The greatest asset of an artist seeking work is an outstanding portfolio. I can think of no other industry in which skill level can trump a degree to such an extent. Self taught? No problem. Prove you know what you’re doing and you’re hired. But how do you know what to include in your portfolio? Is it really that big of a deal?
Portfolios are an illustrator’s resume, and therefore ought to be edited like one—“proofread” if you will. Wonky anatomy, like spelling errors, can push away prospective employers. Before you show your masterpieces to the world ask yourself if what you’ve chosen is the best representation of what you have to offer, and soak in these expert tips from illustrators Donald Wu, Neil Swaab, and Chris Oatley:
1. Pick Only Your Best Work
According to children’s illustrator, Donald Wu, a “portfolio is only as good as its weakest piece.” Nothing in your portfolio should be less than good. Otherwise clients will question your ability to deliver at the level they expect and that could cost you future work. Start your portfolio with a strong piece, and end it with a strong piece to leave a lasting impression.
2. Less is Better than Mediocre
Aim for ten to fifteen pieces to display—twenty at the most, but only if the work is good enough. “It’s better to only have five incredible pieces, than five incredible pieces and ten mediocre ones,” says art director, illustrator, and instructor Neil Swaab. Focus on quality over quantity, and take the time to create new pieces instead of using sub-par work as filler.
3. Show Professionalism
Showcase your work with care, whether that be in a nicely bound portfolio or a well-designed website. Also important—let your professionalism spread beyond your portfolio into your communications with prospective clients. Disney character designer Christ Oatley shares the industry’s number one portfolio pitfall: unprofessional communication. “The animation industry is based on relationships. If we begin every potential relationship with an untidy, misspelled, poorly written, slang-laden communication, the relationship will last about as long as it takes the receiver to click “DELETE.”
4. Show Consistency
There’s something to be said of an artist who can successfully execute several different styles, but in a portfolio setting show only the type of work you want to be doing. Hate doing environmental concept art? Weed it out. Not only will your work be more consistent, your style will be too. “An art director wants to know that, when they hire you for a job, they’re going to get exactly what they expect,” Swaab says. “If your work is all over the map, you’ll make the back of their neck hairs stand on end.”
5. Be Relevant
And finally, be mindful of whether or not your work matches the needs of recruiters and contacts. “If you are applying to work as a character designer but your portfolio is filled with logos you did for your grandma’s punk band, you will just waste the time of those generous enough to review your work,” Oatley says. Be sure you have examples of the type of work they need before you present yourself.
So get out those pruning shears and go to work to make your portfolio one stellar experience your clients won’t forget. Time to do a bit of weeding myself.
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