With Illuxcon opening next wednesday, I wanted to go in depth on a topic I touched on in the last post, Approaching Art Directors. I want to talk a little bit about one of the most dreaded hurdles of breaking into the industry as an artist: the In-Person Portfolio Review. If the thought of opening your book in front of an artist you admire or an art director you want to work for gives you nausea and cold sweats, this post is for you.
As I’ve said before, this is my opinion on the topic, honed through much experience, many art director round tables, and a lot of drinking with other art directors when no artists are around. I don’t speak for every field of art, nor for every art director, so do your homework if you’re targeting a specific client.
Some things to consider:
Office or Convention: If you’ve been invited to show your portfolio at the office, then rejoice, because we’re all busy and overworked, and it must mean either we like your online portfolio quite a lot, or we like the person that recommended you quite a lot. Be prepared for the AD to have an extremely messy desk, and to be interrupted 23 times mid-review. If you are at a con, expect to have a gigantic info-dump of feedback, and have less than 5 minutes to ask questions. It’s the speed-dating of portfolio reviews.
Attire: Again, this is where it helps to know your client a bit. If you’re going into a more formal office environment, it might pay to dress business casual. But for most art departments, and definitely at cons, formality matters much less than personal style. Unless formality is your personal style, then by all means, rock that suit. Or unique dress. Or awesome pair of Lord of the Rings leggings. Not everyone is into fashion, however, so neatness is a good rule of thumb. And personal hygiene. And pop a breath mint before you go into the review. Trust me, ADs appreciate it. When someone knows nothing about your work ethic, it’s human nature to judge a person’s attention to detail in their work by people’s attention to detail in their person.
Bring: Your portfolio (duh, I know), breath mint, pen and paper for notes, just in case.
Greeting: Again, ADs tend not to be too formal, but a handshake is a good opener. Do you have a good one? Not to be sexist, but ladies tend to have a harder time with this. Practice. No, seriously. And have an opening line ready. For example:
“Hi Irene, nice to meet you, my name is Lauren Panepinto and I’m an illustrator. I graduated from SVA 4 years ago, and I’ve been professionally freelancing for the last two years, mostly for Fantasy Flight Games. I’d love to work with Tor and would really appreciate some honest feedback on my work.”
(Of course, if you ask for honest, make sure you’re ready for honest. That’s a whole other blog post.)
Portfolio Medium: I don’t care if your work is printed or digital. I care about ease of seeing the art without the packaging getting in the way. If you’re doing prints, make sure you have good quality prints with accurate color. If they’re in a standard black book with sleeves, please don’t use the super glossy pages, they shine too much to see the work. Especially under crappy convention center fluorescent lighting. Don’t go overboard with the size, make it an easy size to hold and rotate if necessary. I would say no bigger than 11×17″. Do not put your originals in the pages, unless you have a very good reason. We need to see how your work reproduces.
As for digital, iPads have become increasingly common and they’re great for seeing color. Just do yourself a favor and download a portfolio app, don’t just have an album in your photostream. I have an innate skill for accidentally finding your cute dog pics. And while I appreciate cute dogs, and cats, and kids, you don’t want me to get distracted. Especially in the speed-portfolio rounds at a con. I’m a fan of Minimal Folio but I know there’s tons of options out there. Just make sure you can still zoom into the pieces at least 200% without getting too pixelated.
Vertical vs. Horizontal: This one comes up constantly. If your portfolio is a manageable size, I don’t have a problem physically rotating the book/iPad to go back and forth. Better that than having a print portfolio with big vertical pieces and teeny horizontal pieces printed on a vertical page, which I see people do all the time (I hear art schools are teaching students to do this, which I think is odd). I’d rather see the art full size than smaller just to fit on the page in the same direction. However, you need to really consider your flow, whether print or digital, vertical or horizontal.
Amount and Order: There’s a ton of debate over these issues, and this is really my personal opinion, but I’ve always felt that 10-12 pieces, stacked with your best work first, is the way to go. Also, it’s better to have less pieces of higher quality than to have 6 great pieces and 6 mediocre pieces. ADs say it all the time, we judge you by your best work, but hire you by your worst work, because we have to be ready for the worst case scenario.
Discussion: Generally it’s a good idea to give the AD a chance to flip thru your book and get a feel for your work overall before you get too deep into explanations, but you don’t have to sit there in silence either. You can say something along the lines of, “Would you like some background on the work?” Everyone is kind of different on this one, but remember, we’re trained professionals, if we have a question, we’re not going to be shy about asking you. But too much chatter leads to excuses, and the one thing you should never do is make excuses for your work. You can explain limitations you might have had, or give some background to the work, but never never never say things like “That one didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.” or “The hands are wonky.” or my personal pet peeve, “The color on this one didn’t print very well.” Trust me, we’re going to see your faults, you shouldn’t call attention to them.
Another big no-no is arguing. You’re asking someone for their professional opinion. You owe it to them to listen. You don’t have to agree with them, or follow their advice. You can ask for an explanation, and of course, ask questions, but don’t argue. I’ve gotten absolutely horrible advice given to me by ADs and artists whose work I really love, and I totally ignored it. But I didn’t try to convince them they were wrong.
Leave-Behinds: Definitely have a business card ready. Postcards are fine too, but not mandatory. Again, I’m a digital person so printed pieces are just a means to get your website into my computer. Whatever you do, make sure it impresses. Whether it’s your best portfolio image, a selection of images (Moo cards are great for that, but good lord, don’t use the teeny ones, they always get lost), or just a cool promo item, make sure it’s something YOU would want to keep on your desk. Honestly it’s a little girly, I know, but one of the most effective promos I got from an artist was an emory board with her art on it. I use that thing all the time!
Follow-Ups: At the review, you will have probably gotten the AD’s card, but sometimes we forget or run out, so make sure you write down our email address (remember, I did say bring pen and paper). A few days after your review, send a short thank you email with a link to your work, and a low-res jpeg of any pieces you think the AD responded well to. Often I will tell someone in the review to email me a specific piece or pieces after the review. That’s a really good sign. Again, whip out that pen and paper if you need it to remember.
Remember: By asking for a portfolio review, you’re asking someone to make a mostly-gut decision about you, so it pays to control as much of your message and presentation as you can. That said, you get almost infinite do-overs. Over the five years I’ve been involved in the SFF art community and doing reviews at cons, I’ve seen many artists grow from portfolio review to portfolio review. I am always happy to have a conversation and re-review people’s books as they grow.
Good Luck! Hopefully I’ll see a lot of you at Illuxcon next week! If you didn’t get an official review slot with every AD you wanted, review my last post and come find us.
After 17 years designing and art directing book covers, Lauren Panepinto has worked in every publishing genre and collaborated with artists of all disciplines. As the Creative Director & Vice President of Orbit Books for the past ten years, she has been trying to merge the worlds of genre and commercial publishing and figure out what SFF publishing looks like in the present world of mainstream "geek" media.After an amateur career in punk rock show posters and 'zines, Lauren received a B.A. in Graphic Design from The School of Visual Arts. She has worked in fashion (Perry Ellis), television (MTV), and for boutique design firms, but found her calling in book publishing. She has worked at St. Martin's Press/Picador Books, at Doubleday/Random House, and now at Hachette Book Group, the parent company of Orbit.In addition to traveling all over the place giving portfolio reviews at conventions and writing for Muddy Colors, you can also find her art business education projects at www.DrawnandDrafted.com, and www.MakeYourArtWork.com, and all of her many projects and www.LaurenPanepinto.com.