Part 1: Portfolios (a “webinar” blog)

Last year I wrote a post on illustrator’s Postcards that I thought could be helpful for my local SCBWI members.  BUT it was very well received by many around the world (color me surprised!) and I was constantly asked “where’s part 1?”  I promised that I would be presenting on Part 1 at my local conference last fall, but alas due to circumstances beyond my control, it didn’t work out that way.  And I still receive requests from time to time for the info I’ve found on Portfolios, so it’s time to cull all my resources into one spot for those who are interested right here (especially as there is another local conference this fall with a Portfolio Showcase contest that I know several local illustrators want to enter).  If I promise something, I always try to deliver (even if it’s in a different format and much later than I anticipated).

*Disclaimer: I’m not an expert, nor has my Portfolio won any awards to date.  This is just a collection of knowledge and resources that I’ve gathered on the subject.

First, let’s talk about what a Portfolio is.  This might seem basic, but trust me, there’s a distinct difference in two types of Portfolios.  There is the Art Portfolio, and there’s the Children’s Illustration Portfolio.  These are two different beasts that get easily confused oh so frequently in my short experience as an Illustrator Coordinator.  Just because it’s pretty (aka “art”) doesn’t mean it should be in your portfolio if you’re interested in illustrating kids’ books.  I will be focusing on the latter.  And while most of today’s discussion will probably focus around picture book illustration (that big backbone of kid lit work for illustrators), that isn’t the only type of children’s illustration.  There are also early chapter books, chapter books, book covers, graphic novels, and many more areas of need for illustration.  Whatever type you choose, make sure your portfolio is tailored to that.  This video is the greatest illustration I’ve found of the difference between the two major types of illustration work.

Second, talking about what goes IN a Portfolio is the trickiest part of all.  No one can tell you what is a good illustration or what to draw.  You are the artist behind your work and knowing what you like is a very personal process.  This tends to lead to deep philosophical conversations about “what is art,” etc.  I like this post the most for covering that whole thing.  It also touches on some layout technical stuff that helped me put together my first children’s illustration portfolio (and figuring out the “rhythm” behind it) which I will talk more about in a minute.

However, there are certain fundamental things I can tell you that do need to be in your Portfolio. Obviously, you need pictures of kids and animals, but again, they should be appropriate to the work you want to get.  For example, if you want chapter books, draw older kids (tweens, black-and-white line work, etc.).  But if you want picture book work, the kids should be much younger (babies, toddlers, 5-year-olds, etc.).  But I’ve also heard it said numerous times that you should limit the types of your work to two different kinds (picture book illustration and black-and-white line work, for instance).  And most importantly, the pictures should tell a story.  What does that mean?  Well, it should be a scene that leads the viewer to ask either “what happened to get to this point?” or “what happens next?”  Here are some great tips from previous SCBWI Portfolio winners about the content of the portfolio.  You want consistency of character, but variety of setting and layout (double-spread, single page, spot, vignette, etc.).

If you’re really struggling for ideas, there is a great list of 100 possible things in this $10 SVS class that I highly recommend.  It’s SO worth it!  If that’s too overwhelming, but you still need a gentle nudge for ideas, why not try the Build a Portfolio Challenge?  They have assignments every month to help you build up a portfolio slowly (1 piece at a time).  If you’re still struggling for ideas, study the field you want to be in by going to a bookstore or library.  Look at what’s currently being produced (not what was done 5, 10, or more years ago).  You should be reading and studying the field voraciously anyway.  It’s the best art school you’ll ever find.

Now let’s talk about some of the logistics of a Portfolio.  First, there is the physical case you will put your artwork into.  Juana Martinez-Neal has a blog that I found very helpful describing a variety of types of portfolios.  There are some great pictures there to show you the variety that can be involved, but it’s not necessary to be fancy (aka, expensive).  Though, to be honest, one of my favorite (and most memorable to me) portfolios from last year’s LA conference was one Dalton Webb made himself to look like a Golden Book.  It can be the “little black dress” of portfolios as Molly Idle refers to her’s when she talks about how to put together a winning portfolio.  I ended up choosing a simple Kolo portfolio myself and I quite love it. Juana Martinez-Neal also has an incredibly helpful post about how to mount your artwork in a Portfolio too if you find that process mystifying like I did at first (though I’m sure everyone has their own method).

Next, the hardest part of all to explain, is flow.  How the pieces flow together in your portfolio is just as important as what pieces to include.  I struggled with this one myself on my first time out (and in hindsight, I think I failed).  There are a LOT of resources for this part of the topic alone.  First, I refer back to Molly Idle’s “introduce yourself” piece on her blog.  This is an image that incorporates your name in some way and makes your portfolio stand out from the crowd (yet is stylistically the same as the rest of your work being presented).  Then the interior spreads should have a rhythm to them.  I again refer back to the slideshow at the bottom of this post for layout.  There is also Bobby Chiu’s tips on flow at the beginning of this video that help to make sense of the order of pictures.  But then I studied the winner’s of some of the SCBWI Portfolio shows and what they said about flow.  Eliza Wheeler shows her before and after winning portfolios here.  Juana Martinez-Neal shows her before and after winning portfolios here.  Andrea Offerman talks a bit about flow as well for her winning portfolio here.  And Jen Betton talks a little bit about flow on her blog too.  Finally, don’t forget a memorable end piece.  (Did you see Molly Idle’s? Cute, right?)

I think that covers all the bases.  Except maybe a few fine points I forgot to mention.  To end, here are some Don’ts that I feel are also very important to point out:

DON’T include original pieces!  Always provide copies (and make sure they’re high quality prints).

DON’T have more than 12-15 pieces.  Keep it short and simple. Remember, there are a LOT of portfolios to look through at these shows and you don’t want to overwhelm the viewer.

DON’T put anything in your portfolio stylistically that you don’t want to do for work.  Keep in mind that this is advertising YOU as a business.  If you don’t want the business, don’t include it.

DON’T forget to attach a dummy (via a string or whatever specific parameters your Portfolio show has about this detail) IF YOU HAVE ONE.  They are not required.  However, it’s one of the best examples you might have that you know how to illustrate a full story (and/or tell one yourself–though these don’t always have to be original writing, it could be just a retelling of a fairy tale to demonstrate your skills).

DON’T forget about your postcards!  You want to have some sort of promotional material that people can walk away with and look you up later (or contact you!).  You don’t want them walking away with your portfolio, after all.  And honestly, I have seen some business cards in the past too, but those were SO easily lost in the fray of a Portfolio Show that I don’t recommend them.

DON’T forget about the size specs!  Almost every SCBWI Portfolio show has specific size requirements.

DON’T be afraid to try!  It can be intimidating your first time to put yourself out there.  But if you never do, then no one but the dust bunnies in your closet are going to see your work.  And DON’T judge your work as unworthy of entering either.  Imposter syndrome tries to tell us that there’s always someone better and more worthy of being an illustrator.  But the truth is, there is always room for more!  There are a diversity of styles out there and you really don’t know where your work can go after a Portfolio show.  MANY picture book illustrators got their start from SCBWI Portfolio Showcases (and not just from winning first place, but also winning the mentorship prize).  I look forward to seeing where you my fellow illustrators go with your work.  =)

Other resources:

10 Tips for Choosing What to Draw for your Portfolio (if you need more ideas)

What an Art Director might look for in your work  (if you want to know what their perspective might be)

Will Terry on How to Set up Your Illustration Portfolio (especially helpful for setting up online portfolios)

Kidlitart chat on Thursday May 24, 2018 about Portfolios (illustrators discussing the topic are SUPER helpful too)

About jenabenton

I'm an elementary school teacher, writer, illustrator and storyteller.

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