Tips for Surviving an Illustration Portfolio Review

Today Jane Heinrichs, one of our recent Featured Illustrators, offers some guidelines on the challenge of organised Portfolio Reviews

One of the common experiences of any illustrator in SCBWI is attending portfolio reviews. 

We print out our precious illustrations.  We collate them in a folio. Butterflies breed in our stomach, so that we can hardly breathe.  What will the editor/agent/art director say?  Will this be my lucky day? Or will I feel overwhelmed by all their comments? 

No matter how experienced we are as illustrators, a portfolio review will always be an emotional event.  But, that’s ok.  Emotions are all part of the creative process. 

One thing we can do to make the experience as positive as possible is to be prepared.

Here are a few tips…


1. Dress to impress.  Most portfolio reviews are face to face, and while your illustrations are the most important factor, the reviewers will also be seeing you for the first time.  Make an effort to look good! I always make sure I’m wearing something smart, fresh and professional.

2. We love paper.  For years I bought cardstock from the local stationery store and printed my portfolio at home.  The prints were adequate, but not outstanding.  Then, I invested in getting my best illustrations printed professionally on real water colour paper. The reviewers noticed!  Some even ran their fingers across the pages, simply appreciating the gorgeous quality. (After all, don’t all illustrators and publishers love pretty paper?) It may seem like a big investment, but it’s probably the one thing I did that made the biggest difference. 

Detail of my printed watercolour paper

3. The little black binder. First impressions count. Get a really amazing PRAT or Panodia leather bound portfolio book to house your work.  They are expensive, but they last forever. If you show the reviewer that you value your illustrations, they will value them too! 

PRAT portfolio's from the excellent London Graphic Centre

Quirky business cards or postcards.  Make sure you have lots, and give them freely.

illustrator business cards I've collected

Just before the critique: 

1. Talking points. Make a list of a few things you want to mention to the reviewer.  Previous accolades.  Projects that went really well.  Future plans. Unique working methods.  If you have them ready in your head, you won’t run the risk of forgetting all the important stuff because of nerves.
2. Take a deep breath. It’s ok. They want to help.  Don’t be nervous. 

Communicate your passion for your art form.


During the critique: 

1. Make eye contact.  This may seem basic, but sometimes critiques can be so nerve-wracking that you spend the whole time staring at your trembling fingers. If you make eye contact and connect with the reviewer, they’ll take more interest in your work.
2. Explain your methods and motivations. (See above) As the reviewer looks at certain illustrations – and especially if they show interest – explain how you created the artwork, or describe the project it relates to.  Be enthusiastic! Communicate your passion for your art form.
3. Accept compliments.  If the reviewer likes a piece, say thank-you. Take credit for your talent; you’ve worked hard.
4. Ask questions.  You want to learn from this experience.  Here are a few of my favourite questions:   

  • Which illustration do you think is the most successful?
  • What should I focus on for future illustrations?
  • What do you think I need to work on? (This is a humbling question to ask, but be brave!  You need to know in order to improve.)
  • Make a list of your own questions based on what you think you need to work on most.
  • Don’t be discouraged if each reviewer gives a different answer to the same questions.  Art is subjective after all! 
5. Say thank-you.  No matter what they said, make sure you shake their hand and say thank-you at the end.  
6. Keep the door open. Give them your business card and ask for theirs in return. Ask if they would be open to receiving some samples of your new (improved, amazing) work in a few months. Keep the communication lines open. 

Right after the critique:

1. Write it down. Take a few minutes to sit in a quiet place and make notes of everything they said while it’s still fresh. Even if it hurts. Even if tears are streaming down your cheeks.  Even if it’s amazing and you want to jump on the ceiling and giggle hysterically. Write it down for future reference.  
2. Save their details. Put their business card in a safe place. You don’t want to lose it!


Later…. Much later…

1. Review your notes.  Go over the notes from all your critiques.  Are the opinions wildly divergent?  Can you see any patterns?  Is there anything you can implement, even in a small way? 
2. Make a list of the opinions.  If you showed your portfolio to 100 people, you might receive 100 different opinions – perhaps not absolutely different, but lots of variations. Make a list of the positive comments and the negative comments.  Take in what they said; then make your own decision. It’s your artwork and your voice.  What you do has to feel true to your vision.
3. Try one small change. Make a small illustration with one of the comments in mind. Try to really push yourself.  Does it feel like you’re going in the right direction? If not, keep experimenting.  What’s the use of going to critiques if you’re not actively trying to improve?
4. Make an action plan. Keep making good art.  Actually, keep making fantastic art.  Send your new illustrations to your new contacts. Keep asking for feedback. And keep going to portfolio reviews. 


Creating good art is a journey.  Each portfolio review adds light to the map that will lead you to artistic fulfillment.  When you’re making art, you never know where you are, or where you’re going; you can only see how far you’ve come. So, keep attending portfolio reviews, keep making notes, and keep experimenting; you’ll be surprised by your progress! I promise.



Jane Heinrichs is a Canadian born illustrator now based in London.
Twitter: @janeheinrichs


  1. Thank you Jane, I really enjoyed reading this. Even though the idea of a portfolio review is quite nerve-wracking to me, you highlighted so many positive ideas to hold onto to make sure we can get the most out of it!

  2. Jane, these are excellent tips that obviously worked for you. Thank you for sharing them.

  3. Wow wonderful tips. Shared on G+ if you don't mind!! :D

  4. Thank you so much Jane, for sharing these tips,
    I really enjoyed reading this.

  5. A portfolio is a collection of samples of an artist or other creative person, or group of complementary or supplementary products marketed together. I have a site how to make a business portfolio. It helps you to make a business portfolio.


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