SOS! I Don’t Know What to Put in My Portfolio

SOS! Posts: Quick tips for getting through creative crisis.

First off, if you don’t know the basics of portfolios in general, then go download our Onesheet on Portfolios & Portfolio Websites. It’ll tell you everything you need to know about the nuts and bolts of portfolio-building. Back? Great. This post isn’t about the nitty gritty questions of what formats and how many pieces should be in a portfolio, this is about what content you should have in your portfolio. Because your portfolio is your shop window display. If you’re not showing your best work out front, you’re not going to get people deeper into your store. And you don’t put everything in your window display — just the things that are going to attract the kinds of clientele you want.

  • You Get Hired To Do What’s In Your Portfolio. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times an artist comes and sits down in from of an Art Director in a portfolio review and we’ll ask, “So what kind of work do you want to do?”, and it’ll be totally different than the work in their portfolio. If you want to do environments, then you shouldn’t have a bunch of character work in your portfolio. If you want to do monsters, don’t have environments, etc. If you want to do something new — either in style or content — then you have to make pieces of the type you want to be hired for. Sure, it’s a risk to put work in to a piece you’re not getting paid for, but it’s the only way to transition your work. ADs will see a new piece (or 2 or 3) in your portfolio and they’ll start hiring you to do that thing.
  • Do Something You Love. This is tied to the above answer, but is even more specific. As an Art Director, I have hired more people because of the work I see in their personal projects than from their commissioned work. There’s a sparkle to it that just shines brighter than the other pieces in your portfolio. And a good Art Director can tell what you really love to do and hire you to do exactly that. So stop ignoring that passion project and flesh it out. It may be the thing that launches your career to a new height. There’s a Joseph Campbell quote I refer to often, and it’s all about this: “When you follow your bliss…doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors, and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.” I have seen this to be true so many times. Figure out where what you love overlaps what the world is asking for, and you’ll have more commissions than you know what to do with.
  • Immerse Yourself in an Industry. If you’re trying to get your foot in the door of an industry, or a specific company, then you need to know what they are buying. For example, if you want to work for Magic: The Gathering, then you need to really understand what styles they’re commissioning and what content they’re commissioning. You’ll get work from them a lot faster if they see work in your portfolio that “fits” them. This is easier to see when looking at a single company, but you can pick it up for industries too. Example: If you are an animals/creatures artist, and you want to work in book covers, then you should go camp out in a bookstore a while and make lists of the things you see on the covers. You’ll find that not a hell of a lot of adult books have animals and creatures on them…but a hell of a lot of kids books do. Does your style fit with that market? Go research the most recent examples of the thing you want to break into, and take notes. Do not rely solely on the internet if you can help it. It’s really hard to see what’s recent when you’re just doing Google searches and it’s important to see what is coming out together. Figure out what your dream clients are hiring and make sure your portfolio lines up.
  • Understand Trends, Then Reinterpret Them. Another thing that seems obvious to me (but it blows minds in portfolio reviews) is that you should absolutely be trend-watching. Not in order to “rip off” another artist, but to understand why things are trends. 99.9% of the time it has to do with the target audience, and the trends that those audiences are currently responding to. Where you see major tropes recurring over and over again, there’s a reason for it. The example I use all the time is Fantasy books and Guys In Hoods. Even while the fanbase pokes fun at the trope of a guy in a hood, they buy those books overwhelmingly more than books without hoods. But it’s not really about the hood. It’s about retaining the anonymity of the character on the cover, about having their face in shadow or obscured. I bet you can think of a lot of compositions that achieve that effect in new and fresh ways, and Art Directors will be desperate for them. We need to do what the audience demands…but we always want to do it in a new and fresh way. If you are the artist that does that, then you will have ADs breaking down your door.

What all these tips boil down to is strategy and research. It’s not enough to put “good” work in your portfolio. There’s a lot of great artists out there. But if you are a great artist that also solves problems for Art Directors then you’ll be worth your weight in gold. And never go looking for work.

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