Wednesday, June 27, 2012

10 Things I Remember...About Portfolios

-Gregory Manchess

If you were drawn to this post, you’re probably serious about developing your portfolio. Let’s be honest. You’re already thinking about how to sell your work, not stumbling over what many artists fear: that promoting one’s work considered artistic prostitution.

Lighten up. This is about getting work and keeping clients. This is a fundamental part of any artist’s career: their portfolio. The thing that says, ‘this is what I do’ and, ‘I do it really, really well.’
Even today, when the classic black portfolio has been mostly replaced by the iPhone or iPad, your presentation, the promise of your work being a good experience for a client, is the underlying key principle.

There's no forgiveness in this business. You must think like a pro from Day One.

1. Convenient
It should be a seamless endeavor for the client to look through your book, no matter what form it takes. It should be easy for them to hold. Get rid of the clever faux cow skin covering and pop-up sparklers and surprise extras. They’re never a surprise, and they’re never extra.

You may find this odd, but the best thing I did at the beginning of my career was realize that I didn’t want a portfolio that ‘stood out.’ I wanted it to blend in, become a part of the freelance landscape. I wanted my book to look like it had been used. Like it was a portfolio that people missed until they opened the thing and were surprised--at the quality. I let my book get beat up from multiple shippings and if it didn’t look the part, I wasn’t beyond giving it a little ‘travel patina.’

Don’t be clever. Be smart.

2. Start smart, end smart
Your best piece should smack them in the face on the first page. Each successive piece can be of less quality than the first, but then in the middle, your next best piece should strike there. After that, you can take them through other pieces, but you must end on one of the best possible pieces you’ve ever created. End on a high note. People remember beginnings and endings. Period. Not so much in the middle.

3. Best work only
Sounds simple, right? You can’t imagine how many people put everything in their portfolio. Endless pages of drivel. Only show the very best work you can do. Nothing else. If you don’t have it yet, then work to get it, and in the meantime, have a very short portfolio. Do not pad it with junk drawings. Ever.

4. Lose the figure studies
Unless you’re applying at Disney for a studio job, your figure studies scream, “amateur!” “just graduated!”

5. Only show the work you want to get
If you want to get book cover work, do not show your flower paintings. If you want to impress TIME Magazine, don’t fill your book with your conceptual paintings. They buy portraits. Going for gaming? Then don’t show them your TIME portraits. Show them what they buy, for cryin’ out loud.

Which leads me to...

6. Research the client
Learn what they buy. Come on, how hard is that in today’s market? So, a publisher prints books on gardening. Then put that kind of work in your book, not your “Death Drives A Pale VW” pulp fiction covers. They. won’t. get. it. And if you are going for gaming, then that’s the time to add your drawings of figure work, costumes, etc. That’s what those guys are looking for.

7. Multiple books
Still fascinates me that many potential illustrators have not figured out that if they have a range of different styles, they shouldn’t put them all in one portfolio. Separate those different styles into several portfolios and only show a particular portfolio to a client that buys that look.

One look per book. If you do watercolor and oil and pastel and pen&ink and mixed media and digital, (“wow! you do so many things!!”--not what you want to hear) separate them as much as possible so that each book makes logical visual sense of what you are showing. Oil with oil, digital with digital, cartoons with cartoons, editorial, advertising, etc.

Not very hard to grasp, hmm? You’d be surprised how many ignore this. If they’re impressed with your book and want to see more, that’s when you pull out your watercolor book.

8. Show, don’t tell--no excuses
I don’t care if Godzilla burst through your bathroom window and caused your printer to “mess up the color” of your prints, or your dog was raptured during The Second Coming. DO NOT make excuses to any potential client. If your book should look better, then make it look better, before you show anyone.
And being ‘new to the business’ is no excuse. If you are already making excuses for the portfolio, guess who’s thinking you’ll be doing the same on their job? Uh huh.

9. Perfect reproductions
Get quality reproductions into your portfolio. I don’t care what it costs. Neither does the client. You can carry just a handful of examples of your work if you are still putting a killer portfolio together. That’s ok, explain that, and then show the potential client a few samples of that killer work.

10. Flexible uses
After you’ve researched the client and know what they buy, go through your work and rearrange your pieces into another book or another presentation that will focus toward that particular client. If they buy both portraits and fairy paintings, then adjust your book to reflect that. Leave your horse and motorcycle paintings out.

Think of your portfolio as flexible. Use smart ways to show off your work, certainly, but your work must look professional and succinct.

Clients remember a presentation because it’s a reflection of your potential job performance.


  1. Greg, I have a confession to make. Your 10 Things posts are my favorite posts on this site. (Not that I dislike the other stuff in the least. It's all amazing)

    That's pretty much it. Thanks a lot for the advice, and thanks to all the other MC contributors. Keep it up.

  2. I've been waiting for this post. Thank you for this very helpful tip. Though i"m still working myself to be great at what i do studying and improving, it is inevitable that every illustrator will get through this stage in their career. And it is important that you have to be equipped with the right portfolio:)

  3. Greg, How do you think an artist's visual online presence should relate to the portfolio that they carry around? Given that art buyers (as well as fans, peers, and collectors) will go beyond the portfolio and visit websites, blogs, and DeviantArt pages, do you have suggestions for Dos and Donts there?

    1. Great question! I had friend once tell me that keeping a sketch blog was professional suicide since everyone I applied for a job with would see my casual doodles and figure studies with a quick google search. I'm not so sure a sketch blog will be the end of my career but I'd love to hear some other opinions on this subject.

  4. 11. Make sure you have a title page with Ben Franklin tucked in neatly under your name.

    James, I'm thinking that people buy more art now from a digital presence than a carried portfolio. I wonder if we can find numbers for that.

    1. Actually... close.
      #11 (Or my #1, personally): WRITE YOUR FRACKING NAME ON YOUR PORTFOLIO!!!!
      The spine, cover, front page... doesn't matter. But if the client can not remember your name, the portfolio doesn't do you a lick of good.

    2. as well as name -I would also put in contact info as well. you wouldn't believe how many people have given me promo cards without contact info.

  5. Hey Greg!

    Nice to see the "10 Things..." posts again! This is a really timely one as I start to plan out how I'm going to build my portfolio over the next year after IMC. These tips are super helpful to have on hand as I get started with this. But I would like to Ditto James' comment. Web presence is one of those mysteries that everyone is trying to figure out I think. I'd love to hear any thoughts on that as well.
    Good to hear from you man!
    Will Kelly

  6. Ooo....those are good questions, Jim! Thanks! (I'll have to add an eleventh point to the post sometime...)

    The same principles apply: edit yourself. The same effort it takes to judge your best work, and not use the lesser quality pieces, is warranted here. Perhaps even more so. We tend to think that as artists we should show all of our capabilities. What the heck, it's cheap, right? Why not throw it all online as storage? Fill up all of that ether with stuff we did while sketching out of boredom.

    Pick and choose wisely. An art director has a limited amount of time to poke around anyone's website. They're on a mission to get their job visualized. They do this nearly the same way we construct a painting. It's a back and forth process, and all they want to do is get to the best of the best images so they can tell if you have the right look, can handle the job, and whether or not you are a risk or an asset. Every time an AD uses you, they are risking their jobs to impress their superiors. (That will be part of another 10 Things... post to come.)

    Lead them to your best work easily, and most important--quickly. Do not overwhelm, as they will easily leave the site. And I mean so fast they'll only spend seconds there. As soon as some flash picture comes up and takes over two seconds to load, they're gone.

    Here's the key: they don't have time to waste. So, don't even think about entertaining clients at your site. They won't stay unless they see that it loads fast and the work is good, and there's not so much to overwhelm them. Let the website reflect the same experience they had with your book, but with a little more breadth.

    When it comes to impact, there's really no visual difference between an online portfolio or one you hold in your hand. Get and stay selective.

  7. Hey Bill! I'd like to see numbers on that, too. But I'm afraid that would be a massive study. My rep would love to see those numbers as well.

    I'm fairly certain people are looking online before they ever look at a real portfolio. But I see so many students and new illustrators fumbling with something in their hands to try to show you what they do. For instance, at live events.

    So yes, the online look is perhaps more available, but as with so many things that are easy to attain, it's dangerous. The average artist thinks like everyone else when throwing stuff all over a site.

    In the background of grey created by complicated and numerous images, the simplest form pops out. I think that's crucial here.

    1. You, of course, are 100% correct as usual. If I were to get back into illustration seriously it would be the first thing I would do, baby and update my web presence.

  8. That astronaut in the upper right, goodness!!!! Pure awesomeness!

    Cheers Greg!


  9. When Greg Manchess talks, I listen.

  10. These are great tips Greg. Regarding the display of art online, I suggest the idea of having two (or more) websites for different purposes.

    Most of my pro work is in animation, but the principal is the same. I have my general art website, which includes all of the types of art I'm into and love to create. It is vast in scope, and guilty of violating many of your guidelines here! However, I certainly would not steer a potential client to that site as it would be overwhelming. Therefore I also have my basic character animation website, which is bare bones and only includes my demo reel, resume and contact info. Best of both worlds!

  11. Joel! That's perfect! And explained so well to boot!

    Thanks for that...I've often wondered about doing that online just like the multiple portfolios angle: develop a couple or a few that you can guide people to.

    Sometimes, it makes it easier for an AD to share a certain look with their team, or their department, or editors, by taking them to a page that shows EXACTLY what to expect. If editors go to a site and can't find the one or two images an AD is trying to put across, confusion sets in, and that's deadly for a freelancer.

    Now _I_ gotta do this!


  12. And pay attention to Irene Gallo's often made comment - I want to get to the images with one click - not 6 or 7 or 8 or even 2!

  13. Thanks for yet another very informative post! I'm only taking my first steps on my path to freelance illustratordom, and building a portfolio is very much on my mind. This post and the one Dan wrote on using Blogger as a basis for an online portfolio really hit the spot for me.

    I've mostly been lurking on this blog but recently decided crawl out and express how much I appreciate the effort you Muddies put into this.

  14. In regards to having a website and more than one type of artwork, could one not simply devote one page with relevant images ( ex: Animation ) with all relevant material in it and perhaps a second or third page with other relevant categories (ex: Concept art, Illustration ) as well? Of course these pages would be clearly defined in the navigation with easy loading time.

    Reason is: My art style is very unspecific currently so would it be in my best interests to perhaps group them on separate pages so that I don't flood the AD with a mosaic of imagery?

    My gallery is here:

    I realize that you are an incredibly busy man so thanks for taking the time to read my reply. This is an incredible post and thanks so much for sharing it with us!


  15. Fabulous post, thank you Greg!
    Also, someone really should write that "Death Drives A Pale VW" book. :)

  16. That would make lots of sense, Jaime. And yet, that's what I'm actually warning against here, because it falls back into "look at all the stuff I can do."

    AD's and clients aren't interested in finding out how fascinating you are by doing so many different looks. What that projects to them is: scatter-brained...indecisive...needy. They want to see someone who directed, committed, confident in their statement--"this is what I do."

    Again, you make a good point, but this is what most of us do, thinking we'll get more work that way, when the opposite is more likely the case. That's why your portfolio must look focused.

    You cannot sing every song to an AD. You have to choose the right melody, and play your heart out.

  17. Thanks so much for responding Greg. I understand the concept of having a unique and marketable style to work with however, I haven't found that one or two unique art styles yet and I just don't feel that my current art is at the level it should be before I go pro and take it to professionals. I have all sorts of different opinions of ppl saying that my digital work is stronger than my traditional and vice versa.

    I imagine that I am most certainly not alone with this hurdle in this particular stage of the game and I fear that I am just never going to settle on a particular style and that it will greatly affect my chances at being successful as an illustrator.

    It's all a big game...

    I guess what I find frustrating is that since we are freelance, there are so many different tips, opinions and bits of advice that are generously given by people such as your wonderful self that I find myself swimming in theory, trying to make sense of it all. It's like a game where everyone has their own set of rules and there's no real one way to play, and that the only way to success is to stumble through it and create your own path and develop your own set of rules along the way.

    The AD's are like Dungeon Masters and we are trying to play out the quest with them having all the power but not always sharing the rules of the game with us players. Thanks to the greats like Irene Gallo and Jon Schindette for being amazing at sharing the rules with us.

    Would this be a somewhat accurate analogy?

    Thanks so much Greg. Really. Been struggling with this for a long time now.


  18. Very nice post, Gregory! I will mention about it on my blog and spread the link so more people can get some insights, ideas and enlightenment reading this great topic! :)

    1. Thanks, Isis! That would be so nice of you!

  19. are putting it together. Yes, you will be swimming in theory. Yes, you will be confused. If it was such a straight-forward, foregone conclusion of taking steps 1-2-3 to a successful career, how many people do you suspect will have been in that line ahead of you....or me? Or Rockwell? Or Mucha? Or....or....

    And yes, you will have to decide. You must make at least ONE decision about your most passionate approach or you will constantly spin your wheels. Once you've made that decision and focused on that for a long, focused time, you'll find that you can do many other things from there. The process has gotten skewed over the decades into the idea that we find our style by trying everything and excelling at everything. It just doesn't work like that.

    Once you focus, things come into view....ideas formulate and grow better legs. You can build better ideas from a solid direction, not from scattering all over the place. Yes, in the beginning as students, we need to try things, but at a certain point we need to use that information to make statements with our work. The process takes time and focused effort.

    If you are at this confusing point, then it is exactly the right place to be, for now. Asking yourself these important questions is a significant sign: you are ready to move through the confusion. Now focus and push. Honestly, it's the most solid pattern for process and success.

    Yep....that was 'a somewhat accurate analogy' you wrote!

    Struggle is good. Otherwise? BORING!

    Now go go go....!

  20. xGreg, everytime i read one of your posts, or I listen to an interview (like the sidebar interview you did) I´m just amazed by the amount of knowledge you are capable of transmitting with such ease. I´m eagerly awaiting for september to come for smartschool to start (I was able to enroll on your class : D).

    I guess what I´m trying to say is, thank you. For sharing all your knowledge with all aspiring students and artists out there. Thank you.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Thank you so much Greg. I will remember that and can't tell you how much I appreciate your responses to my questions. I hope that one day we will meet at IMC or Illuxcon as they are main goals of mine once I finish school. Being in my 30s and in full time school has been amazing however you are so right - it is high time to move through the confusion and start blazing my own trail. Thanks for your kind words of wisdom. You truly have a friend and admirer here over Vancouver, Canada.

    P.S. - I will also be sharing this knowledge on my blog as well. MC IS THE BEST BLOG EVER!


  23. “ visit this blog for some awesome artwork”
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