Building A Strong Portfolio

Portfolios. Everyone talks about them, works on theirs, and knows that they are important. In this episode we go over how to add focus to your portfolio, the importance of a business plan, and offer advice on how you can beef up your portfolio, and become a more focused, well rounded creator.

New class that launches this month!

Gina Lee’s Art Licensing Class: Part 2. She has artwork that she is still making money from, thousands of dollars, that she made in college, that is getting printed on bags, shower curtains, etc. If you want to learn how to do that, check that out at!

Because Will has his Youtube Channel, does this podcast, and teaches for SVS Learn, he often gets asked a lot to give people portfolio reviews.

Handout: A list of 100+ things to include in your children’s book portfolio, at the bottom of the show notes.

Portfolio Reviews

The main thing that Will will ask people when giving them a portfolio review is: “What type of work do you want to get?”

And he will normally get one of two responses:

  1. I don’t know, I just want to work as an artist in some illustration market.

  2. More specific: I want to do [comics, children’s books, graphic novels, or animation.]

Advice for people who don’t know: if you don’t know what market you want to go into, then there is no way you can make a portfolio that will please an art director and make them want to hire you. Art directors are pretty literal.

If you think that you are good at rendering, then you may think that you could draw anything well, and that the art director will recognize that because you showed your rendering prowess. That is not the case, you have to show it!

It really is so specific. Whatever you show, literally, that’s the thing you will be asked to do.

If you have a couple of illustrations with chickens in them, then you may become known as the chicken guy!

You as an artist know that if you can draw a human figure well, then you can draw just about anything. But that’s not how art directors see it. Art director’s have to protect their reputation. This is their career and they want to be well known and respected, and someday become creative directors. They don’t want a curve ball. They will usually go for the sure bet.

You Need a Business Plan

Lee often asks the same question as Will: “What type of work do you want to get?”

That question says: How are you going to be in business? It drives the image and everything else: who the market is? how the market pays? how you get paid? how many illustrations you have to do in a month? how images are licensed? how the pay structure works? do you know how the business works and which direction you want to go in this business? Etc. This is important stuff to research and know ahead of time.

So essentially, when asking, “What type of work do you want to get?” We are asking, “What’s your business plan?”

This is a business and you need to have a business plan.

If you are at the point where you are trying to get work, it is vital that you understand this.

For example: You need to be able to say, “I’m going to work in editorial illustration, focused on these markets..., I want to work with these magazines…., and this is the type of work that they are doing.. Here’s my work and how it fits in there...” And then as a critiquer, we could tell you, “I would recommend, you take these 4 images and make them into post card mailers and send them out, and then alternate them monthly with this email marketing plan…”

The more focused and specific you are, the better advice and critique you will be able to receive.

A business plan is an evaluation of the current market and your particular direction.

Who’s getting work right now? Where is the majority of the work being hired? Are the rates going up or down? Who are your main competitors? What do you have that they don’t have? What’s your competitive advantage? What will help you get hired instead of them?

You need to be able to answer those questions. This is a very smart, logical way to approach your work.

To the person who says,“I don’t know what I want to do, I just want to work somewhere.”: You can always change it, but you will be treading water if you don’t have a plan. You need to have a definite plan.

So let’s get rid of the art side of this for a minute. Let’s say you have a $100,000 and your friend has a business plan that they want to pitch you. So you go and meet them at a cafe and say, “Okay, pitch me your idea.” They say, “I want to open a pizza place.” You say, “I’ve got $100,000 that I could invest in your place. Okay, where’s it going to be? How are you going to compete? What’s your secret?” “Oh, I don’t know.” “How much is it going to cost?” “Oh, I don’t know.” “What materials are you going to need? What’s your advertising plan?”?  “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t have an advertising plan.” Would you give that person $100,000?

With what we are talking about it’s even worse: “I want to open a restaurant.” “Okay, what kind?” “I don’t know.” We have got to be smarter than that.

Artists do that, here is most artist’s 3 Step Business Plan: 1. Make an image, 2. Post image, 3. Sit back and pray that something happens and that they get hired. We’re only half joking.

Any other business would die with that model. They have to know their product and their customer.

We do have a product. With art, sometimes we get too attached to it, and it is really personal. People can get so personally attached to their work. However, ultimately if you want to make an income from it, it is a product and you have to look at it as such, as a product. That’s what it is and you need to think about, “how much it’s worth, where it’s bought and sold, etc.”

There’s nothing wrong with making art but you aren’t going to make a living at it.

If you just want to make art for the sake of making art, or just for fun, that’s totally fine and good, but you aren’t going to make a living with it.

To The Person Who Wants to Do Everything

Sometimes Will still gets the comment, “You keep telling me I need to pick a market to work in, but I just want to work in all of them. I’m just excited, I love comics, I love illustration, I love licensing, I love animation, I just want to get hired anywhere, I don’t care.”

Pick one as your main, and then dabble in the other ones. Then if you see success in one of those other areas then maybe you can start to lean there more.

Pick the one that you know you can actually make some money at and can support yourself in. Nothing else will exist if you can’t support yourself. You need to have some sort of financial engine to support yourself.

It’s like a Venn Diagram, one circle: the thing I’m good at, and the other circle, where there are opportunities. You want those to overlap as much as possible.

For example with concept art, The technical side of it is so difficult, but interest is high, but usually a person’s ability to do it is low, and it is also very, very competitive.

How many musicians are good at all types of music, how many restaurants are good at serving all types of food, how many karate studios teach all types of martial arts?

If you don’t know where you want to go, and you’d be happy anywhere, and art directors won’t hire you based off of your work, then do a focused project to help build your portfolio.

For example, let’s say your subject matter is all over the place, you don’t have any sequential art in your portfolio. However, comics, children’s books, and graphic novels are all based off of sequential art. So you create a project, i.e. write and illustrate a graphic novel, it could be a section or part of a graphic novel or a children’s book. It could be as few as 3-5 pieces of sequential art. Do that 3-4 times with a particular market. And then you have a portfolio that could attract an art director. You can focus on classics like your spin on Little Red Riding Hood, something that’s in the public domain, that the art director will recognize and have an emotional connection previously established with that story.

Make new images for portfolios, no matter where you are in your career.

Do research: i.e. List 5 people or companies that buy this type of work, look at how much these jobs pay, who are the art directors that work at these companies that do this type of job?

I.e. Concept board book, go to Chronicle in San Francisco, would start to look at what they had done in the past and art directors that worked on those projects.

You are in a sense, preempting what you want to do. You are doing research beforehand to tailor what you want to do.

A lot of people do scary stuff but it doesn’t really work for children’s books.

Editor, wants to see if you can carry a character from one page to the next, can you draw kids that are cute and appealing, can you draw different ethnicities and genders, can you demonstrate that you can use a variety of compositions, etc?

So if you show up with a Friday the 13th Portfolio, it won’t be a good fit for children’s books.

Phases of Your Art Career

It takes a long time to develop a portfolio.

Phases of Your Art Career:

Phase 1, “Wow, I can make something look realistic!” Being able to make something look like it is jumping off the page.

Phase 2, “Wow, I’m better than my friends and family, I might be able to do this as a career”

Phase 3, “Wow, I’m even better than some of my art friends.”

Phase 4, “I’m not getting work yet, I need to get some critique.” That’s the stage  where a lot of students that come to Will are at.

Phase 5, “Man, I have so much work to do to develop a great portfolio” Start to become humbled because they realize where they are weak and where they need to improve.

Phase 6, “I need to start publishing my own work, to get seen.” At this stage, a lot of people are really good and have great portfolio’s but aren’t getting noticed yet.

In publishing in the last 12-15 years there has been a pretty dramatic change, this has allowed people to skip the line. Before there were basically 2 lines, the authors, and the illustrators.

But now a 3rd line has emerged: the author/illustrators. It seems that the other two lines have slowed. While the 3rd line has sped up. It’s cheaper to work with a writer/illustrator.

When Lee graduated he had a hodgepodge portfolio.

Lee did a set of paintings his senior year of 10 people who set weird world records. But no one really asked him, what market they were for. Lee went to New York with some stuff that was children’s books, his world records paintings”, some landscape paintings, also a series of the Grimm Fairy Tales (darker stuff) that were all done in a children’s style. Basically it was hodgepodge of images that he liked.

He is glad that the people he showed work to could see potential in him, and he got some work and found his agent there.

Batman Syndrome

Batman Syndrome: some people want to be all Batman and no Bruce Wayne. They want to spend all their time having fun, fighting crime, and driving a cool car. But Batman doesn’t exist without Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne, spends time in the real world, he foots the bills, and does research, networking, protects Wayne enterprises. All of that needs to happen for Batman to be able to go out and have fun fighting crime.

That’s how Jake was at the beginning of his career, he just wanted to have fun doing illustrations, graphic novels, working in animation, dabbling with 3D. But in order to really succeed you need to learn to embrace both the fun art side (Batman) and  the less fun business side (Bruce Wayne). That’s what we are asking of you. The fully actualized version of you is the person who can kick butt at art, and also kick butt at business.

There is only one Batman, there is only one version of you as a fully developed “Batman”. You may not be there yet, there is no one who can compete with you because you have your own unique style, once you’ve arrived there.

To go with the Pizza thing, if you are trying to compete with all of the restaurants in the world, then that is hard to compete. There is this Pizza chain in the South called, Mellow Mushroom, it’s got this giant mushroom everywhere, it’s a very psychedelic feel, the servers wear tie dye, it’s still pizza, but they stand out with their presentation and branding, they attract a younger more hip crowd.

As an artist you have a better chance of separating yourself because you have your own unique voice.

It takes a while to come up with your business plan, and it takes a while to build your style and the quality of your work up to where you can beat someone out. If you put your head down and work then it’s only a matter of time. It takes a lifetime commitment to being an artist and if you work hard you can do it.

Some people come out of school and a few years later they have already bumped people out of line. For others it can take a decade or 2.

Recommendation: stop drawing for a little while, not a month or anything like that. Sometimes artists are constantly moving the pencil, and feel a need to keep creating images and posting to Instagram. That’s great to always draw. But back up and ask, why am I drawing? Back up, look at the whole picture, why am I creating art. Do research and try to step back and be a little more informed.

Trap with social media, “You need to feed the beast”, ultimately at the end of the day. Sometimes we spend so much time worrying about social media that we miss out on other things.

Jake used to struggle with this, and we probably all do in one way or another. What have I created or not created because I spent so much time focused on my Instagram account?

Take a step back, take a break from social media, do a dive on business and seeing how business works in illustration Go and see how business works, how it works with illustration.

You’re art is going to grow but this business stuff is just as important.

Where do you want to be in 5 years, 10 years?

Be Deliberate

A good example of pencil mileage and working smart is, Piper Thibodeau. She has worked for Dreamworks, Scholastic, and other publishers, it is all because of her daily paintings.

But it wasn’t random. It was apart of her business plan and she was very deliberate and did her research. She has been doing this for years now. Pencil mileage is a real thing but being business-oriented is also vital.

Sometimes people just create so much and don’t take time to think about and pilot their career.

Take Work That Aligns With You and The Work You Want to Do

Eventually you will be hired. But sometimes it’s not what you want. How do you decide what work you will take?

Will turned down a dream job yesterday, for a board game, they wanted 10 character designs, and they had a small budget, but the deadline was just too tight. He told them if they gave him more of a heads up he would love to work with them another time.

Lee has turned down more work than he has accepted.

Will has a specific direction right now, SVS. This job would have pulled him away from that.

We’re redesigning and re-shooting our children’s book class, and expanding the sections, it will have better design, better filming ,better audio, better lessons, Jake and Lee will be teaching a lot more of it. We are going to be rolling this out starting in September dropping one course a month for a year. We will really parse what goes into it.

We would like to think of it as the most comprehensive children’s book class in the world for illustrators.

Anna Daviscourt, who Lee is working with as her mentor, she’s starting to get work and offers and Lee is helping her parse through everything and it’s easy to decide if it’s worth doing or not by seeing if it fits her artistic goals and style.

Making Your Children’s Book Portfolio

“Your work is a little too commercial for the children’s book market.”

If you get that comment it’s probably because they don’t feel like your work will fit in with the styles that fit with the market. It’s probably a little too slick or cartoony compared to what you might see in children’s books.

Want to do children’s books? Spend a lot of time at the library. What are your favorite 10 children’s books? Consume children’s books. Can you imagine a college basketball player who wants to play in the NBA but can’t name any of their favorite players?

Go to the library or the book store, make lists of what the best books have in common? What do they not have? You really need to be familiar with the different styles. Will’s best advice, create an amalgam of your top 5 children’s book styles.

Animation has a very specific look to it that isn’t a very great crossover, it wouldn’t work as well.

There are people who are in this no man’s land, between animation and illustration, they are not really desirable by either industry.

Not enough structure for animation, and not enough playfulness or approachableness for children’s books.

Mixture of not understanding illustration vs. animation.

Usually a student sketchbook, 95% of the sketchbook: faces and heads or  bodies.

Need character in an environment. And Characters interacting in an environment.

Action and emotion that’s probably at the top of Will’s list for all pieces. Especially if you are wanting to focus on narrative illustration.

Recently, Will had a portfolio where it was obvious that the first piece was the best piece and there were a lot of awesome things about it that were missing in the rest of the work, it’s time to bring the rest of the work up to par.

Will knew a guy, Carry Henry, who redid his whole portfolio in 2 weeks. He went to New York, and the art director, told him that his work looked student and showed him what they were looking for. Carry spent 2 weeks in New York working on a portfolio, in a crappy Motel. He didn’t sleep for 2 weeks and was really serious about getting a job.

Have you ever had a time when art was the only thing that you care about for a certain period of time, and you put aside everything for your art career. Have you ever tried that?

Go to children’s book publishers websites, they show you what a successful children’s book illustrator portfolio looks like.

When you are new, your whole portfolio should cycle every 6 months.

Portfolio Perfection

100+ Things you need to include in your children’s book portfolio.

Formats and sizes: spot illustrations, vignettes, full page, spreads, room for text, covers

Color schemes: full color, black and white, monochrome

Ages: adults, teens, children, baby

Gender: girls, boys, men, women Race: asian, Indian, Hispanic, Caucasian, African

Groups Activities: families, friends, classmates, co-workers

Character Consistency: animals, humans, creatures

Animals: anthropomorphised: amphibians, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects, birds

Creatures: robots, dragons, monsters, aliens, ghosts

Vehicles: cars, trucks, busses, boats, planes, construction equipment, submarines, space ships Props: household items, garage, kitchen, farm, office, food, bathroom, attic, school, games, toys

Environments: interiors, exteriors, modern, vintage, ancient, houses, apartments, land, sea, earth, outer space, dessert, forest, tropical, arctic

Seasons and weather: winter, spring, summer, fall, rain, lightning, wind, snow, fog, cold, hot Lighting: morning, noon, evening, night, spotlight, fire, ambient, on camera, on camera hidden, off camera

Surfaces: shiny, matte, textured, furry, translucent, rough

Action: falling, breaking, sliding, moving fast, running, jumping, flying, rolling, skidding

Emotion: anger, excitement, happiness, sadness, fear, confidence, curiosity, love, sleeping, pain

Scale: huge objects, tiny objects

Camera Angles: establishing, close ups, medium, distant, high angle, low angle, profile, dynamic, POV.

Complex Images: multiple figures, multiple objects


Jake Parker: Instagram: @jakeparker, Youtube: JakeParker44

Will Terry: Instagram: @willterryart, Youtube: WillTerryArt

Lee White: Instagram: @leewhiteillo

Alex Sugg:

Tanner Garlick: Instagram: @tannergarlick

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