Developing Your Portfolio for Fun and Profit!

January 18, 2007

Recently I was asked by a reader if I had any tips on creating a portfolio. Says they:

“I guess my main concern right now is my diversity in styles and subject matter. I’m trying to compose my portfolio but not sure if I should stick to one style/medium, or show a range in techniques and styles. I’m not sure if diversity will work for or against me. I do understand to stick to a certain genre pertaining to whom I’m approaching though.”

I definitely understand the concern! Making a showable body of work, whether web or print, is very important. This is what I’ve learned so far….

-If displaying for the web, try and keep your portfolio manageable, easy to load, and easy to come back to. If an art director spots your stuff but can’t backtrack to find it if he wants to reference it to you, that will put a damper on things. It’s best to be direct and let the work speak for itself.

-An illustration portfolio is like a house of cards; if you layer on too much extraneous matter, it might crumble. Save your life drawings and such for another portfolio; chances are, your art director wants more to see what you can do if he gives you an assignment, not that you specifically can draw well. (Granted, it helps, but art directors might consider you ‘too fine art’, or just get tired of sifting through to find the gems.

-An art director gave me a lot of advice once when he critiqued my web portfolio last year: he mentioned that he expected to spend at most thirty seconds on my work, though he wound up spending closer to twenty minutes in the end. But consider that! 30 seconds! In this day and age, if your target will spend on average 30 seconds on a portfolio, you’ve got to be certain to wow them or to keep them there. So look at your work, figure out what’s the strongest, and go from there.

-More on that point: I would take all your work and look at it. Divide it into three sections: Yes, No, and Maybe. This is like a organization show I watched last year, but still it works. Pick out everything that feels like it sticks out from the body; fine art, things that feel unfinished, etc. Does it look to you like you could see it published in a magazine, a book, a newspaper, etc? If not, put it in the No section. If it feels like it meshes somewhat well with your strongest work, put it in the Maybe section. Then look through your Maybes again, and see if they fit well with the Yes section. By the end of this, you’ll hopefully have a body of work that feels like it has a connecting thread: not everything will look the same, but it’ll feel strong with that connection.

-Multiple styles is NOT a black eye, but…the key thing to remember is that you should organize well and keep things simple. By which I mean, don’t mash up thirteen styles at random and mixing it all together into a folio. This makes art directors reluctant to hire you; they’re not sure what you’ll provide, or if you’re just flipflopping around. It’d be best to show a few examples of each style, grouped together and made more obvious that you’re exploring two or three different ranges; this way, if Art Director Bob likes style 2 but not style 1, he can hire you and explain he’d rather the work look like style 2, so you don’t worry about miscommunication.

-Consider making a pseudonym. I’ve seen a few illustrators do this and succeed at it; if you treat each style like it’s its own entity, that might let both styles flourish. However, depending on how much time you have, it might be difficult to upkeep two different illustrators in one. Personally, I find a lot of time within just one style to experiment and grow, so I don’t really think I’d do this, but if you’re afraid you might be pigeonholed as a children’s book illustrator and want to do some more mature edgier illustrations, it might be the way to go. However, I can’t say I know anything about how the finer points of handling a pseudonym work (phone calls, taxes, etc) yet.

-What if you don’t have any published work to share what you can do as an illustrator? Perhaps consider finding a local weekly or music magazine that can’t pay, if you can afford to do the pro bono work. I had some good illustrations come out of the now-defunct Rockpile magazine, although I didn’t get a dime. Or, make some illustrations. Take a newspaper article at random and illustrate it. Find a magazine that has an illustrated section and redo the illustration the way you’d handle it, but in the same dimensions as the one that published. Of course, this isn’t published, but you can treat it as a good exercise and personal work to put in your folio. Supposedly also good to do is to make some work of some ‘named faces’– celebrities, etc– so that art directors can see that you can do that. (I haven’t done a ton of that though, bad me!)

-Etc: If you’re going analog, whether for an art director, a rep, whatever–give them a strong taste of what you do, but don’t go overboard. People are busy, and they just need to see a good sense of what you’re all about. Did you apply to art school? It’s kind of like that. 10-20 images are good, if you can vary the subject matter, that may help as well. The packaging is important too, don’t let that fool you; they’ll get a better sense of you if you create your own packaging rather than just use a manila envelope. This can incorporate illustration as well, and can be rather fun. Don’t send or bring in originals: this is about printed work. An original can be lost, plus it can look incredibly different in the printed version. Your target wants to be able to envision the work in a publication: make the job easier on them. Find a good printer who will reproduce the work the way it needs to be.

That’s all for now; tune in Tuesday, when we’ll be chitchatting about creating promo pieces, starting with postcards!


11 Responses to “Developing Your Portfolio for Fun and Profit!”

  1. Dave said

    I just wanted to say I love this blog and the work you’re doing. I’ve recently decided to jump into trying to make illustration my career after quitting animation school. After just these three posts it’s been a wealth of information of just the sort I’ve been looking for. I’m just getting started and I really feel your advice is beginning to point me in the right direction. So basically what I’m saying is thanks and I hope you keep up this great work.

  2. I was just putting the finishing touches on my brand spankin’ new web portfolio when I read this. I actually have three different portfolios on my site: one each for children’s illustrations, other illustrations, and design work. I’m not sure if that’s the best thing to do but I have the work arranged within each gallery similar to how you suggest with different styles grouped together. I also think that having a separate link to a gallery that’s specific to the job you’re looking for to send to the art director might be a good idea. That way they wouldn’t be distracted by other work. And for all of those figure illustrations that you really wanna show off, why not make a blog related to your website?

    Thanks for the advice! I’m looking forward to seeing more in this blog!

  3. Kat said

    Wow! I got quoted! Thanks so much for this post (and all your others)! You are so awesome for helping fledglings out of the nest. It’s so intimidating and scary when you first enter this arena. I got my art degree at a state university. Not only do I not get the “wow” factor of having graduated from a major art academy, but I got absolutely no training on what to do after college. I’m not sure if most art schools are like this but I got stuck with a lot of life drawing, composition studies, and student work, but no instruction on how to develop a portfolio or market myself.

    Thank you so much for extending your knowledge and experience to us all! I hope I can also do that one day!

  4. Brad said

    I’m stepping out, thanks for holding my hand!

  5. Bjorn said

    Illustrators are problem-solvers. We solve visual problems. Art Directors and editors need to determine wether or not you can solve illustration-problems. This is (to me) a very important factor that needs to be communicated throughout your portfolio.
    If you can, make scans of magazines and other things you are published in and put up the page your illustration is printed on. This way an AD or editor instantly sees how your work shows up in print. It also tells him/her that you delever on time… very important.

    Great post Meg!!!

  6. Your advice is extremely helpful. A very valuable blog from a very valuable illustrator!

  7. ariel said

    *wow.. so much to say.. so little brain to remember it all..

    In regards to styles, i work as an animation designer so i work in many different styles. I honestly can’t think why a director wouldn’t choose an artist that can immulate many styles over one that can immulate one. But i’ve learned more now.. A)People dont’ have time to develop more styles and B) Stick to what you do best..(that usually takes up most of your time)

    Also, do people still send out full portfolios? Everything seems to be done digitaly now, i can’t imagine a director having the time to look at even “one” folio. They’ll check it on-line if they’re interested.. Am i wrong to think that?

    Anywho… thanx again for this post Meg, real informative 🙂


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  9. Kirsten said

    Thanks so much for this blog – it is amazingly helpful.

    I’ve heard that one method is to get postcards printed and send in one of those with your website on the back. How do people feel about this vs. sending in a whole portfolio?

  10. Great advice! A lot of illustrators try to show everything they can do and that makes their portfolios very messy. It’s possible to show a wide variety of style, if you keep it simple and make it flow smoothly from one style to another.

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