work, inspirations and artistic interests.

Watercolour sketch of Castletown House in Celbridge by Kildare based Linda Byrne

Castletown House

Five Important Things To Remember About Portfolios

  • Notebooks and sketchbooks are the most important materials to include in your portfolio.
  • Quality over quantity. Don’t submit more than 12 pieces of artwork or include work you aren’t proud of.
  • Presentation is key. Invest in a good portfolio display folder (generally A1 or A2 size) or borrow from a friend. Mount the artwork on black sugar paper in plastic sleeves. Type up all labels and text material. You want to make it as easy to view your portfolio as possible.
  • Include a “process page” where you demonstrate how you got from the initial concept (idea) to the final finished piece. Include sketches, photos of inspiration, colour palettes, test pieces, fonts etc.
  • Show diversity of mediums. Try to demonstrate that you have the ability to use many different mediums – paint, drawing from observation (still life, life drawing,) perspective drawing, digital painting, sculpture, metalwork etc.

Applying to NCAD:

NCAD have a specific portfolio brief that must be completed. Also for their degree courses, students complete a “core year” and after this year they choose the area to specialise, for example if students want to study Textiles, Ceramics, or Painting!

Lisa Lust List, Drawing process, sketchbook, fashion sketch, fashion illustration, linda byrne, Galway races, Best Dressed, 2016

The Drawing Process

Careers in the creative sector aren’t straight forward, choosing one area doesn’t stop you from exploring another. Personally, I first trained as a Classical Animator at the Irish School of Animation in BCFE, where I gained my most valuable artistic training and worked in that area briefly. I then went on to study a BA Hons Degree in Fine Art at DIT and then gained a H.Dip in Digital Media Design from IT Carlow. I worked as an Art Teacher and Art Facilitator for many years, and now I am a freelance illustrator….The journey isn’t always straight forward!