I’ve said it before: The only way to truly succeed in a creative career is to do great work and be great to work with.
If you craft a strong concept art/ illustration portfolio it will demonstrate both of these values at the same time. And that strong portfolio will dazzle any recruiter or art director you encounter.
But a strong portfolio consists of much more than just the art inside.
In this article, when I say “portfolio” I don’t just mean your physical book of work or your website.
In this article, “portfolio” also means all of your related communications via email, cover letters, resumes and in-person with your recruiters, potential art directors and future colleagues.
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Is Your Portfolio Helping You Or Hurting You?
Every concept art or illustration portfolio communicates a message about the artist to whom it belongs.
Many artists are not in control of the message that their portfolio is sending.
Most artists are not even aware when their portfolio is actually sabotaging their chances of getting hired.
So here are the top five most common “Portfolio Pitfalls” that you ABSOLUTELY want to avoid while crafting your own creative career.
You might find this post to be uncharacteristically sarcastic and intense at times. But I’m hopeful that you will find the sarcasm entertaining and the intensity inspiring.
Don’t settle for less.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, laugh at and learn from our mistakes and share the lessons learned with others in hopes that our own painful experiences can spare someone else from repeating them.
So let’s keep an eye out for the Concept Art & Illustration Portfolio Pitfalls that you definitely want to avoid!
Portfolio Pitfall #1: Unprofessional Communication:
Before I rant, I’d like to encourage those of you who DO practice perfect professionalism in your emails, cover letters, resumes & conversations:
Throw yourself a party! You have already raced ahead of MOST of your competition!
Keep your standards high and you will dazzle your future art directors and recruiters with the promise and security that radiates from your well-written communications.
But for those of you who don’t punctuate, spell check or practice general manners… Good luck with that.
Unprofessional communication is, in my opinion, the #1 greatest portfolio pitfall and, sadly, it’s probably the #1 most common.
This statement has also been confirmed by every animation recruiter with whom I’ve spoken about the topic.
There’s not a lot to say here that we don’t already know…
SLOW DOWN. DU AY SPEEL CHEK. capitalize.
Have someone else check your grammar (someone who has actually read a book or two).
The animation industry is based on relationships. If we begin every potential relationship with an untidy, misspelled, poorly written, slang-laden communication, the relationship will last about as long as it takes the receiver to click “DELETE.”
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Also: Be concise and efficient in your communication but beware of projecting self-entitlement.
An email like:
hey check out my work http://myportfolio.deviantart.com thanks……joe
…will be deleted immediately. If you don’t care. We don’t care.
Humility and gratitude create a strong foundation of true relationship. And true relationship is the foundation of true success.
Portfolio Pitfall #2: Your Portfolio Doesn’t Fit:
When the work in your portfolio is irrelevant to the job for which you’re applying, it will confuse or inconvenience the hiring managers who are reviewing it.
If you want to work on the story team, you HAVE to show storyboards in your portfolio. In fact, the portfolio should contain MOSTLY storyboards. MAYBE a couple of character designs or paintings on the back two pages and ONLY if they are REALLY good.
If you are applying to work as a character designer but your portfolio is filled with logos you did for your grandma’s punk band, you will just waste the time of those generous enough to review your work.
Why not submit relevant work and make the most of an opportunity?
If you don’t yet have any relevant work, for crying out loud, be patient and wait to apply until AFTER you have crafted a relevant portfolio. I know it sounds harsh, but trust me, you’ll thank me later.
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Every portfolio you submit is going to be unique.
Customize your concept art portfolio to fit your desired studios. Customize it to fit the specific position for which you are applying. Customize your illustration portfolio to fit your desired clients.
Do the research. Ask good questions of people who know more about it than you do and apply that knowledge to your portfolio.
Use the Internet and the “Art-Of” books and the Blu-Rays as your guide. Slow down. Think it through. Talk to your art buddies about it (make sure they are the buddies who will really tell you the truth).
What do you need to put in and what you need to cut? Less is more.
It’s a GREAT feeling to actually replace the old work in your portfolio with new, better work so hurry up and get some new work done!
Portfolio Pitfall #3: Ambiguous Intent:
I ask: “What kind of job are you looking for?” and you say:
“I’ll do anything.”
Don’t burden the recruiter or art director with the decision of where you belong.
This is your life. This is your career. You decide on the goal and pursue. Revise as you go.
When you take responsibility outside of the dream job, the hiring managers will be more likely to trust you with the responsibilities that come with the dream job.
If you don’t know what kind of job you would be good at, it’s fine to ask people – just don’t get that mixed up with an actual job application.
For more about this check out my article called Is Your Concept Art Portfolio Versatile Or Just Confusing?
Portfolio Pitfall #4: Unprofessional Presentation:
Your portfolio should tell a story.
…and NOT the story of your growth as an artist.
Only show your best work!
Now, obviously, by “Your portfolio should tell a story” I don’t mean that your portfolio should be a series of sequential illustrations.
I’m talking about this whole “your portfolio is a physical representation of your potential as an artist and as a human” thing. And if your portfolio is unprofessional, it’s likely that you will never become a true professional.
Your portfolio should communicate your “story” clearly even when you’re present while someone flips through it.
When assembling your concept art or illustration portfolio, ask yourself if the moral of the story inside is “I’m the best artist for the job.”
For Digital Portfolios (Website, iPad, PDF etc.) :
- No haphazard collection of JPG or PSD files.
- No pixellated, low-res images.
- No huge PDFs (manageable file sizes only).
For Physical Portfolios:
- No loose pages.
- No original work. Nice, consistently-printed pages only.
- Website address on every page.*
- Design it like a nice “Art Of” book.
- Try to maintain consistent design from page to page.
- Leave space on the page to let the art “breathe.”
*This is my own opinion and is not, to my knowledge, a widely accepted in the industry. You might also want to include your name and phone number (if that number is not likely to change in the near future.) Personal logos and snail-mail addresses don’t add much and they just waste precious page space but I’ll have to do another post about all that…
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Be creative. That’s what you do. Spend the money to make it look nice. Don’t let cost-cutting prevent you from making the cut.
Portfolio Pitfall #5: Too Much Art:
Don’t crowd the pages with too much art and don’t crowd the portfolio with too many pages. As I said before, less is more. Cut cut cut.
If you don’t have enough good work to fill the portfolio, get a smaller portfolio. I think twenty-five pages is about the limit.
An overflowing portfolio is like one of Carlos Santana’s guitar solos. Even though the work might be demonstrating technical prowess, too much of it is downright exhausting.
It’s a pity when someone crafts a portfolio full of fantastic work that wears people out. Don’t over-stay your welcome.
Special Thanks: I would like to thank our “anonymous recruiter” (a bona fide insider from one of those “big studios”) for the wonderful insight that helped to make this post even more valuable.
What is the best Portfolio advice you’ve ever heard or received?
Share your thoughts in the comments!