By submitting to shows and getting my work out there, it exposed the portfolio to a wide range of clients. This allowed me to adjust the book with imagery that reflected the market place, but also allowed me to stretch. 
Greg Manchess

Portfolios can be agonizing to figure out. What do clients want to see? We find ourselves thinking, “if they just knew that I can totally do dragons, they’d put me on their cover!”

No, actually, they won’t. The client is like you—they don’t read minds, and they won’t see your potential beyond what’s right in front of them.

I’ve compiled a list of basic standards for different types of portfolios. They are quite simple examples but they are not suggestions. These are necessary basics for what a specific portfolio should contain for an artist to get work.

A portfolio doesn’t need to be all things to all possible clients. Clients will be looking for all kinds of topics, so don’t worry that you don’t cover every subject they want. That’s fairly impossible.
However, if they see that you can draw horses when they need leopards, you might be able to peak their interest enough to stay in touch and show them future work.

A portfolio should be flexible. In other words, you can move samples from your fantasy book to your mainstream book if the job calls for it. Research your client to find out what they want to see, and what they buy.

Your book is a sample of what you can do. Precisely what you can do. It reflects your basic control of subjects and how you’ll handle an assignment. Obviously, the idea is to show your best work in the book, and certainly, clients assume that what they see represents your highest level of skill. They will not read into it and assume you will do a better job for them. Generally, your book is a deal maker or breaker.

Stay smart: they will not see your super genius just by looking at your coffeeshop doodles. Know that you can only convince a client to use your skills if you show them what they buy. But also stay practical. Your beautiful tabletop still lives will not get you a portrait job. Adjust accordingly.

Again, the list below shows basic themes necessary for a portfolio in each of the different areas. Though this is where I differ from most ideas about a successful portfolio: I’ve always taken the long view. That has provided a steady, working, and successful career. It comes down to this:

Starting out, your interest should focus on getting work instead of getting medals.

Strive for a book that showcases your skills, what you can handle, and show how you can handle that. Clients will be looking for that first and foremost. Let’s be honest. If a client wants award-wining artwork for their project, they’re going to go after award winners first.

But not every client needs that. Careers are built, not born. Yes, we’ve all seen amazing examples. Many of the stories you’ve heard about people “making it” without trying are exaggerated at best. Sure, there are the rare few. So what. Hint: you might not be reading this if it was you. It wasn’t me either. I’ve worked for every break I ever got. You’ll get them, too.

Bottom line: study what a client uses and publishes first, and adjust your work to reflect that. The client is telegraphing what they are all about. Recognize this. Then apply it to your portfolio. Your personal vision for creating work that ‘wows’ them is something you work towards, not something you spring on them. Not at first anyway.

Besides, it makes for a better story. Somebody that makes it because they’re gifted is boring not fascinating. There’s so much more riding on hard, focused work than some miracle of birth. Eventually you’ll learn to focus your portfolio toward the one or two things you do best, and get the kind of work you enjoy. That’s generally how it works…how it’s always worked.

As you read through these, notice what topics are shared by all these portfolio examples. Your work should be versatile enough in the beginning to handle as many as possible:
Figure work
Multiple figures
Room settings

When you’re stuck deciding whether to add another landscape versus character, or another dragon versus a figure, always err on the side of the human figure, unless the request is specific. Clients will be more receptive to your skills at painting convincing people than merely monsters and “cool stuff.” 

And my own personal suggestion. If you handle light really, really well…you’ll grab their attention to anything. It’s not just rendering that amazes. It’s the light.

Your work changes over time. Give it the patience it needs to go to places and work for clients you may not have suspected working with at some point.

Mainstream portfolio
A mainstream portfolio needs to cover quite a range, but is often editorial based, idea driven and cerebral. But it can easily shift towards specifics for advertising, book, or institutional clients.

  • portraits x3 

Do at least three portraits of someone instantly recognizable. One portrait is not enough. You might’ve gotten lucky. Two means you might’ve been able to copy the first one. Three pushes the idea that it’s not a fluke.

  • multi figs

You’ll need a scene with multiple figures interacting. This easily shows composition capabilities, as well as staging and drama.

  • scenic

Multiple figures in a broad landscape works doubly well.

  • indoor

Necessary to show staging and architectural skills.

  • street scene

Many assignments involve cities and typical scenes within them. It’s nearly unavoidable.

  • autos

If you’re showing cities, you’ll need to demonstrate how you handle cars. They don’t have to be precise, but a client can use it.

  • horses 

Of all the animals besides pets, horses come up the most. For historical aspects, fantasy, sports, and sheer drama, horses have it. If you’re good at them, you’ll get work.

Science Fiction portfolio
A science fiction portfolio may seem restricted to Buck Rodgers-style images, but in fact they should be quite broad in appeal. SF has a wide range of aspects. Focus for: book covers, magazine work, calendars, gaming, conceptual work.

  • multiple figures 

In situ, in scenes, as above.

  • figures in space suits 

Figures in motion doing any number of spaceman things: running, floating, working, zooming, fighting, dancing, what have you.

  • helmets 

If you’re good at helmets, it portends how you handle tech.

  • tech 

Futuristic technology is a must. How you indicate it, how you design it.

  • high tech indoor 

Technology, indoor setting, with lighting. Very helpful.

  • spaceships x2 

You must show how you design, stage in a composition, and handle spacecraft. Period.

  •  landscape, planet scene 

Preferably with figures in it, as above. Barren. Craters are good.

  • alien(s)

Don’t get so bizarre that a client can’t tell what the heck it is.

Fantasy portfolio
A fantasy portfolio may seem open ended, where anything is possible. It’s best to hone fantasy images to a manageable range so as not to confuse a client, but to get them to remember. Focus for: book covers, magazine work, calendars, gaming, conceptual work.

  • full figures 

In costume x3

  • fig in armor 


  • multi figs 

In a scene, interacting. Maybe on horseback. With armor.

  • faces, character designs 

Design characters that are unique, but reflect a sense of classic portraiture.

  • dragon x2 

Make them believable. Don’t give them butterfly wings. Don’t make them so complex a client can’t enjoy their anatomical structure. ‘Wow’ them with good animal form, but be practical.

  • energy waves 

Every wizard throws ‘em. Might as well get good at it because somewhere along the way, a fantasy story will need to show the magic stuff a character is nearly always going to spray around.

  • scenic 

Again, with figures, but this time with wonderful light, color, and staging.

  • indoor scene 

As above. Preferably in a castle, with multiple figures doing stuff. Not just sitting around looking regal. Think Lord of the Rings meets Shakespeare.

  • castle 

They can be boring or dramatic. Show them how it’s done.

  • horses 

What? You thought you could get away with no horses? In Fantasy?? See Multiple Figures above. 

Horror portfolio
A horror portfolio has very narrow usage possibilities, but see this as opportunity to expand that range. (go read all of Greg Ruth’s posts) Focus for: book covers, magazines, calendars, gaming, conceptual work, comics

  • faces x3 

Do some horror portraits. Make them unique, but don’t overdo it.

  • multi figs 

A scene with figures doing creepy things or in a creepy setting, or both.

  •  indoor scene 

As above, but in a creepy indoor setting. Treat this like you are designing a stage play. Include good lighting, good costumes, good makeup. Preferably with a staircase (to show that you can handle repetitious forms without boring a viewer).

  • old house 

You’re gonna want to have one. Because …cool.

  • zombie 

They’re still hot.

  • ghost 

How good are you at painting vaporous apparitions? Do this well and you’ll have their attention.

  • cemetery 

Always a good call as it can show how well you handle light across multiple shapes, and how spooky you can drive a scene.

  • lighting 

How you handle your light in creepy scenes, indoors or outdoors, is critical to your success.

Concept Art portfolio
Most of the portfolios above overlap in application and that’s good for an artist. Conceptual work is mostly confined to movies and gaming, but some of that work can be stretched for use in other areas. That’s because so many topics are needed in concept work. Much like a comics portfolio. Focus for: animation, live action, gaming, product design, toy manufacturers

  • scenic 

Like a location shot for a film.

  • architecture
    big bldgs and small intimate bldgs 
  • multi figs
    as above, but within a scene 
  • character: full fig x3 

At least three full figures, with costume design.

  • character: facial x3 

At least three faces to show emotional expressions.

  • costume design 

If you work it well, you can combine with the full figures.

  • armor 

Three figs in armor not to be combined with the characters above.

  •  street scenes: futuristic street, historical street 

Handling historical vs futuristic will show your range.

  • animals, 

Mythologic animals, and again, horses. Won’t Pegasus be easier if you knew horses? How’s about Medusa if you know snakes? Centaurs, Minotaurs, unicorns, gryphons, etc.

  • machines 

One tank is not enough. One cool steampunk machine is not enough. Be able to repeat your successes.

Comic portfolio
Don’t restrict yourself to just superheroes, unless you have a burning desire. This field is burgeoning and stretching into many aspects of storytelling. Focus for: comic pages, comic covers, cartoons, gaming, product.

  • character full figs x6 

Real people, in street clothes. Show your costume design here, and you might include a few where they can see your anatomy at work.

  • multiple figures 

In a real setting, indoors and in natural, outdoor settings, interacting.

  • panel pages 

4 to 5 page sequence, show how you can design panels to read and flow.

  • city streets, autos 

Real cars, real buildings in real cities. You can include a lot of the suggested elements for this portfolio within these pages.

  • animals 

Horses, mostly…(seriously? you’re still wondering? This is a plus for any portfolio.)

  • character faces 

A dozen facial expressions, minimum.
note: superheroes are not entirely necessary, unless you really just gotta get into that.

Along the way, you’ll enter shows to keep your work in the public eye. Many times it can expose your work to just the right people at the right time.