29 ways to wow with your portfolio
Got the illustrator blues? Pounding the pavement but not getting replies? If only illustrators could read minds, it would be easy to know what art directors want to see in an illustration portfolio. But not being psychic, many resort to plain guesswork.
Luckily, there are some things that art directors often say in in-person talks, articles, and videos. I’ve compiled a list here of valuable tips they’ve deigned to divulge. Some are things they say over and over, while others are less common but struck a chord.
These tips apply to both print “books” (term for portfolio, in case your a newbie) and online portfolios, and though targeted at be illustration portfolios, most apply to other creative fields as well, including fine art, graphic design and photography.
Here’s the list of illustration portfolio tips:
- Ease of use is the most-mentioned recommendation for an illustration portfolio. Keep the focus on your work, not on your site design. Don’t make people click more than once to view a larger image. Instead, have thumbnails they can choose from. Navigation should be clear and simple.
- Offer downloads of your tear sheets, preferably high-res. Be sure to put your contact info on each one, keeping the look (fonts, placement) consistent. Don’t make the art director do a “print screen.”
- Make sure your site loads fast.
- Separate your work into galleries on your site, such as animals, people, business, holiday, etc.
- Post the type of work you want to get. If you’re no longer interested in working in a style, don’t include it.
- Remember it’s all subjective, what one creative director sees as great art is another one’s nightmare. So don’t get discouraged, and be ready for lots of conflicting opinions.
- Keep in touch, but not too much. Send postcards twice a year. Holidays are good time to send. Postcards might be kept up on a wall. Include tear sheets and/or postcards in your analogue portfolio as takeaways.
- 8 1/2 x 11″ tear sheets are good to have in your portfolio as takeaways or downloads, as these can be kept in a filing cabinet.
- Put your art ON things and show them or mail them. Some ADs love little doodads and clever promo pieces. Portfolios don’t have to come in cases.
- With a paper portfolio, check each page to be sure it’s clean before you show it. A piece of shmutz or, worse, something scurrying is a sure way to never get a good-news call from an AD.
- It’s good to put art in clear plastic pages in your print book.
- Don’t drop off original art. Things can get lost or damaged, nothing is 100% guaranteed. Save your fancy handmade portfolio for in-person visits.
- Keep images all in one format. That doesn’t mean you have to make all the images vertical, just the way they’re shown. Don’t make people flip the book (or iPad!) around.
- They like to see blogs, to get to know you. Keeps them engaged.
- They’re watching you. One rep says she keeps tabs on artists she’s interested in. She said be an artist who produces consistently, not one who does things in spurts then fades. So show them you’re still out there, keep your site updated (even if it’s just moving things around), and connect with industry people on social media to subtly help them watch you.
- Be a polymath. If you’re open to doing more than one type of work, by casting your net wider, keeping quality and style consistent, variety gives you more chances. Editorial, children’s book, people, animals, lettering, maps, patterns, food, and character turnarounds are all great to include.
- Diversity is strength. Show characters of differing backgrounds, ages, and abilities. Also have diversity of format–include a multi-image narrative if you want narrative work. Show a variety of visual angles as well.
- Got more than one style? ADs disagree on this. Most say to include a bunch of samples of each style and separate them in a portfolio. But some only want to see one style. Some illustrators actually use different names for their different styles. Their reps may present them that way, being aware that it’s all one multifaceted person. Basically, as long as you show you have mastered each style, it’s probably OK. You shouldn’t limit yourself.
- Don’t have published work? Everyone starts somewhere. You can take things such as magazine articles, fairy tales, or stories and create pieces. You’re being evaluated on how you express ideas, so the concept should be clear.
- Pick a meaningful point in the text you’re working from to illustrate. It doesn’t always have to be the most dramatic moment–it can be a turning point, a moment before or after an event, or a quiet scene showing the character’s personality–and your interpretive abilities.
- Edit, edit, edit–a good print portfolio or online gallery (you can have multiple galleries) should have 12 to 20 pieces. Showing more than that risks viewer fatigue.
- Put your best images as the first and last images in a print book or online gallery. That gives a positive impression and last impression.
- Have your own site as well as being on larger ones. An art director trying to choose from thousands of creatives on a big site faces choice paralysis, according to these tips on photography portfolios.
- Make search easy. Use tags, categories, and hashtags. If an agent wants to see humorous animals dancing on Easter, you should make that possible using tags such as humorous, animals, dancing, and Easter. Sites such as Behance (free with free Adobe account) offer many options such as galleries, projects, and hashtags.
- Don’t rely on social media sites to show your portfolio. Those aren’t easy to arrange, according to these tips on arranging your work in a children’s book illustration portfolio.
- Make your work shareable online. Add sharing links to individual images and galleries.
- Keep updating and removing images that no longer reflect who you are. Pare it down and stay in the present.
- Think of turning through pages or clicking through images as dancing to a beat. Be aware of how the viewer will respond to the pacing of the images and page turns.
- Having an unusual style of “book” to show in person, such as a handmade one, or an distinctively designed Web site can make you memorable, as long as it creative and matches your brand. If you’re not sure, keep it minimal.
Print or online, stay consistent.
We don’t have control over everything. What we do have control over is presentation. Image arrangement, easy navigation, and consistent branding are all tweaks that can go a long way. If you do the best at what you can, show it off in the best way you can, and carefully curate, your illustration portfolio can impress even the most jaded AD and help you land your dream assignment!