Cut the Fluff in Your Portfolio!

For those illustrators making last-minute shifts to their portfolio for the SCBWI National Conference, I have 3 pieces of advice:

I was recently asked to judge portfolio applications for a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators award. It was an eye-opening experience being on the other side of the table, in the judge’s seat. Here’s what my big take-away was from that experience:

I preferred to see 5 GREAT pieces alone, vs. 5 great pieces mixed up with 5 okay pieces.

It was ALWAYS obvious when people were adding filler, or thought they needed more variety, so they put in mediocre stuff. In many cases, a portfolio would be amazing, and then right at the end the illustrator panicked and threw in one or two strangely out-of-place, low-quality works. Those one or two pieces were the ones that cut them out of the running to be considered.

So yes, it would be GREAT if you had 10 GREAT pieces, but if you don’t, don’t try to hide it. Take one last look at your portfolio before you submit it, and ask yourself, “Am I really proud of this piece?” Those are the only ones you should display. Even if there are only 5. You can add more great work next year!

See more more tips on how to edit an award-winning portfolio here:
Portfolio Comparison: What made an SCBWI winner

 

 

 

Portfolio Comparison, Part 2: Book Design

 

 

I recently posted a Before and After look at my portfolio, showing changes that I made from last year to this year. One aspect that I did not include were changes that I made to the actual book design of my portfolio, which I’ll share here.

I have a particular love of bookmaking, and since I also love to customize things, I decided to make my portfolio rather than buy a standard one. It’s important to say that using a store-bought portfolio is perfectly fine, and usually it’s better than getting overly craftsy. In the case of my last year’s portfolio, it would have been better for me to use a standard book than make it from scratch the way I did. Here it is:

Before: 2010 Portfolio design

So what was wrong with it? It’s basically form without function.

  • The materials were flimsy – I used a mat backing for the cover that was too thin and nicked easily on the edges.
  • The details on the cover were fragile, like the paper pattern along the binding and the name label – these additions made with separate pieces of paper could easily get caught and rip off. You don’t want the person looking through your portfolio feeling afraid to damage it.
  • For the interior pages, I adhered photo printouts of my work onto black paper. Although the prints looked nice, the double-layered pages felt bulky, and when the pages were bent over and turned, the photo paper bubbled awkwardly on the page.
  • It was a bad combination of being too big (about 14×12″) for the flimsy design.

This year I redesigned the book with those lessons in mind:

After: 2011 Portfolio design

The changes that I made include:

  • Making the portfolio a smaller size (9×12), with letter-size paper. Some of my artwork is long and horizontal, so I bought double-sided mat paper (from Epson, to print on my Epson Stylus Photo 2880) in order to print the spread just as it would appear in a book, with the fold in the middle.
  • Making a sturdy cover, using fabric over thick mat board. I printed my name right onto the fabric with fabric paint, applied with a carved rubber stamp.
  • For the interior pages, I printed right on the paper instead of adhering a separate image onto the paper
  • Keeping the design simple, while still being customized and unique

Also, according to the advice from my mentors to separate my portfolio into two styles, I preceded both sections with a piece of translucent vellum, printed with the titles “Illustrations: Light” and “Illustrations: Dark”

Title pages separating my two styles

Why is it important to have a physical portfolio? It’s not, really. But there are a few cases where you’ll need one, which is when you go to conferences (like the ones put on by SCBWI), and also if you go to New York to do portfolio drop offs for art directors, or meet with publishers. This has become less common with the ability to put your portfolio on a website. But I’ve heard some illustrators advocate the trip to New York because, since it IS less common, it helps you stand apart from the crowd of online portfolios. Meeting with editors, agents, and art directors face-to-face is always a plus.

Thanks for reading!

Portfolio Comparison: What made an SCBWI winner

 

Over the past three years that I’ve been pursuing children’s illustration, I have experienced what is likely normal for one new to the field; a lack of focus and direction in my work. When trying to find my voice, I’ve been scattered stylistically, drawing certain ways because I can, but not because I should. Since starting out, I have been working steadily at reining in my hand, and being much more intentional in the way that I draw.

At last year’s SCBWI conference, I received the mentorship award, which allowed me to meet with six industry professionals and get a one-on-one portfolio consultation with each. Here are the images from my portfolio from that year, ordered from left to right:

2010 Portfolio, click image to enlarge

In a nutshell, here’s the feedback I was given:

  • the style is all over the place, with commercial work mixed with darker, literary work
  • the literary work is stronger and more unique than the commercial work, yet it would be wise to keep both since it will be harder to make a living off the dark stuff
  • put the two styles in separate sections in your book
  • take out a number of pieces that feel out of place or are simply not as strong as the others
  • consider drawing your characters with a classic, and less cartoony, approach.

Getting this kind of feedback was crucial at this stage in my journey. It was a privilege to hear from these professionals an affirmation of what I was doing right, and hear what needed to be improved. Sometimes when receiving criticism it’s important to hear what your critic is not saying. The gist of the feedback was, “Your darker, literary work is what we love, but the market needs brighter, commercial illustration.”

So instead of taking what I had and just separating them into two portfolios, I took out almost all my commercial work and revised a few.  Then, I looked at what was working in my dark stuff and created new work that was stylistically similar, but happier in subject matter. The first three pieces in my new portfolio were born out of this process. Here’s my portfolio this year:

2011 Portfolio, click image to enlarge

Important lesson: Don’t put a single piece in your book that you feel even the least bit iffy about.

Note that the new portfolio has less work than the old one (12 pieces vs. 17). Last year’s portfolio displayed a range of my ability, yet reflects a more scattered sense of the kind of work I do (simply because I was scattered in my understanding of what I should do). The mentorship program helped me gain that focus towards one cohesive look and, even with two styles, I feel the new portfolio has achieved that unity.

My thanks go out to SCBWI for creating this mentorship program, and to the judges of this year’s showcase (Laurent Linn, Steven Malk, Richard Jesse Watson, Nancy Conescu and Jamie Weiss Chilton) for choosing my work out of such a big pool of talented illustrators. Most of all I thank my mentors (Pat Cummings, Cecilia Yung, Priscilla Burris, Bridget Strevens-Marzo, David Diaz, and Rubin Pfeffer), who shared their advice so openly and generously. I owe my win at this year’s Portfolio Showcase to them!

If you have any comments to add or follow-up questions about specifics I might not have covered, I would love to hear them. Thanks for your interest!

~Eliza