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Creating an Effective Illustration Portfolio

Sonal Panse,

If you want to succeed as an illustrator, you will need to have an effective illustration portfolio. Clients will assess your skill level and decide if they want to work with you based on what you have to show in your illustration portfolio, and, for this reason, it is important to give a good deal of thought to what you include in it.

A portfolio is always a work in progress. You will always need to keep adding, removing, and improving to stay relevant in a changing market. A thing to remember though is that you cannot be all things to all people, and neither can your portfolio. You will need to streamline your portfolio according to the market or markets you want to work in.

The Issue of Illustration Markets

To decide which market you want to work in, take a stock of your likes and your abilities. What kind of artwork do you enjoy doing the most? What are your interests? What are you really good at? This can help you narrow down your choices. Now make a list of markets that match these choices. Look at the type of work they publish, and look at the work of the illustrators that they are currently working with. Compare the artwork to what you have done so far. Is your work on level with what the leading artists are doing? Do you need to improve? In what area? Are you falling short in your drawing and coloring? Are you being repetitive and tame in your composition? Do you need to show more action? Different perspectives? Better character development? More creative imagination? Try to understand why their illustration works so much more better than yours. Please note, this is not to suggest that you alter your work to resemble theirs – don't do that under any circumstances; you must always interpret in your own way, that is what will make your work unique. Looking at successful art is only to gauge to what extent you need to raise the bar. Being aware of how much you still need to develop will help you plan an improvement strategy, and it is always a good idea to have a decent body of work before you send out queries.

The Issue of Illustration Styles

There has been a lot of discussion about whether you need to develop a consistent illustration style or not, and, not surprisingly, there are many sound arguments both in favor and against. Some art directors, it seems, like to see consistency so they know what to expect and don't have to deal with any unpleasant surprises after they have commissioned the work. While this is understandable, consistency needn't mean that everything you do ought to have a similar look; trying for that would be very self-limiting, and I think that the focus needs to be more on the content – what are you illustrating and is your work bringing out the concept as suitably as possible? To get a consistent focus, it might help to work in series instead of just doing stand alone works. Select a topic and create a series of related illustrations; this will also show off your ability to depict the same characters in different situations, and will come in handy if you're planning on doing book illustrations.

The Issue of Illustration Topics

Once you've decided on your illustration genre – and this needn't be just one; if you have the time and capability to be prolific across the board, then, by all means, be utterly prolific – the issue of topic shouldn't really be an issue. Pick a word, a phrase, a story, a poem, a situation, a character, a concrete idea, an abstract notion, and whatever else that comes to mind, make a long list of things that could be illustrated, and get started. Illustrate individuals as well as crowds, humans as well as non-humans, and in both still and action poses, showing a variety of expressions and clothes, in a variety of settings, locations, perspectives, and lights. A good illustration is a combination of technique as well as concept, and your work should show this.

The Issue of Illustration Samples

How many illustration pieces should you have? Well, quality is more important than quantity. You are more likely to be hired for ten very good illustrations than 40 tepid and lusterless ones, so it's not a good idea to pitch in every single thing you have ever done. Edit yourself ruthlessly. Make sure that each work in the portfolio is the best one you could do, and is also work that you want to be hired for; for instance, a complex, time-consuming, and physically-tiring work, however great, may not be commercially viable in a market with tight deadlines and budgets.

Create different portfolio categories for different genres, so it is easier to direct viewers to specific artworks. You may want to include roughs and process sketches, and explain the concept behind a work if you think it is necessary; just let the words add to the image, not completely overwhelm it.

The Issue of Illustration Portfolios

Online portfolios are becoming more the norm than physical ones, particularly with the proliferation of mobile devices. It is much simpler to show a prospective client your work on your phone or tablet, or to direct them to your website. Keeping in mind short attention spans and busy schedules, it's a good idea to have a quick-loading site with a simple, easily navigable, and clutterless interface. The point of the site is to showcase your artwork, so don't make this challenging for the viewer.