Tuesday, July 11, 2006

In response to the old question, "What do I put in my Portfolio?"

This is, of course, just my opinion. Smart people gather information from many sources and then make their own decisions. I'm sure there are things I forgot to mention here, but that is what the discussion is for.

Know who you are showing your work to. Don't show your still-lifes and say, "But what I REALLY want to do is fantasy book covers." If that's what you really want to do, then sit down and create a new portfolio. And don't offer to do a job on spec to prove that you can switch gears.
Create different portfolios for different clients. The presentation you show a card gaming company may be subtlety different than the presentation you show a book publisher.

The “Weakest Link” principle reigns supreme. Especially when looking at portfolios from young artists just out of school a couple of years. I need to know that you are in complete command of your craft. If you have seven paintings that you really like and three that you’re not fond of, sit down and paint three more pictures. An AD will always fear that they could get you on a bad day. ADs don’t want to take a chance on new talent, they want to feel comfortable and excited about working with new talent.

Remember that the day you graduate, artists like Donato Giancola, Todd Lockwood, Jon Foster are your competition. You need to give me a reason to hire you instead of those guys. I don’t say this to make it seem hopeless but, rather, to make younger artists realize that they really NEED to work hard to get their foot in the door. And they need to work smartly. Look at your work critically and constantly work to improve.

Figure drawing, figure drawing, figure drawing! The most important thing for a book publisher is figure drawing. You may get away with faking the rest (for a little while) but you need to have 100% solid figure drawing that does not look stiff and cartoonish. (“Poser” people tend to look weightless and artificial. Learn how to draw the figure.)
There are only a few artists who are willing to include more than one or two figures in a painting. If you can handle a crowd scene, it can go a long way to separating you from your competition.

I like how both Jon Foster and Donato Giancola veer away from the typical six-foot tall point of view here. Scott M. Fischer has a more subtle, but still very effective angle on his. All have effectively painted real individuals, not just cookie-cutter model types.

This is tough. Action often looks stiff or fake. The trick is getting good reference so that the pose is accurate and then deviating from it to give it some life. There are only a couple of people that I trust with real action...but when it works, it’s kick ass.

In Gregory Manchess’ painting we sense the heft of Conan’s body while feeling the split second of weightlessness between throwing his arm back and having it come crashing down on us.

Yes, we constantly show sexy, big-breasted babes on our covers. But, there is a fine line between sexy and freakish. If you are using Hustler for your reference, you're on the wrong side of that line. Along with sexy, they usually need to look like they can kick-ass. Slave girls don't impress art directors. Book publishing does not use pin-up. And breasts are NOT perfectly spherical.

Louis Royo.This figure is sexy, strong, and in command of the situation without being obviously posed strictly for titillation. Royo explores all kinds of dark and erotic themes in his personal work but, for his book covers he is able to pull back a bit for the more conservative book publishing market.

This applies more to artists that have been in the industry a decade or two but let this be a cautionary tale for young artists: It’s not a great idea to always use your girlfriend/wife in every painting. As people get older their sense of what is fashionable sometimes ends shortly after college. It’s slightly painful when I see a figure in the painting whose clothing and/or hair is clearly from the 80s. (Fantasy paintings are amuck in mullets!) Unless it’s a historical piece, costuming should attempt to be as timeless looking as possible. Looking “dated” is the kiss of death for an illustrator. (Men’s fashion doesn’t seem to be as identifiable so I don’t often see this problem in male figures.)

Too much detail in the background flattens the image out. Artists working in PhotoShop love to show every brick of the castle that is resting on the mountain across the valley. Not good.

Stephan Martiniere is a master at implying detail with abstract shapes. It keeps the image alive.
We don't need to see every leaf in Greg Manchess's painting to know that there is a jungle back there.

Book publishing (outside of gaming tie-ins) does not show many monsters. I know that games use tons of them and they look great, but a portfolio full of monsters isn't a help to me.
Showing an example or two of some classic mythic creatures is good - dragons, unicorns, trolls - but I don't need to see tons of it and they should not be of the twelve arm, five eyeball, gooey variety. Good anatomy on animals and creatures is critical. The people are still more important, but if you can also sell me on horses and dragons, you’re golden.

Tristan Elwell’s horse head is spot on. If it had fallen flat it would have distracted from the exquisite face he painted.
The light on Dan Dos Santo’s dragon is great but, as in the example above, the creature is in service to the human figure.

Not so interesting. Even horror books stay away from gore. Grit is fine, a little bit of subtle blood and grime is okay, but no Marketing Department will let an evisceration pass.

This detail from Donato Giancola’s painting is so effecting because he is showing the tragedy of war in how the characters are interacting, not because he is showing rivers of blood.

I don’t care if you have to stand on your head to make a good picture. Most likely, you’ll need reference. Use it. Don’t be a slave to it.

There’s never a second chance to make a first impression. Make people want to turn the page.

If you are showing off a portfolio you are asking a busy person to spend time looking at your best work in its best presentation. Never explain why the image didn't come out as well as you hoped or how bad the print looks. It will either make me nervous that you'll run into the same problems on my job or make me wonder why you are having me look at a portfolio that even you feel is not ready.
It's surprising but people do this all the time. The best artists can point out mistakes in their paintings...but they don't. Be professional and stand by your work.

I’ve had people get on their knees and beg for a chance. This kind of behavior embarrasses the art director and should embarrass the artist. Don’t chase an art director at inappropriate moments, such as an awards ceremony, while at dinner, etc.

If you are asking for constructive criticism, than be prepared to listen. You can ignore all of it, but don’t keep telling the AD why you didn’t do it that way in the first place. You’ve asked their opinion and they are giving it. You can decide whether it’s rubbish or not latter.
Not all situations warrant a “thank you” note, but, if you are lucky enough to get special attention from someone, or someone took extra time out for you, take a moment to say thanks. It’s the polite thing to do and it will remind them of you and your work.

These often do more harm than good. Anything that starts with "How art thou!" goes straight into the garbage. Anything that is trying too hard to sell themselves or that states that they "just happen" to have some free time coming up is a bad sign. If you are not going for a full time job, there is no need for these. It's all about the portfolio.

* If you want them back, include a SASE.
* Have your name and contact on EACH piece. It's easy for samples to get separated.
* Postcards are fine. If something is intriguing I'll go look up a website.
* A collection of a few 8x10s are fine.
* CDs are not looked at. If I already know you, I'll look at them. Otherwise, it takes too long to load them up. Also, work looks very different lit in RGB than it does printed in CMYK. I won’t hire someone solely by what I can see on my screen.
* Follow-ups about 3 times a year are good.
* Don't get too clever with the envelopes/packages. Don't send toys, candy, etc. (I hate it when they send candy...I SO much want to eat it but it's candy from STRANGERS!) Pros don't get cute with their presentations. It should look clean and let the work shine.
* If you are not a designer, keep all the type simple. Most art directors are designers. It won’t stop me from looking at the artwork but you don't want my first thought to be, "Uhg! Chrome, embossed, script lettering!"

Please. Especialy for anyone in their first decade or two of business. Your abilities are (hopefully) growing in leaps and bounds. It’s frustrating to know that someone is doing good work without being unable to show it to an editor...or being unable to remid myself of all that great work I saw from them at a convention last week.

Once you do get a job, do it well and do it on time. That is your best chance to getting a second job from the same client. Again, do it on time.


A lot of what was written here is common sense but many people, especially when nervous, can fall into what seem like obvious traps. The best advice is to act like a pro until you become one. Be confident without being cocky, never stop working while waiting for the phone to ring, get your work out into as many venues as possible, and find places to network and meet the people you are hoping to get hired by.

........Did I mention that figure drawing is important?


John Klima said...

Glad to see you here. Great post. Hopefully the artists-to-be pay more attention to it than writers-to-be do.

John Klima

Andy P said...

Hey, thanks for all the great info. Starting out in the illustration field is scary as hell, but it's good to know that common sense, common courtesy, and good work will win out.
Thanks for the post, much appreciated!

Mary Robinette Kowal said...

Thank you for posting this, especially for hammering the point about figure drawing.

May I also add to the lists of don'ts, that unless your portfolio has significantly changed don't keep sending it to the same art director. One new piece is not a significant change.

Nancy said...

I work in animation and we have nearly identical problems with animation portfolios. (You are presumably not burdened with young animators slavishly copying exercises out of a textbook or fondly believing that they are 'imitating' one of the animation greats--or are you?) This is a very helpful post that I would like to have all my students read.
The worst portfolios I ever saw contained original art, not copies That's the one thing that you left out of this post--applicants should NEVER SEND ORIGINAL ART in a portfolio.
Thank you! and it is nice to make your acquaintance.

Nancy said...

Worst Portfolio move (actually overheard at a major studio)
"Could I have this back tomorrow? I have to go show it at a lot of other studios."
The young man got his portfolio back right then.

Peter said...

Excellent portfolio advice, and right on the eve of the San Diego Comic Con. In addition to the Best Foot Forward policy it might be good to put a knock out piece at the end of the portfolio, assuming that the reviewer will remember most what they first and last see.

How many pieces are too many to show? I've thought 10 pieces (possibly a few more) are a good benchmark since you don't want to drag someone through your entire creative history.

Cindi said...

Wonderfully complete article on submitting artwork for book covers. Makes me wish I were a better artist. But the advice is still good all the same. Thank you again for the tips and for taking the time to write it all down.
The one "tip" an instructor told me once was if someone calls your work "Nice" they are just afraid of hurting your feelings.

Cindi Jimu

Jo Bourne said...

Fascinating read.


I won’t hire someone souly by what I can see on my screen.



Irene Gallo said...

Wow!..Thanks go out to Patrick and John for the mentions!

Thanks all, for stopping by.

Nancy - Yes, I should have mentioned not to send originals. Thanks for the reminder, I'll add that in.

Patrick - I swear, I used to hear "My stuff doesn't look good printed" all the time. Not so much now that home color printers have become much better, but still, I can't imagine what people were thinking.

Peter - I always thought 10-12 images was good. Enough to show consistency and variety without overkill. I'll add that in the post as well. Thanks.

Jo - Thanks for the heads up (*I hang my head*) I'll go fix...I wish I could say that I'll be more careful in the future but for some reason I have a miserable time with such things....That's why they keep me far away from the editorial hall.

Jack Ruttan said...

I'm working on my ultra-cool self-confident artist persona, for these kinds of things (usually, the exact opposite of what I feel at the moment. Is it okay to hire stand-ins?)

I might add, when you have one of those bulky, zip-up portfolios (not there anymore, because of computer prints I can just stick into a transparent-paged book), is to check carefully for any creatures that might jump out and run across the conference table while you're showing.

Not impressive, and I changed apartments shortly after.

Irene Gallo said...

Kara -- It is certainly appropriate to have multiple copies of your portfolio. In fact, it's almost necessary. It's also a good idea to tweak them for each client, if you can. A portfolio for Bean Books should look different than a portfolio for Tor, and that might look very different than a portfolio for a UK publisher.

Hey James - Thanks for stopping by.

Robert - Most artist use themselves and friends all the time. I should have made it clear that that, in itself, is not a problem. The problem is simply not realizing how dated a person's own sense of style my look to today's audience. I'm not saying that people are wrong to _like_ mullets...they should just use them sparingly in illustration for books published in the 2000's. As for the Modesitt cover, I was just 19 when that came out! Styles and trends change. I'm sure there will be many things I need to amend to this post as time goes by...but then that's what keeps life interesting.

Irene Gallo said...

Hi Bjorn,

I can only WISH that artists who have published a lot prove to be reliable! ;-)

We do work with rookies from time to time. It doesn't happen too often, simply because most people need a few more years out of college to ripen, as it were, but it does happen. Daniel Dos Santos had some work published before I started working with him, but fairly little. I met him at the Society of Illustrators and hired him right away. In the few years since, he's becoming a sensation. I've also just started working with a young man named Jason Chan. I saw his work on ConceptArt.org and hired him before he even graduated. But again, these are exceptions. Usually it is a more gradual, steady climb.

Of course, once you do get published that many more people know of your work. That exposure will help more than the simple fact that it was published/proven.

Best to focus on a good portfolio. It's all about the portfolio. No resume will make or break that.

Nunumi said...

Wow, this post is like light coming from heaven. You technically answered to my oh biggest question when sending my stuff to editors, which was: "Do the editors want to see that I am versatile, or they want to see what they want to see." I guess the answer is b.. :)

And now, this thing they want to see is what I have to find on my own. Thanks!

Janet said...

Thank you for reminding me again of the things we always wish we could forget. It's great to see you have a singular online existence. And thank you for being awesome!

*glares at the empty canvases planned for portfolio-building*
I should, um, spend less time on the internet

Belinha Fernandes said...

After that I'm so happy I'm not an artist struggling to prove my value!:-)

Janet said...

Yes. Thank you, for it is good advice I often forget when I should know better.
And it is awesome that you have a blog.
Sorry for being an art direction fangirl.

Irene Gallo said...

Hey John,
Good questions...in fact, they are questions that come up often when I'm speaking at schools and such. Give me a couple of days and I'll answere this as fully as I can as a new entry.

David Apatoff said...

Irene, what a splendid, thoughtful, constructive analysis. This is a genuine act of kindness for a lot of young talent.

Also, it was quite a treat getting acquainted with some excellent artists through the links in your post. I shall come back often.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post.I build my own art portfolio online(painting) and developing it to good enough.

this is my portfolio

and art blog http://www.line-art-paintmarker-design.blogspot.com

It'll good if you leave some comment about it.

Anonymous said...

the mean and blunt parts are the best, like the section on fashion figure drawling. nice. not exactly where i had hoped google would lead me but the first artical that wasn't a waste of time.

you should add more about possible content for kids trying to get into a sweet freakn college.

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Eve said...

Thank you very much for this post, it is highly informative for artists who are considering doing book covers.

(Not related, but what is it with all the spam in the recent comments?)