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Content and Your Illustration Portfolio

No matter how much work you put up on your website, it won’t be effective unless it’s been properly scrutinized and edited. There are a variety of factors you’ll want to consider when weeding through your portfolio to see what makes the cut and what gets left in the pixel graveyard. Here are some simple rules for putting together a portfolio that will dazzle art directors:

Quality Over Quantity

The quality of your work is the most important thing. You’ll be judged by the worst piece in your portfolio because art directors will be concerned that that’s what they could end getting if they commission you. And, even if an art director can accept that risk, it’s often hard for them to convince skittish editors who would definitely feel more comfortable going for the sure thing. So put your best foot forward and trash anything that doesn’t measure up. If the proportions are unintentionally funky, the concept is lame or contrived, or the color palette is garish, remove it. It’s better to only have five incredible pieces, than five incredible pieces and ten mediocre ones.

If You Simply Must Display a Lot of Work, Organize

Speaking of numbers, you should try to limit the amount of pieces in your portfolio to under twenty. If, for some reason, though, it makes sense to display more, organize your work into categories or separate portfolios so your visitors aren’t so overwhelmed. And look at combining pieces. If you’ve done a full page illustration, for example, with several supporting spots, don’t display them separately; put them together under a single project. Any tricks you can do to make your portfolio seem less dense will go a long way towards your visitors having a better experience with your art.

Make Sure Your Work is Consistent

Browse through your illustrations and try to pick out the most consistent work to go into your portfolio, both in terms of style and execution. An art director wants to know that, when they hire you for a job, they’re going to get exactly what they expect. If your work is all over the map, you’ll make the back of their neck hairs stand on end. So edit out all of those one-off experiments and go by the rule of threes: if you have three or more of the same approach, it’s allowed in. If not, toss it. Also, in regards to style, it’s best to have one defined look rather than a bunch of different ones. However, if you do have multiple aesthetic solutions, that can be alright so long as each one is a clearly realized, individual identity. (Note: we’ll talk more about multiple styles and how to deal with them in a future post.)

Show Some Variety

While consistency is essential, you also want to make sure your work has a bit of variety. I’m not referring to style, but rather concept, composition, and subject matter. If all you draw are celebrity caricatures from waist level up looking straight ahead at the viewer, an art director is going to think you’re a one-trick pony. So look through your portfolio and see if every solution you’ve given to an assignment is identical minus a few details. Get rid of the pieces that are more-of-the-same in favor of ones that show your range and demonstrate that you’re the illustrator who can tackle any assignment thrown your way.

Consider Marketability

Because you don’t want to starve, you also need to make sure that there’s actually a market for the work in your portfolio. Be honest with yourself when evaluating your illustrations. Can you envision realistic scenarios where people would pay you money to make more of them? Would you get enough clients to earn a steady living? Does your work fit into the context in which you’re attempting to get it published? For instance, you may love abstract fine art, but if you see yourself as a children’s book artist and that’s your portfolio, I think you’re in for a long, hard road. Therefore, you should err on the side of the work that seems more marketable to you. However, if you do firmly believe in your art and don’t see an outlet for it yet, by all means push it. Just know that you might have to carve out and create your own niche until the rest of the world catches up.

Offer Something Unique

There are a lot of illustrators out there, so you need to look through your work and see why what you have to offer is different from everyone else. It could be style, viewpoint, sensibility, etc. Whatever it is, make sure that thing comes through in your portfolio and eliminate work that seems derivative. It’s easy to be inspired by other illustrators, but if your art is just a carbon copy of someone else’s, that’s only going to get you so far (as well as probably anger the illustrator you’re ripping off).

Remember Your Audience

Finally, the last thing you may want to consider when uploading work to your site is your intended audience. If you’re targeting book covers, but all of your illustrations are heavily editorial, those art directors are going to have a hard time visualizing and selling you to their higher-ups. Likewise, if you’re after the children’s market, but you have highly-charged erotic art on your website, that could be a turnoff. This doesn’t mean you should go all one way or the other. In fact, don’t do that. But definitely consider the markets you’re trying to work in and examine whether or not what you put online will help get you closer to them or drive your intended audiences away.

Final Thoughts

Editing your portfolio is one of the hardest things to do when it comes to promoting your work. You have to be able to step back and look at your art objectively, without any personal attachments, and trim off all the fat. A good portfolio will be high in quality, organized, consistent, varied in composition and subject matter, marketable, unique, and appropriate for the audience you’re trying to reach. Only when it is, will art directors click on that all-important “contact” link.

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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