Book Basics - Portfolios

If you're an illustrator attending this year's annual conference don't forget to take along your portfolio and sign up for a review! The Portfolio One-to-One Reviews are an excellent opportunity to get in-depth feedback from top industry professionals.  

But organising an illustration portfolio can be a daunting task for beginners and pros alike. What to include? What to exclude? How to present the material? Here are some guidelines.

Maintaining a website or file of images on an ipad is convenient, but when meeting a potential client face-to-face having an attractive physical portfolio is absolutely essential. Publishing is still based around print media (thank goodness!) Editors want to see a physical representation of your work when they meet you, not just digital files on a computer screen. Having an up-to-date portfolio encourages you to analyse your output and keep your work pertinent to the market, and is a necessity if you wish to have your work critiqued. It also equips you to present at schools, conferences and other speaking engagements. 


Choosing the Book

Your illustration portfolio is an extension of you, the artist, and your choice of portfolio is an extension of the work it contains. You owe it to yourself to present your artwork in the smartest portfolio you can afford. Placing your work in a plastic file from the discount shop gives the impression that you’re a discount illustrator. Investing in a nice, sleek portfolio book, on the other hand, means that your work will be taken seriously. 

An illustration portfolio is best at A4 or B3 size, A3 maximum. This is for ease of carrying and ease of viewing; editors’ desks are often small and cluttered, large portfolios are unnecessary. The book should have clip hinges with binder rings so that sleeves can be added or removed easily. You might find it useful to split different types of work into two separate books: one for colour and one for black-and-white, for example, or one for picture books and one for older children’s material. 


Content: Selecting your Work

Learn to fine-tune your folio for the client you’re about to meet. Research the company, get to know its work and adjust the content of your book accordingly. If you’re about to visit a children’s book publisher there’s no point in showing advertising work. This may seem like common sense, but it’s amazing how many people make this basic mistake. Know your clients. Don’t waste their time and yours with irrelevant material. Publishers, editors and art directors are busy people, if they don’t see enough work focused to their needs they’re likely to be put off and skip over any pertinent pieces you have.

As a general rule you should avoid more than two distinct styles in a portfolio. Having just one single approach is powerful and easily identifies your work, though it can limit your range so you should always show a variation of subject matter and tone. Two styles can show wider range and flexibility. A ‘2-tone’ portfolio can work very well provided the styles are separated, one at the front, one at the back, not jumbled all together. But three or more in one book is just confusing. The client will wonder which is the real you. Moreover, you’ll likely be forgotten about afterwards. If you really feel you need to show more than two styles then put them in separate books.

If you have access to a high-quality inkjet printer, fill your book with printouts rather than original artwork. Sometimes your portfolio might be left alone for long periods, or a client might want you to leave your portfolio with them to view. Never leave anything that can’t be replaced. No matter how reliable or established the company or location, accidents do happen. 

What to Include for Children’s Publishers:
  •  People, especially children, in a variety of poses and with different facial expressions.
  •  Animals.

  •  Movement.

  •  Variety of setting - a town, a forest, an interior etc.
  •  Illustrations intended for book covers (ideally titles the publisher would recognise). 
  • Sequential pictures showing how you handle picture book scenes over several spreads.

  •  Black-and-white work as well as colour. 
  • Any published work within your childrenʼs book style, even if itʼs only small editorial cuts.

  • A book dummy (if you have one). 

What to avoid for Children’s Publishers:
  •  Personal work (the neighbours dog, general non-illustration doodling etc). Illustration sketches can be good if theyʼre pertinent to your finished work and are a crucial aspect of your creative output, but it might be better to show them separately from your portfolio work in a sketchbook.
  •  Unfinished pictures. They give viewers the impression of impatience and suggest that you only have a limited amount of artwork.

  •  Very large pictures. If you really must show them, take a photograph and show the snapshot. 
  •  Work unsuitable for childrenʼs books or for the publisherʼs list.

  •  Work suggesting inconsistency, such as odd pieces in completely different styles. If a piece is good enough to be in your book, you should have at least three similar examples that match it in tone, style and quality.

  •  Old work in a style you no longer use.

The Portfolio Arc

Once you’ve settled on what to include, deciding which illustration should go where is one of the chief dilemmas in organising a portfolio. The golden rules are:

  •  Put the strongest, most powerful image at the front. First impressions are crucial: the first thing the viewer sees will always resonate the most, so don’t oblige him or her to wade through pages of mediocre work to come to your best material. The first picture should be your most accomplished recent work, in the style you most want to be commissioned for. 
  •  Create waves of powerful pictures. Imagine the viewer is a swimmer and your pictures are waves crashing on his head. Start with a resounding, powerful image filling a whole page, followed by three or four pages of associated or stylistically similar work. For the next wave, the viewer turns the page, and bang! Another strong, full-page image appears, maybe featuring a slightly different style or subject matter, again followed by a few pages of similar work. A good portfolio should have three or four of these waves. Work that is similar in tone and style should always be grouped together like this, not scattered through the portfolio.
  •  If you include a written profile, put it at the back, not the front. The last pages in the book should be for older work, printed matter, and so on. Don’t bore clients with a CV at the front before they’ve even viewed your work.
  •  If you’re not happy with a picture, don’t show it! It’s better to have ten excellent pieces than twenty or thirty of varying quality. 
  •  Avoid cramming lots of small images on a page. The more images on a page, the weaker the overall impression. One or two per page is best. If your pictures are very small, enlarge them or use a smaller portfolio.
  •  Don’t jumble portrait and landscape formats. It’s irksome for clients to constantly turn the book around to view work facing in different directions. place similarly formatted pictures together.

  The industry professionals opting to provide reviews at this year's conference are Will Steele (senior designer Children’s Books), Sarah Frost (commissioning editor) and Gemma Cooper (agent). 

For more details and requirements see the Conference website One-to-One's page and scroll down to the Illustrators section.


John Shelley is the Illustration Feature Editor of Words & Pictures. He's illustrated over 40 books for children, many of them published in Japan where he lived for many years. Most recently he's illustrated Marion Bauer's Crinkle, Crackle, Crack! (Holiday House). His next picture book Will's Words, written by Jane Sutcliffe, is scheduled for release by Charlesbridge in the USA in Spring 2016.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent advice John. A must read for all illustrators and especially those coming to the conference who might be considering a 121 portfolio review.


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.