Our guest post today comes from established Children's Book Artist Donald Wu. Don is a San Francisco Bay resident with a huge portfolio of success under his arm that includes more than ten published books to date. If anyone can tell you what it takes to be successful and stay successful it's him! So please join us as Donald helps to walk you through putting together the most important tool you'll need to establish yourself and start getting work, your portfolio!
Every now and again, I get asked the question, "What should I put in my portfolio?". So, I wanted to take a moment and share some tips and suggestions you might consider when putting together an illustration portfolio. Specifically, a portfolio of illustrations catering to children's publishing; although websites and social media play an ever-increasing role in promoting your work, having a physical portfolio will still come in handy the next time you attend a nearby illustration conference or if you find yourself lucky enough to be given some face time with an art director. So let's get started...
First off, let's get the basics out of the way; a typical portfolio should contain anywhere from 12 to 15 images, bound in a nice, clean, and simple, 8" x 11" portfolio. The thing to remember is this: showcase work and talent, so the portfolio itself should NOT distract or compete with the artwork. So rule of thumb ...keep it simple! Be sure to include pocket at the back of the portfolio with postcards and/or business card for someone to take.
Now for the most important parts of any portfolio, the ARTWORK! Here are a few key points to remember:
- Order & Pacing: Typically, a portfolio should open with a sample of your best work! The point of this is pretty obvious, you want to WOW your viewer and grab their attention right from the start. Once you have it, it's a matter of sustaining that interest throughout the entire portfolio. To achieve this, you want to space your artwork out evenly and build a rhythm between some of your good/solid pieces and some great/better pieces. And to end it on a high note, you'll want to include another one of your best illustrations. Ideally, this will leave them with a lasting impression of your work, or even better still, leave them wanting more!Below is a quick diagram to better illustrate this. One thing you will notice is that depending on the quality and the number of pieces in your portfolio, as well as the fact that you will be constantly update your portfolio, we will have some variations, but the basic structure should still be followed.
- Consistency of Quality: Your portfolio is only as good as it's weakest piece. So if you have an illustration that you are not sure about, it's best to leave it out. To a potential client, a weak piece will also have the potential of leaving a lasting impression, but for all the wrong reasons. Your portfolio should only contain your best work, so in some cases, less is more. So remember, even if it means a thinner portfolio, only include work that you are actually proud to show off.
- Consistency of Style: Along with demonstrating a consistent quality of work, you also want to define a consistent style in your art as well. A big mistake you can make is filling your portfolio with work in several different styles and techniques. Below are several scenarios someone might decide to do this with their portfolio. In each case, first, I'll give the rationale behind these choices followed by reasons why you shouldn't.
- By showing a wide range of styles, there is a belief that you are showing the art directors that you are versatile and capable of handling multiple mediums and styles. Instead, what ends up happening is that you'll leave them thinking, "What kind of art will I expect if I hire you?" And this is not what is desired.
- By including a portfolio with different styles, you are hoping this will help you land more jobs because you are in essence casting a wider net. Unfortunately, the downside of this is that you are also diluting your portfolio in the process. So instead of having a full portfolio of 12 solid pieces highlighting your individual style, you are only able to show potential clients 4 or 5 pieces. This will make it more difficult for them to accurately assess your skills and make them reluctant to hire you.
- Let's face it, sometimes you just need a filler. You might run into a case of simply not having the number of illustrations to fill up your portfolio. So you decide to round out the 12 pieces with an illustration that's different just to bulk up your numbers. The thing to remember is that any capable art director will see right through this as well, which will lead to them to question your experience. And just as bad, this misplaced illustration will stick out like a sore thumb and disrupt the flow to the rest of your portfolio.
At the end of the day, the person looking at your art needs to be able to associate your name with your work. So the clearer and simpler you make it for them and yourself, the better.
- Content: The next area I want to cover, I also feel is the most important, and that is the kind of illustrations you should showcase. So let's get down to the nitty-gritty...
- Children: Seeing that we are creating a portfolio for children's publishing, naturally, a huge majority of our time will be spent drawing and painting children. So knowing the subject matter will be crucial! From sad to happy, or surprise to shock, being able to convey children with emotion and life will be an important part to master. This means that your portfolio should not only cover a diversity of races, gender, and ages of children, but you can also cover a variety of situations and scenarios a child can relate to.
- Animals: Aside from drawing children, in this business, you will also be asked to draw lots of animals. So in your portfolio, it would be beneficial to include some animals as well. This can be your more realistic and lifelike animals to your more anthropomorphic variety.
- Make Believe: Fairy tales and the fantastical play a big part in children's publishing, so it would be a natural choice to include them in your portfolio. However, here's a caveat for those who decide to illustrate a popular one, and that is the risk of it being generic or cliche. Personally, I feel that unless you can introduce something new to the table, or add your unique twist to a classic, I would stay clear of them. Instead, you should use the opportunity to show off your creativity, and imagine your very own fairy tale.
- Storytelling: In children's publishing, a big aspect of what we do is tell stories with pictures, and so your portfolio should reflect this. Your illustrations should tell a story. The bulk of your illustrations should include work that shows a characters interacting with either their surroundings or with each other. You should limit posed, glamour shot or pin-up type of illustrations. In other words, focus on the illustrations you would find inside the pages of a children's book and not so much on the illustrations you would see on the cover.
- Continuity: Another part of telling stories with pictures also involves being able to demonstrate continuity. So a good addition to your portfolio would be to include a couple of illustrations (no more than 2-3) that shows you can handle a series of sequential illustrations involving the same character(s).
- Licensed Characters: Lastly, this seems pretty obvious but you should definitely avoid using licensed characters in your portfolio. Unless you look really good in strips or bright orange, just stick to your own original work. Not only would you be coming across as unprofessional, this too, is another missed opportunity to show that you can be creative, by inventing your own original characters.
When deciding on the content of your portfolio, the best advice I can give you is to make the most of each illustration. You are limited by the number of illustrations, so each and every selection becomes all the more important when trying to make a good impression. Be deliberate and even strategic about what ends up in your portfolio. A solid, well-rounded portfolio will show potential clients that you can do a job, and do it well.
- Know Your Audience: Within children's publishing, there are lot of niches, so it's important to know who you are showing your portfolios to. From educational, to religious, to trade publishers, each one of these publishing sectors have their own requirements and preferences. So do your homework and know what these clients are looking for, and then cater your portfolio to fit those needs.
- Updating Your Portfolio: It's a good idea to keep your portfolio current. As your work continues to evolve and mature, so too should your portfolio. While some pieces remain staples in your portfolio, others will be quickly be replaced. One thing to remember is to stay flexible depending on what's needed by the potential client.
Well, I think I have covered just about everything! In closing, I just wanted to say that this business of illustration can be quite frustrating and challenging! Not only is the competition as high as ever, but add to that the economic climate of these past several years... things couldn't be more daunting for anyone trying to succeed in this business. Which is all the more reason you need to build the strongest portfolio possible to stand out from the crowd. And for those persistent and determined few, I hope this has helped. Good luck and I wish you much success!