Possibly the most common concern of students and early career illustrators is getting hired. The deeper question is how to build a portfolio with that in mind. As someone who has exclusively worked freelance doing print illustration (work for public consumption, which is very different from a career in concept and production art), my advice tends to be that you need to present a memorable voice, authentic enthusiasm, and keep it focused. Shotgun portfolios (portfolios that attempt to please every type of client) don’t stick. In other words, you are true to yourself and your take on the subject stands apart from the crowd.
This contradicts older philosophies where you wanted to be the artist who could handle anything, jumping from one style to another as your client might need (a strategy which I understand is still promoted by some educators). That makes sense when you’re an in-house illustrator for a diverse company. In the modern market though, clients work with a wide network of freelancers and artists often work with a wide network of clients. The result is a mindset to choose the right specialist for any given job. Of course, it’s wonderful to find a client who you work well with and cultivate a strong long term relationship, but you’ll still need other clients for a sustainable freelance career and placing all your eggs in one client basket is a risky move. There are exceptions, but my experience as both artist and (once upon a time) art director has been strongly in favor of the specialist approach. When you’re known for doing your own thing really well, the jobs find you.
There is, however, a big problem with this advice. It only applies to what I do (again, freelance print illustration). If you want to work on a large art team or in-house at a studio, the rules are different because the job is different. In addition to meeting quality expectations, you must fit the brand and some brands are very rigidly defined. Essentially, your work must weave seamlessly into the tapestry of the rest of the art team. Working together, you help create something bigger than one person could accomplish. And there are a lot of these jobs. Much more so than full time freelance. And on average they pay better.
There is a certain vanity to freelance when compared with the team approach needed for concept and production work. As a freelancer, my name is crucial to my business. I aspire to create work with as unique a fingerprint as artists like Leyendecker, Wyeth, and a hundred others who inspire me. And there is a romantic appeal in that, but in all honesty this is a rockstar mentality and certainly not the only way to go. Given how much more opportunity there is to make a stable living in games, it might even be bad advice. Many who try the rockstar path are not cut out for it, but would do great in a studio environment.
So what is the right path to pursue? It probably comes down to personality and lifestyle.
A freelancer does not collect a steady paycheck. One month might be all 12 hour days and no social life, the next might be anxiety over when the next job will turn up. And a month without invoices won’t catch up until 30-60 days later when no checks are coming in. Speaking personally, things should reach a fairly stable equilibrium after a few years in the business, but the uncertainty is always present to some degree. Even the most established artists have slow months. If you have mouths to feed or have a hard time keeping a rainy day account (during good times and bad) this could be a problem.
A freelancer works alone. Yes, some people opt to rent shared studio spaces or can work along side their partner or spouse, but the majority of us work in solitude. And it isn’t just being ok with long stretches of limited human contact, but also being able to function efficiently without someone else there (be it coworker or supervisor) to keep you honest. If you need social buzz or have self discipline issues, this could be a problem.
A freelancer might get to be involved on major pop culture projects, but we don’t really build them. For example, I’ve been thrilled to be doing Aliens covers for Dark Horse comics. I get to be part of something that I love and grew up with! But I’m not building the next Alien. My involvement will generally be limited to adding some extra flare to an established franchise. There are occasions to the contrary, but they’re rare and unpredictable. Unlike working for a AAA studio, where that is your day to day.
And if you’re the sort of person who feels happier in a more conventional work environment, who needs steady predictable paychecks, and who wants to help build big things that might endure for years or decades, branding your portfolio as a niche market with an unexpected and unique voice might not actually be good advice. You’d be much better served by studying the culture and style of the studios you connect with and creating a book that fits right into their pipeline.
My inspiration for this post began with a conversation I had last month with Jeremy Cranford, who is the Art Outsourcing Manager at Blizzard Entertainment. When I followed up with him asking if he had anything more to add from a studio perspective, he replied:
“Are you making art for self-expression or do you want to be a “hired gun”. Two different tracks. (Shot guns portfolios do not work with either track)
I think it’s better to be really good at one thing than to be “okay” at lots of things. Then you can target companies who hire that one thing you do. When I’m looking to hire an artist I would not hire them if what showed in their portfolio did not match the art style I was visually communicating. If you have varied interest, I think it’s best to create different portfolios for your different clients.
While having a strong artistic voice is important, I think it’s equally important to have some range. When working in a studio you need to be able to “mimic” a house style. Disney artists had to mimic Mignola on Atlantis and then had to mimic Al Hirschfeld on Aladdin. I’ve also know artists who were asked to leave a studio when they could not match a target style.
At the end of the day, your best work will be where your heart is. If you’re not into ‘X’, you can’t fake it.”
Jeremy also noted that many studio artists have personal work, gallery work, or freelance on the side which can be their personal outlet while still getting the benefits of an in-house position.
The name of the game, always, is to show your prospective client that you can solve their problem. For a publisher looking for a cover artist, that problem might be “I need someone who does strong realism and outside the box fantasy designs and really understands how to connect on an emotional level…” and then start thinking of cover artists who match. For a game studio looking at new talent, the problem might be “I need someone in the San Francisco Bay area with strong design skills that understands our brand well enough to fold seamlessly into our already established team…” And in either case, nobody wants to take a chance unless you’ve already proven that you can do it.
In the end, what are your priorities? What drives you? And most importantly, what does your gut tell you?
Special thanks to Jeremy Cranford for consultation on this piece