Creating a portfolio is essential to succeeding as an artist. Let’s face it, we all like to share our work and get feedback to help us grow. After all, it’s one of the main things that drives us to continue and get better. There is nothing wrong with sharing your work with others but there is that fine line of sharing and collaborating and bragging. Stay humble whenever you are presenting your work and drive for feedback more than praise.
You will find that whenever you talk about your work, there will be different reactions. Some people just don’t care about seeing your work and that’s okay, you don’t pester them, then there are the others. Some people ask to see your work as somewhat of a challenge, proof that you can actually draw or paint well and then there are those who are truly interested and want to see what you produce. Then there are the types we hope for, those who look at our work and present us with a potential project. You will never find this potential client if you can’t show your work. You will never acquire a studio if you have nothing to show.
This is all great but where to we start?
How to make an art portfolio
There are multiple ways to create an art portfolio, multiple types of portfolios, and multiple reasons on why you will create them, but where do we start? This can be a big question for many and you will often see well established artists reworking their online and physical portfolios on a regular basis. Every time we revisit our work, we come up with new ways to present our work and often run an A/B test to see which ways draw more attention to our portfolios.
As an artist, you will find that you often work in multiple mediums and different genres of work. We can use my portfolio to explain this point. I have a portfolio for fine art portraits, fantasy artwork, cartoons, and client work. Now, I could group all of these into one large portfolio, but what might attract one person into your portfolio may scare off or confuse another.
Multiple portfolios are great to cater to a specific client base. Chances are, someone who is looking for a fine art charcoal portrait won’t be interested in an orc or warrior angel or anything else in a genre other than what they are looking for. The same holds true for those looking for fantasy or anything else. They are usually on your website for a specific reason.
I like to have a separate portfolio specifically for client work. This type of portfolio is “the proof” of doing professional work. For example, I completed a piece for BYU (Brigham Young University) that I named, The Slaying of Laban, that I included. It was a fairly large and time intensive piece that shows potential clients who has hired you adding to their trust and possibly convincing them to hire you as well.
Finished and unfinished pieces
The debate of whether to include unfinished pieces will often arise when you are talking portfolios, do you include them or do you limit the portfolio to only finished pieces? This is a tricky piece of the portfolio so I recommend you go with what you feel will give you an edge. If you are going for concept art, you can often get away with unfinished pieces because it’s the idea you are selling. However, if you are looking to present at a fine art gallery, unfinished pieces probably won’t make much of an impact or possibly even hurt your chances of getting into the gallery. Gear your portfolios to the clientele just as you would with having multiple portfolios.
For my online portfolio, I only show my finished work on my website, but I have informal portfolios such as my profile on Instagram that is mainly dedicated to work in progress and unfinished pieces. These types of informal portfolios are often a great resource to drive traffic to your finished portfolios. This can lead to artwork sales or possibly and art director discovering your work.
Your best foot forward…and last
When it comes to your portfolio, if you have your worst piece listed first, you might as well say goodbye to the client. Though this hold true online, it’s has even more weight when it comes to a physical portfolio when you only get to see one piece at a time and have to manually move the pages. If you open your book to your worst piece, that is usually as far as a client will go and they’ve already made up their mind to not hire you. When they open up your book, they should have an immediate wow factor.
Place your best pieces right at the beginning of your book. Each page turned should create immediate interest. As the client delves further into your book, this is a chance to place strong pieces, though not quiet your best pieces. Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t include any weak pieces, ever, but not every piece can be your best piece either. Each painting or drawing you do should have you improving and the older pieces will begin to move to the center of your book until they are eliminated. That brings up the point of not overdoing your art portfolio. You don’t have to include every piece you’ve ever done, only include those that create an impact.
Now, we’ve mentioned to have your best pieces at the very front of your art portfolio and the rest of the pieces in the center, but what about the very end? Here is a little trick I use. You don’t want to end on a weak piece so as they move from the center of your book to the end, start adding back in some very strong pieces. This little trick will make anyone reviewing your book remember you as starting strong and ending strong instead of starting strong and ending weak. Give them a little reward, a final hurrah for looking at all your work. Plus, it gives you more time to sell yourself to them!
Putting it all together
We’ve now talked a bit about how to make an art portfolio both physically and digitally but we haven’t delved into what it takes.
Physical art portfolios
For the physical portfolio, you don’t have to spend a ton to get a decent portfolio. Though portfolios come in a variety of quality and design, the most important aspect is that it shows your work in a well prepared manner. I’ve had many different portfolios over the years, some as simple as this ITOYA art portfolio:
and some that where completely handmade and customized. Both actually had the same impact because once I had the client looking at the portfolio, the work spoke for itself and that’s what you want them to remember, the work, not what holds it.
Another thing to consider for the physical portfolio is paper quality. Higher quality papers and high quality printing will always present your work better than a quick print on cheap paper. Though the costs can add up quickly, the higher quality paper will usually pay for itself when you start landing better clients. The high luster or giclée finishes look much better than toner on a basic stock.
Let’s now talk about online portfolios. This has become a standard form of online presentation. Even though there are sites such as DeviantArt, ArtStation, and an array of others, there is nothing quite like sending a client YOUR website instead of a community board. The reasons for this are many, but a main reason is that if you send a client to DeviantArt or similar, they may get distracted and end up finding another artist instead of you. When you send them to your site, you get the client focused on your work and your work alone. The contact form is right there ready to send to YOU.
The downside to hosting your own website however is that you need to maintain it. If you have a slow bloated website you can lose clients. I recently upgraded my hosting to SiteGround and my websites ended up going much faster than my previous host. I also run WordPress for all my sites so I can update my website any time, anywhere. If you ever need help with your WordPress website, you can contact me on my other website where that’s what I do every day. That website is www.graphicdesignbyadam.com.
It is important to get feedback on your portfolio but if you are just starting out you may not know where to find the feedback you need to push your portfolio and present it as it needs to be. Here are a few areas that you can find feedback on your portfolios.
It’s always a great thing to get artists to review your portfolio. Not only do you get review from someone who has an eye for what makes stronger pieces than other but they might have solved a solution to their portfolio that you are struggling with at the time. It’s always good to share tips and techniques and help each other grow.
Family and friends
Artists are not the only ones to give you advice on your portfolio, you can seek the guidance of family and friends who are non-artists as well for they will often take the roll as a client would and behave similarly. You could watch what they get held up on, ask questions about, lose or gain interest in, and the list goes on. Their advice and reactions are very helpful in guiding your portfolio.
One of the most important to get advice from is art directors as they often hire people based on a portfolio review. This goes back to the multiple portfolios section so make sure you send them a portfolio to review that is relevant to the industry they are in. Not only will you gain incredible feedback from someone who sees portfolios every day, but you might just land a job doing it as well. If you plan to send to an art director through email or post, you need to be patient, they are very busy and if they have a moment to review your portfolio, you want to show them your appreciation properly by not pestering them. If you need immediate feedback, consider dropping into conventions and finding the art directors who populate them. Large companies often send their art directors to conventions such as DragonCon or ComicCon so look at the roster and find who is there. They often do live critiques and they scout at the same time.
Update as you grow
Now that you know how to make an art portfolio, it’s important to continue to update is as you grow. You want to keep your presentation portfolio as simple and to the point as possible. As artists, we often like to show everything we’ve ever created. Now, there are outlets to do that and they usually fall under forums and other social media, but for your portfolios, keep them to your best pieces and remove the worst pieces as you become better.
Please feel free to leave your portfolio in the comments below so others can find you and ask questions if you have any. I’m more than happy to give you my feedback if you request it and continue to watch my portfolios as you will see my site is constantly growing and changing.