Thursday, May 15, 2014

Will You Look At My Portfolio?

William O'Connor 

Daumier. "The Engraving Collectors"

This is the most common question I receive when doing shows or teaching classes, so I thought I would share my experiences on how to build a portfolio.  I also taught for five years in an art  prep program where our job was to help kids put together portfolios for college presentation.

I have a good friend who is an art director at a major gaming company. One year at San Diego Comic Con she sat at a portfolio review table and looked at aspiring artist's work all week. The lines had stretched around the hall, and on Sunday she had estimated that she had seen over 1000 portfolios. I asked her 'Did you find anything good?' She answered flatly, "Nothing." 

It seemed amazing to me that out of 1000 portfolios she found nothing even remotely usable. The problem was that every single portfolio was the same. Pencil drawings on loose leaf paper of manga characters, superhero panels taken straight from the 'How to Draw the Marvel Comics Way' book, celebrity portraits copied from photographs, and paintings taken right off of on-line workshop challenges. If you have any of these things in your portfolio, Take them out!! 

Here's a few pointers I've learned over my 25 years in the business.

Be Original. Make sure that all of your work is original. Your ideas, your concepts, your designs, your style, and all appearing to be painted by the same artist. If an art director sees ten paintings she may like them all, but if they're all in a different style, they will hesitate to hire you, because you're unpredictable. At the same time you want to show your diversity. Mix up the subject matter, palette, and composition, but keep the theme of the style. Creativity is the key, as you can see by some of the quotes of art advice for portfolios by schools and companies below. You can teach an artist painting or computers or any medium, but you can't teach creativity. That's the one thing all clients are looking for. I've seen Art Directors and Schools take on artists who were obviously substandard technically, but their creativity was amazing.  Being original is very important because even if your work is good, if there are a dozen other artists doing basically the same thing, you've painted yourself out of a job before you've even started.  Being one of 10,000 on an art website will dilute your work by being lumped in with thousands of other artists. You want to stand out from the crowd.  Art directors will encourage you to do similar work as other artists they use, that's their job, they need a ready supply of interchangeable artists to draw from,  but that style will change, or that company will go out of business, or that art director will leave, then you're left with a specialized portfolio for a single client that no longer exists.  Being good will get you work, but being original will get you a career.

Keep it Simple. Less is more. A minimum of eight paintings, no more than twenty in a portfolio. If you're uncertain about a painting, leave it out. We don't need to see everything. As a general rule, an art director will decide whether he likes you or not with the first image. The second image shows that you can repeat the quality, and the third painting just confirms that its not a fluke. Additional images should then show your diversity and range.
Art portfolio web pages have become like art vomitoriums. Remember that an AD or College will judge you on your worst piece. Be careful what you put out there. Pencil doodles and design renders are nice, but don't make an art director sift through fifty unfinished sketches before getting to one finished piece. I can't tell you how many portfolios I've reviewed where the artist said, 'Oh, that's not finished.' Then it shouldn't be in your portfolio. Also, End Strong.  The last image in your folio should be as good as the first.  I've seen so many portfolios that peter out with unfinished sketches in the back.

Presentation.  Both traditional and online portfolios should be neat and easily navigable. If you're showing a client a beat-up sketch book with coffee stains and ripped pages, you've lost it before you even start. Even if the material is decent, the client is going to question the condition of the art they will receive and the attitude that you will give to their project. Colleges will likewise question your dedication. Your work is your life and livelihood, treat it with respect and others will too.
A couple of structural notes on physical portfolios:  Make sure that the pages of the folio turn easily, anything with clip binders will often snag making the presentation awkward.  Place the images in a single orientation so that the client or admissions officer doesn't need to turn the book to look at each image.  Avoid having an image cross the gutter.  Make the book a decent size, and don't skimp on the reproductions.  Very handsome, high resolution 13"x19" prints on archival paper are beautiful, but no bigger.  Also, not to small.  Diminutive little 8x10 Itoya Profolios just seem sad.  Don't leave any blank pages in the back.  Most all, carefully consider the arrangement of your images, they should flow in a  natural way.  Print on demand books are rather affordable these days, and getting one or two portfolios printed is a great option.  It shows your design skills, what your art looks like printed in a book, and it stands out as professional.  These days you could drum up funds to make a Kickstarter portfolio and sell the remainders that you didn't send to art directors.

Be Professional. If you want to be a professional illustrator you have to act like a professional illustrator. Don't waste art directors' time. Do you like getting unsolicited junk mail? Being accosted in hotel lobbies by salesmen? What about those guys on the street handing out coupon flyers? Pop up ads, email bombs, and the worst, being tagged in someone's Facebook photo to get you to look at them?  Multiply that by thousands and you get an idea of an art director's life. Most of those things will be automatically filtered as spam, thrown out, or edited by assistants before the AD even sees them. Art directors love art, and some of the best friendships are between artist and art director, but if you're not getting contacted by art director's, your work isn't ready yet. Standing in line at portfolio reviews, dumping images into slush piles of art drops, and being a nuisance isn't going to make them like you. If you read Art Directors blogs, they are busily looking for new talent. They scour shows, surf the web, read blogs, look at new work all the time. If you're not getting called, its not because they don't see you, don't hassle them! I've had good friends who were art directors that I never worked with. Its not personal. 

The best way to get an art director's attention is to do really great work.  I know that sounds simplistic, but its the surest way to get work.  Win some awards, (Art Directors love awards as much as artists do.) Get into Spectrum, ImagineFX, Society of Illustrators, Expose or some other juried annual, this culls the pack down from hundreds of thousands to just hundreds. Do shows, make a large presence on the web, and keep up a cordial, professional correspondence routine. The rest is up to them. If they don't like your work, you could stand on your head and juggle, it wouldn't make a difference. Stay professional. Don't worry about what one art director says, there are thousands of them out there.  Do the work you love, do it the best you can do it, and the rest will happen. If you seriously want a critique, don't go to a potential client and ask "What don't you like about my portfolio?". Approach another artist, one you admire and respect, who will give you an honest opinion.

Sell It. Remember that you are the salesman of your product. You need to be be your own best advocate of your work. If you're not interested and excited about what you do, no one else will be. I've done reviews where artists say "don't look at that one, its not very good." or when I ask a question about a design or color choice they've made I get a shrug. You need to believe in your work and be proud of it. Be open to critique, but also defend your choices. Art Directors are talented people, but your work needs to be your work, not theirs. Art is a very personal endeavour, you have to do the work you like, because you're going to be doing it for the rest of your life!

The Following are examples of what leading University and Corporations are looking for in artist's portfolios. 

Bioware Inc. Portfolio Submission Guidelines.
"To be a Concept Artist for the games industry, you need the following: Imagination - if you don't have this as a foundation, you will never draw anything uniquely cool or interesting. We have seen plenty of great renderers with no imagination. Those portfolios are tough because the work looks good, but there is not an original idea in the bunch."
Mason Gross School of Art, Rutgers University. Portfolio Submission Guidelines.
"Your portfolio...should represent your creativity, potential for artistic growth, dedication to artmaking and working hard, and offer evidence that you have looked at and read a bit about art and its history....Avoid cartoon action figures, monsters, graffiti art, "cutesy" kittens, traditional portraits (drawn from photographs), glamour and fashion advertising images."
The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Portfolio Submissions Guidelines.
"Technical ability may or may not be considered more important than the creative and artistic efforts evident in your portfolio. We strongly recommend not submitting work copied from photographs or from other artwork. The Admissions Committee is interested in seeing the execution of an original concept."
Bizarre Creations Studios. Art Advice.
The things you'll need to show are a varied and creative (yes, creative, not copies of other peoples stuff!) portfolio, showing your talent and enthusiasm for art. It's an idea to show or take along a range of work - paper and computer, from early concept to completed pieces. Having talent is essential, as a talented artist doesn't need experience, and can usually adapt to other media.
The Savannah School of Art and Design. Portfolio Submissions Guidelines.
"Applicants should not submit work copied from film, television, photographs, magazine/book illustrations or other sources...Portfolios should include drawings from life, interior and exterior drawings of buildings, and work that demonstrates applicant's personal creativity."

 Enjoy and Good Luck.


text©2014 William O'Connor



  1. This is a fantastic post. I've read a lot of advice on portfolios but you seemed to sum it all up in a very concise way.

    1. Thanks! Just keep doing your work the best you can, try to be be the best artist you can be. Good Luck!

  2. Thanks for this article! That thing about eight to twenty artworks and portfolio structure will surely come handy. I assume it's best to print out portfolio on A3 format on pricey matte paper?

    Rant: There is a typo in Be Professional paragraph - "you're work" instead of "your" ;)

    1. thanks-
      any thing that looks neat and displays the images well. I've seen some artists make up print on demand bound portfolios that look great! Stands out from the run-of-the-mill itoya profolio.

  3. Can't argue with this article at all. I have reviewed portfolios from college applications in our state and most of their artworks contained manga drawings or something similar to it. While it was proficient, skill-wise, the artwork didn't do justice to the portfolio, since there were so many portfolio that had the same drawing that it loses its novelty and wears out even the most scrupulous of professors. Therefore, I agree that submitting original artworks as part of your portfolio is a priority.

  4. You're right about keeping a portfolio simple. As long as it is able to showcase your talents, then it should be kept as simple as possible. You shouldn't let your portfolio's design distract the attention from your artwork, right? Thanks for sharing those tips! All the best! :)

    Ed Campbell @ La Champion Online Marketing