When I started out trying to make money off my talents, I was very unprepared and lacked a whole world of knowledge. I’ve learned so much in the short time I’ve been in New York, and most importantly having networked with other illustrators.
So I feel I have to pass that information on when others starting out ask for it. I try and tell them what I would have needed to know when I was starting out.
Make one. Really. Any way you can. The simple fact is that people are hired based on what they have done. Even the best art director is looking for some one that can already create the art they want.
A portfolio contains completed successful pieces. I think the key words are completed and successful. The project should clearly be finished. Not a sketch or missing elements. And it should be successful. It doesn’t have to be something you did for pay, only that it works as a final piece.
For years I never had an organized portfolio. If anyone came to me asking to see it, I would have to scramble to get something together. And I would always have to put in pieces that were not complete or that I wasn’t entirely happy with. And I’m sure it came across. I’m sure it also stopped me from getting work.
All the illustrations I did for Son of Kool Aid were done for myself. Each one is complete and successful. I feel I can show any one of them as part of my portfolio and feel it stands up on it’s own. They never fail to get a good reaction from people when I show them.
When you finish a piece, consider if it’s portfolio worthy or not. A piece might be successful and just what the client wanted, but it might not always be something you want to show to other prospective clients. I do a lot of maps for a boating magazine, to show the different locations of places one might visit in the area. I don’t put them in my portfolio because they don’t represent what I am as an artists. I’m not embarrassed or anything, they just don’t work as portfolio pieces.
I’ve got what I call my general portfolio, that I show for people coming to see what I can do. I then have other pieces that are my second wave. All of these are as good as anything in my general portfolio. If a potential client wants to see more, I know I can show them more, and not worry it doesn’t measure up.
Or if someone asks me to send examples of work, I can customize what I want to show them. Perhaps they use more painterly illustrations. Maybe they like simpler drawings.
This doesn’t mean you need hundreds of pieces. But around 15 would be a good start. If you don’t have those, Get to work. One idea is to take illustrated work, and ask yourself how you would have handled the illustration.
Get feedback. And accept it. If someone says you have some weak pieces, find out which ones, and why they seem weak. I suggest finding other artists or art directors. Your friends will probably just feed your ego over giving you honest feedback. And don’t be discouraged. Once I had an illustrator who I really liked suggest that I would make a better designer then illustrator. It hurt, but I didn’t take it to heart.
Feedback should guide you to making better choices, but not change your direction.