ILLUSTRATION EVENTS Portfolios that get you commissioned – a masterclass by David McDougall

The 10th March SCBWI Illustration Masterclass on Portfolios at the House of Illustration was a great success. Here's an overview, by Sarah Underwood

I was recently fortunate enough to attend one of SCBWI’s consistently informative Masterclass sessions at House of Illustration. Given by David McDougall, Art Director of the children’s list at HarperCollins, this Masterclass took an in-depth look into the subject of portfolios.

Personally, this is a very fortuitously timed event for me: having recently finished my Masters in Children’s book illustration, I am in the process of preparing my portfolio for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, as I’m sure many people are, so I was eager to hear what David had to say.

David talking to the group

I was not disappointed. The talk was well structured and incredibly informative. David was very generous with his time and answered all our questions, explaining key principles of presentation in a coherent and accessible manner. The talk was absolutely packed with helpful information for us to consider when creating our own folios, and thinking about how best to complement our work and present it in a considered manner.

Presenting you

The key point that resonated with me from David’s talk was about the role played by the portfolio. It is not just a collection of images, but also an indication of how you would like potential clients to view you and your work as a whole.

Consistency is key

It is important not to put so much in, that the overall impact of your work, and the person behind it, gets diluted. This point applies right across your social media outlets – you want to show an Art Director enough work to gain their interest, not to show them everything you’ve done.

Another aim is to present yourself in the form of a campaign, as an advertising company would a product, so that your message is consistent overall – keep your message clean and concise.

With these key points in mind, David then discussed ways of achieving this goal.

Design and Layout

David showed us examples of layout in portfolios, including projects he has worked on, and his treatment in presenting this work.

Given the point that we are presenting our work and ourselves with consideration as to how they will be perceived, it is important to think about what the viewer will gain from the experience. Layout is integral to this perception.

Keep it clean

The key to layout, we learned, is simplicity. Busy work will get lost, so be confident and try not to put too much on each page. You don’t necessarily need lots of pages.

Your presentation should be tight, have clarity, and convey a clear voice and your personality. Commissioners are looking for the individual as well as the work, and are asking what you can bring to a project. So your message needs to be clear.


As an example of how to present work successfully, we were shown examples of the use of grids and the ways in which you can combine different types of images for the most impactful result.

As ever, the message is to avoid situations where the Art Director is left asking too many questions which will distract from the work.

The physical object

David expressed a preference for the physical portfolio rather than a digital one, explaining that texture and interactional aspect of presenting a physical portfolio, means the illustrator can engage more easily with the person viewing it. Box folios, for example, have great aesthetic appeal.

There were more useful suggestions and insights into design than I can outline in this one article, but I hope I have given you a taster of the key points.

It is worth giving serious thought as to how your portfolio will be perceived rather than hoping the viewer will make the right decisions for you. It is an opportunity to take control of your body of work, and the kind of jobs that you would love to do, and to me this is a very exciting aspect of developing your work as a whole.

Header photo by ©Paul Grover, used with permission of the House of Illustration
Other photos © Sarah Underwood.


Sarah Underwood worked for over ten years in children’s publishing before pursuing her love of illustration full time. Her website is here.
Follow her on Twitter/Instagram: @sarahundart or Facebook.

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