-Gregory Manchess

If you were drawn to this post, you’re probably serious about developing your portfolio. Let’s be honest. You’re already thinking about how to sell your work, not stumbling over what many artists fear: that promoting one’s work considered artistic prostitution.

Lighten up. This is about getting work and keeping clients. This is a fundamental part of any artist’s career: their portfolio. The thing that says, ‘this is what I do’ and, ‘I do it really, really well.’
Even today, when the classic black portfolio has been mostly replaced by the iPhone or iPad, your presentation, the promise of your work being a good experience for a client, is the underlying key principle.

There’s no forgiveness in this business. You must think like a pro from Day One.

1. Convenient
It should be a seamless endeavor for the client to look through your book, no matter what form it takes. It should be easy for them to hold. Get rid of the clever faux cow skin covering and pop-up sparklers and surprise extras. They’re never a surprise, and they’re never extra.

You may find this odd, but the best thing I did at the beginning of my career was realize that I didn’t want a portfolio that ‘stood out.’ I wanted it to blend in, become a part of the freelance landscape. I wanted my book to look like it had been used. Like it was a portfolio that people missed until they opened the thing and were surprised–at the quality. I let my book get beat up from multiple shippings and if it didn’t look the part, I wasn’t beyond giving it a little ‘travel patina.’

Don’t be clever. Be smart.

2. Start smart, end smart
Your best piece should smack them in the face on the first page. Each successive piece can be of less quality than the first, but then in the middle, your next best piece should strike there. After that, you can take them through other pieces, but you must end on one of the best possible pieces you’ve ever created. End on a high note. People remember beginnings and endings. Period. Not so much in the middle.

3. Best work only
Sounds simple, right? You can’t imagine how many people put everything in their portfolio. Endless pages of drivel. Only show the very best work you can do. Nothing else. If you don’t have it yet, then work to get it, and in the meantime, have a very short portfolio. Do not pad it with junk drawings. Ever.

4. Lose the figure studies
Unless you’re applying at Disney for a studio job, your figure studies scream, “amateur!” “just graduated!”

5. Only show the work you want to get
If you want to get book cover work, do not show your flower paintings. If you want to impress TIME Magazine, don’t fill your book with your conceptual paintings. They buy portraits. Going for gaming? Then don’t show them your TIME portraits. Show them what they buy, for cryin’ out loud.

Which leads me to…

6. Research the client
Learn what they buy. Come on, how hard is that in today’s market? So, a publisher prints books on gardening. Then put that kind of work in your book, not your “Death Drives A Pale VW” pulp fiction covers. They. won’t. get. it. And if you are going for gaming, then that’s the time to add your drawings of figure work, costumes, etc. That’s what those guys are looking for.

7. Multiple books
Still fascinates me that many potential illustrators have not figured out that if they have a range of different styles, they shouldn’t put them all in one portfolio. Separate those different styles into several portfolios and only show a particular portfolio to a client that buys that look.

One look per book. If you do watercolor and oil and pastel and pen&ink and mixed media and digital, (“wow! you do so many things!!”–not what you want to hear) separate them as much as possible so that each book makes logical visual sense of what you are showing. Oil with oil, digital with digital, cartoons with cartoons, editorial, advertising, etc.

Not very hard to grasp, hmm? You’d be surprised how many ignore this. If they’re impressed with your book and want to see more, that’s when you pull out your watercolor book.

8. Show, don’t tell–no excuses
I don’t care if Godzilla burst through your bathroom window and caused your printer to “mess up the color” of your prints, or your dog was raptured during The Second Coming. DO NOT make excuses to any potential client. If your book should look better, then make it look better, before you show anyone.
And being ‘new to the business’ is no excuse. If you are already making excuses for the portfolio, guess who’s thinking you’ll be doing the same on their job? Uh huh.

9. Perfect reproductions
Get quality reproductions into your portfolio. I don’t care what it costs. Neither does the client. You can carry just a handful of examples of your work if you are still putting a killer portfolio together. That’s ok, explain that, and then show the potential client a few samples of that killer work.

10. Flexible uses
After you’ve researched the client and know what they buy, go through your work and rearrange your pieces into another book or another presentation that will focus toward that particular client. If they buy both portraits and fairy paintings, then adjust your book to reflect that. Leave your horse and motorcycle paintings out.

Think of your portfolio as flexible. Use smart ways to show off your work, certainly, but your work must look professional and succinct.

Clients remember a presentation because it’s a reflection of your potential job performance.