2018 Student Edition

How to Make an Online Portfolio

Updated

An online portfolio is a prerequisite for visual artists. If you are seeking employment, connections with art professionals, representation by a gallery, or simply want to be visible to a larger audience — you will need an online portfolio.

A beautifully presented archive of past and present projects will display your hard work in its best possible light. When it comes to displaying creative work, less is more – your work should be the focal point of every page.

This guide was written for the creative community. As a free resource, it gives you the tools and background information you will need to make key decisions with confidence. My goal is for you to complete a high-quality online portfolio as efficiently as possible – so you can get back to doing the work you love.

Each chapter stands alone, but I believe you will benefit most by starting at the beginning, and referring back to individual chapters as often as necessary.


Author

Professionally, I have helped thousands of visual artists create an online portfolio. My client list includes college students and faculty, as well as many award-winning and internationally recognized creative professionals.

I hope this guide educates and inspires you to make a beautiful and functional online portfolio. I have enabled comments at the end, so please feel free to say hello — or start a discussion. If you need help, I invite you to connect with me directly by submitting a support request (free).

author avatar

Brian Robinson
Author & Curator

Bespoke or Theme

bespoke or theme web design illustration
A s a visual artist, you need a professional showcase for your work. An online portfolio can increase your visibility in the global marketplace, and make a great first impression on curators, gallerists, or potential employers.

To begin the process, you will need to choose between “bespoke” and “theme” web design. A bespoke website is made to order by a web development firm. Conversely, a theme is a pre-made template designed to appeal to a specific audience, but each user must add their own content and configure it.

Here are two reasons why visual artists should always choose a theme for their online portfolio:

  • Cost Savings

    Bespoke web design is cost prohibitive for personal websites. Contracting for a custom portfolio website costs thousands of dollars, whereas the average cost of a portfolio theme is only $25 per month or less.

    The math is simple: $5,000 ÷ $25 = 200

    Considering how quickly trends change in web development and device technology it is clearly both less expensive and more practical to pay-as-you-go for a portfolio theme.

  • Code & Content Management

    The benefits of choosing a theme for your online portfolio extend well beyond cost savings — a theme gives you control over your content. With a portfolio theme, adding a new page to your website is something you can easily do on your own through a good content management system.

    Subscription services require a financial commitment, but this works in your favor because businesses are motivated to please customers. As a result, you will enjoy ongoing access to standards-based web design. On the other hand, a bespoke website is a one-time commission — leaving you solely responsible for all future updates.

    Additionally, a theme gives you the flexibility to change designs periodically in keeping with your evolving aesthetic.

    For these reasons, SaaS and service-based subscription models are now the norm for the way personal and small business websites are bought and sold.

Closed vs Open Source

closed vs open source website builders illustration

Open source describes any software that has been made available to the public along with the rights to freely study, change, and distribute it for any purpose. By contrast, closed-source software is proprietary and cannot be changed, copied, or distributed.

Below, I list a dozen closed-source content management systems for online portfolio themes. By understanding the differences between closed-source and open-source systems, you will be better equipped to make an informed decision about which platforms are most likely to satisfy your technical, design, and budget requirements.

In the next chapter, we will also explore the advantages of WordPress, which is the most popular open-source CMS in the world — WordPress powers an incredible 29% of all websites on the internet.

If you sign up for one of the services listed here and you click through from this page, some will donate a portion of your fee back in support of OnlinePortfolio.org.

Wix logo
Wix

Weebly logo
Weebly

Pixpa logo
Pixpa

SmugMug logo
SmugMug

Zenfolio logo
Zenfolio

Virb logo
Virb

Adobe Creative Cloud logo
Adobe Creative Cloud

Viewbook logo
Viewbook

SquareSpace logo
SquareSpace

Format logo
Format

FolioHD logo
FolioHD

Dunked logo
Dunked

Meet WordPress

meet WordPress illustration
W ordPress.org has been the #1 open-source CMS for nearly a decade. Astonishingly, WordPress powers 15 of the top 100 websites in the world and an incredible 29% of all websites on the internet. Hundreds of engineers and designers contribute to its continued growth and development.

As a self-hosted platform, anyone is free to install and use WordPress without paying a licensing fee – all you need to get started is a domain name and a hosting plan.

As a design professional with ten years of experience, I have helped over 4,000 visual artists create an online portfolio. I wholeheartedly endorse WordPress, though my support of WordPress means no disrespect to other platforms (closed or open source). Truthfully, I think we take for granted the number of high-quality, low-cost options on the market to create an online portfolio. Nonetheless, WordPress offers distinct advantages.

There are four reasons why WordPress is most likely the best platform for you too.


wordpress logo

Why WordPress?

  • 1. WordPress is beginner friendly.

    The purpose of a content management system (CMS) is to help a non-programmer easily create and update website content. Unfortunately, many CMSs are bloated and complicated. Millions of people choose WordPress because it is easy to learn.

    Because of its widespread popularity, the internet is teeming with step-by-step tutorials and communities dedicated to helping you learn everything you need to know about WordPress. Just Google or YouTube your question, browse a few of the top results and you are likely to find an answer within minutes (e.g., “how to create an image gallery in WordPress?”).

  • 2. WordPress is flexible.

    The best portfolio themes are made for WordPress. A theme is responsible for the overall look of your website with respect to typography, color scheme, and page layout. Most web-publishing platforms offer relatively few themes for showcasing a portfolio. Fortunately, WordPress has hundreds of free and commercial portfolio themes, so you are almost certain to find a design that inspires you.

    WordPress is also flexible when it comes to page creation. If you need a new page to display your curriculum vitae, it’s as simple as clicking Pages > Add New and starting to type. You also won’t find any restrictions on the number of images you can upload with WordPress.

  • 3. WordPress is extensible.

    A WordPress plugin adds additional functionality to a theme. For example, if you wanted to embed your Instagram feed, create an online store, or encourage social sharing there are plugins to do those things.

    There are more plugins created for WordPress than for any other platform. In fact, there are currently more than 50,000 free plugins in the WordPress Plugin Directory, along with many commercial plugins available to address nearly every need, from eCommerce to email marketing.

    There are also a number of good gallery plugins that you might prefer using in lieu of the gallery style native to your theme.

  • 4. WordPress is customizable.

    Perhaps the best benefit of WordPress is that it is an open-source project, which means you are free to make or commission changes to the code, among other things. If you are unable to find a WordPress portfolio theme or plugin to meet your needs, you are free to modify it to make it work for you (i.e., create a child theme or build a custom plugin). If you’re like me and programming is not your forte, providers like Codeable and UpWork operate as outsourcing marketplaces to help you hire a freelance WordPress developer.

Hosting & Domain

cloud hosting illustration
A s stated in the previous chapter, WordPress is free to use as a CMS but to make an online portfolio with WordPress you still need a hosting plan, domain name, and portfolio theme. Together, these items represent a monthly investment ranging from $10 – $25.

Let’s take a closer look at the importance of choosing the right web host and domain name. The next chapter covers theme selection.

Hosting

As you make decisions about the setup and content of your online portfolio, keep in mind that your choices will affect the performance of your website. A website that loads quickly offers a better user experience, which translates into greater engagement.

The technology and location of the servers delivering your website to the world are 80% responsible for your site’s overall performance. Web-ready images and a well-coded portfolio theme account for the other 20%.

Over the years, I have had positive and negative experiences with numerous web hosting providers. SiteGround, Bluehost, InMotion and WP Engine are all providers that I routinely endorse with confidence. However, I have found that at just $5.95/month SiteGround offers the best overall value in terms of performance, security, and customer service.


siteground web hosting

If you decide to go with SiteGround (or any of the other web hosts that I endorse) and click through from this page, some will donate a portion of your fee back in support of OnlinePortfolio.org.

Domain

When choosing a domain name for your online portfolio you must first consider how you would like to be perceived by your intended audience (i.e., employers, art professionals, etc). Many visual artists simply register their full name as their domain name (e.g., henrikamatisse.com).

However, if your name is not uncommon you may discover that it has already been registered as a .com, which is still by far the most popular domain extension. In that case, you might consider using a hyphen between your first and last name (e.g., henrika-matisse.com), adding a descriptive word before or after your name (e.g., henrikamatisseart.com), or choosing an alternative domain extension such as .net, .design, .work, .art, or .photography.

A clever domain name can work, but be sure to adhere to the general best practice of keeping it simple, as short as possible, and true to your brand.

Theme Selection

WordPress theme selection
A WordPress theme is responsible for the overall look of your website. Page layout, location of fundamental elements such as site title and menu, and stylistic details like color scheme and typography are all determined by the theme designer’s creative choices.

Theme Sources

The WordPress Theme Directory lists free themes available for you to download. About 300 themes in the directory have been tagged as being portfolio specific. When browsing the directory, you may sort themes according to layout, features, or subject.

The commercial theme market consists of thousands of themes, including those created by the top WordPress theme makers in the world. While the free directory is full of well-coded themes, you should not expect commercial and free themes to be equivalent. A commercial theme will nearly always have a greater level of professional design and built-in customization options than a free theme.

Commercial themes can be found by googling targeted phrases like “WordPress portfolio themes” and “WordPress themes for artists.” These and similar searches will lead you to discover and explore theme marketplaces such as Creative Market, ThemeForest, and MOJO Marketplace, as well as a multitude of independent theme shops who only offer themes for sale through their own websites.

Theme Support

Before selecting a theme, take some time to research the theme maker. Customer support should be a top priority.

Before requesting support, consult the documentation provided with your theme. If you need help with anything generally related to WordPress, try a Google search first. Most of the time you will solve a problem on your own much faster than waiting for a reply, and you will have learned more about WordPress in the process.

If you are unable to find an answer to your question, use the appropriate channels to request personal support (i.e., email support form, community forum, etc.). Always be kind and considerate when describing your request, and try to provide sufficient detail without being verbose.

Finally, be patient. Allow up to 24 hours for a response — this is considered both reasonable and commensurate with the amount of money you are paying. After your problem has been resolved, remember to say thank you, and consider posting a positive review on social media.

Peer-Reviewed Themes

For this guide, I have curated a list of WordPress portfolio themes. Each theme has been carefully considered on the basis of design, code quality, and author reputation. Selected themes range in price from $5 to $250 and include a link to a live preview for inspiration, as well as a details page where you will find more information, including features and pricing.

The most effective way to display an online portfolio is within the confines of the minimalist design precept — less is more — where the goal is to reduce a subject to its necessary parts.

If you decide to buy a theme from my curated list and you click through from this page, some sources will donate a portion of your fee back in support of OnlinePortfolio.org.

Theme Setup

WordPress theme setup illustration
A fter you purchase and download your WordPress portfolio theme, it is time to begin the exciting work of setting up your website. In this chapter, I will provide an overview of the basic steps involved with the setup including: WordPress installation, activating your theme, referencing theme documentation, configuring theme options, and optimizing images for the web.

WordPress Installation

Leading web hosts (e.g., SiteGround, Bluehost, and others) include a one-click app to install WordPress from within your hosting admin. Your web host will also be happy to install WordPress for you, simply contact their customer support team and ask nicely.

Before you install WordPress, ask your hosting provider if they offer a free SSL certificate. If so, express your desire to have one installed on your domain. SiteGround offers a free SSL certificate on all of their hosting plans which is one of the many reasons I refer them.

Theme Activation

To install your theme, login to your WordPress admin, then go to Appearance > Themes > Add New. Next, press the Upload button and follow the prompt to browse files on your computer. Select the theme file that you purchased. Finally, click the link to Activate your theme.

As a next step, navigate to Settings > Permalinks, select Post name from the available options and press the Save button.

Theme Documentation

Commercial themes normally include documentation to help you set up unique features or special elements. Most theme makers will assume that you already possess a foundational understanding of how to use WordPress, so don’t expect your theme doc to cover basics topics like creating new pages, galleries, or menus.

For those who are brand new to WordPress, it is normal to feel a bit lost or overwhelmed at first. With a little persistence, you will get through the learning curve!

If you need answers quickly, a simple Google or YouTube search can be extremely effective. This is also a great way to discover helpful resources. For example, searching the phrase “how to create a WordPress page” instantly returns accurate results from several sources. One of the sites listed is WPBeginner, a free WordPress resource site that provides quality tips for beginners.

Note: Be mindful of the date that a blog post or video was originally published or last updated. Always favor the freshest content to ensure you’re getting the most accurate information available.

Theme Options

Although not required, many commercial WordPress portfolio themes include built-in customization options allowing users to edit theme styles without creating a child theme. Customization options are theme specific and may be as limited as a few settings, or as expansive as a multi-tab menu.

Where available, theme options are typically found inside your WordPress admin via Appearance > Customize for themes that allow you to live preview changes.

Image Preparation

Online portfolios face unique performance challenges, because images take longer for a server to process than text – and artists tend to have a lot of images.

Uploading extra-large images to your website will cause it to slow down, resulting in a poor experience for visitors. The solution is to resize and compress images before you upload them. Images have file dimensions and file size, which are commonly referred to as image size and weight.

As a rule of thumb, resizing images to 1500 pixels on the longest side will produce sufficiently high-quality results on about 90% of screens. The key is to optimize image weight to ensure fast load speeds. For example, a 2-3 MB image can often be compressed to a final weight of 100-150 KB when resized and saved properly.

Adobe Photoshop is the most widely used software for professional image editing. Conveniently, Photoshop offers a Save-for-Web feature to make image compression easy.

I suggest resizing your images to 1500 pixels (longest side) — 72 dpiSave-for-WebJPEG formatHigh or Very High compression. When optimizing an image, your goal should be to reduce the weight as much as possible, without alerting the eye that a compromise has been made.

Plugins

WordPress plugins illustration
WordPress has been designed to function as a three-part ecosystem consisting of the core WordPress CMS, an active theme, and plugins.

As we have already considered, a CMS enables you to build your website in real-time, and your theme will determine the overall presentation. The role of a plugin is to extend your WordPress experience by adding new functionality that is not part of the core CMS or theme.

A plugin can be installed and activated, or deactivated at any time. There are currently over 50,000 free and open-source plugins in the WordPress Plugin Directory.

You should expect a lower standard of support, if any, from the developer of a free plugin. For this reason, it is best to ask yourself the following questions before activating a plugin:

Has the plugin been updated in the past six months?
Is the plugin compatible with the current version of WordPress?
Does the plugin have a good rating?
Is the developer replying to support requests?

The answers to these questions can be found on the plugin overview page which includes a detailed description, user reviews, usage documentation, changelog, and a support forum.

Basic SEO

search engine illustration
S earch engine optimization (SEO) is the process of affecting the online visibility of a webpage in organic search results. SEO is an exhaustive topic all by itself, so I will only introduce the fundamental on-page factors.

As a visual artist, your primary SEO goal should be to have your online portfolio rank at the top of search engine results when your name is searched. You want a client, employer, or curator searching for you to see your website as the first result.

As a visual artist, your primary SEO goal should be to have your online portfolio rank at the top of search engine results when your name is searched.

To help with on-page search engine optimization, I recommend Yoast SEO and All-In-One SEO Pack. While there are several good SEO plugins to choose from, I recommend installing either of these two because they represent the best of the best with respect to reputation, popularity, user reviews, and compatibility. Each plugin is also beginner-friendly and offers extensive help documentation.

Keywords

Keywords are the words and phrases that people type into search engines in order to find information on a subject. Because keywords describe what a webpage is about, they are an essential part of on-page SEO, along with the page title and page description meta tags.

Meta Tags

A page title tag is an HTML element that specifies the title of a webpage in 50-60 characters. It plays a key role in helping people understand what your webpage is about, which makes it important for usability, SEO, and social sharing. Your page title should accurately describe the content of the page because it will be displayed on a search engine results page (SERP) as the clickable headline for a given result.

A page description tag is an HTML element that provides a brief summary of a webpage in roughly 50-300 characters. The page description tag often appears underneath the page title on a search engine results page.

Page Title Tag Example (50-60 characters):

French painter, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor | Henri Matisse

Page Description Tag Example (50-300 characters):

Henri Émile Benoît Matisse was a French artist, known for both his use of colour and his fluid and original draughtsmanship. He was a draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor, but is known primarily as a painter.

eCommerce

online store, ecommerce illustration
The internet has made it possible for visual artists everywhere to gain exposure like never before. In addition to creating an online portfolio, many visual artists are utilizing eCommerce to sell their work and even book online or in-person creative mentorship lessons.

The WooCommerce plugin currently powers 30% of all online stores and is the most popular eCommerce platform on the web.

If you intend to make an online portfolio that not only showcases your creative work, but is also capable of eCommerce, you will find my curated list of such themes below.

If you decide to buy a theme from my curated list and you click through from this page, some sources will donate a portion of your fee back in support of OnlinePortfolio.org.

FAQ

information illustration
Frequently asked questions are organized in topical order as outlined in the table of contents. Simply toggle each question to display the answer. If your question is not listed, please leave a comment or submit a support request.

A bespoke website is custom-built by a web development service for a client. A theme is a pre-made template to which a client simply adds their own content, with the option of further customization.

There are two main reasons why it is more practical for visual artists to choose a theme over a bespoke website:

1) Cost savings
2) Code & content management

A bespoke website costs several thousand dollars and incurs additional costs for updates, while the average cost of a theme is typically less than $25/month and includes the ability to manage content on your own. Plus, theme makers are incentivized to continually maintain code quality and device compatibility in order to earn your business from one billing cycle to the next.

Open-source software has been made available to the public along with the rights to study, change, or distribute it for any purpose (e.g., WordPress). By contrast, closed-source software such as Wix, Weebly, Adobe Portfolio, or Pixpa is proprietary and may not be changed, copied, or distributed by users.
WordPress is the most popular open source content management system (CMS). WordPress is widely-adopted among visual artists worldwide due to its ease-of-use, flexibility, and robust community.
WordPress is free to use, but you will need a domain name, hosting plan, and theme in order to use WordPress for your online portfolio.
With such a large selection, the task of finding the right theme for your online portfolio can be time consuming. Browse my peer-reviewed list of the best WordPress portfolio themes for visual artists. Creative Market, ThemeForest, and MOJO are also three of the most popular marketplaces for WordPress portfolio themes.
Your web host likely features a simple-to-use installation app for WordPress. Contact your hosting provider to request installation support, as well as a free SSL certificate for your site.

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