3 Common Mistakes Artists Make in Their Portfolios


(Illustration by Thomas James)

It’s no secret that an Illustrator’s portfolio, whether online or physical, is their best chance at making a good (or bad) impression on an Art Director or other potential client.

The thing, is many Illustrators still get things wrong in some very critical ways.

So, here’s a brief look at some simple things to avoid with your own portfolio:

Mistake #1 – Trying to Please Everybody

One of the most enlightening concepts to be found in Episode 47 of the EFII Podcast with Marshall Arisman is the idea of creating the type of work that you feel passionate about.

Rather than spending too much time trying to figure out what every Art Director wants, be sure to balance that with a healthy dose of your own vision and aesthetic.

Naturally, it makes good business sense to pay attention to the needs of your clients, but never at the expense of your own artistic spirit. If you go too far towards trying to please others, you’ll betray many of the reasons you wanted to make a living creating art in the first place.

Instead, focus on the type of work that you actually want to do. Marshall Arisman offers some great advice on trying to determine the subjects that you have actual knowledge of, and presents his own career as an example of what can happen when you create from within yourself, rather than from without.

“I spent three years trying to please somebody, I didn’t know who they were. Now that I’ve gone back to me, this thing seems to be working.” – Marshall Arisman

Mistake #2 – Including Published Work That Sucks

For better or worse, published Illustrators are generally perceived as having more clout, experience, and even talent, than unpublished ones. You and I both know that this isn’t always the case.

This also goes for the work itself.

One mistake that many Illustrators make is to fall prey to the temptation of including certain pieces in their portfolio simply because it has been published, even if the quality is inferior to the rest of their work, or it simply doesn’t fit.

Rather than elevate the impression your portfolio makes, this actually has the opposite effect. When Art Directors are viewing your work, they are most influenced by the worst piece, not the best, and they are rarely as impressed as you are that something has been published, especially if it sucks.

Instead, your list of recent clients or projects is a much better place to mention that your work has been published, without feeling the need to show the work itself. This concept simply brings us back to one of the most basic and important elements of your portfolio: quality over quantity.

Mistake #3 – Holding on to Work for Sentimental Reasons

When refining your portfolio, it can sometimes be difficult to remove a piece that lowers the overall quality of your work if you are too emotionally attached to it.

It may have been the first project you ever worked on.

It may be an Illustration of your favorite character.

It may even be an Illustration of your favorite pet.

Come on, we’ve all done it.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that Art Directors and other potential clients don’t have a sentimental attachment to your work. They have a job to do and are looking for an Illustrator to hire.

As I mentioned earlier, clients are most influenced by your worst piece, so including work for the wrong reasons can mean the difference between landing and losing a gig.

Removing an Illustration from your portfolio doesn’t mean it no longer exists. It simply means that your portfolio is reserved for the work that will help you get your next project, and should be treated as such.

We make the mistakes above because we’re human.

It can be hard to draw the line between business and pleasure when building or fine-tuning our portfolios. Our egos and emotions can get in the way and cloud our vision of what works and what doesn’t.

It can always help to get a second opinion from someone you trust, but in the meantime, consider whether you’re making any of these mistakes with your own portfolio.

Do you know of some other mistakes that Illustrators commonly make? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

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Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at thomasjamesillustration.com.
Thomas James

Posted by Thomas James on 01/29/14 under business
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