Does Your Portfolio Need an Audit?

Happy New Year! As usual, I started the year off with (waaay too many) goals and resolutions. One of those goals was to revisit my portfolio with a critical, unbiased (ha) eye. The 2016 SCBWI New York Conference is rapidly approaching, and since I’ve sunk over a grand into it, I might as well prepare to make the most of the experience. So anyway, here’s a little post on reviewing and refreshing the all-important portfolio.

Like the unicorn, the perfect portfolio is elusive. Supposedly my portfolio should be a showcase for the kind of work I want to do in the future, rather than a place for my old projects to gather dust. This is much easier said than done. With my skills constantly evolving and improving, my portfolio pieces seem to go obsolete faster than Apple products. Without resorting to time travel, is it possible to show a whole portfolio of consistent, strong work?

The Elusive Unicorn

In general, our new work will (hopefully) be better than the older stuff. But having a few great new pieces is not good enough. It seems that the editors and agents can’t see your impressive new (imaginary) oeuvre. Silly industry professionals! Instead they are judging you on what they actually see in the portfolio. The weakest work in your portfolio, specifically, rather than the pieces that hint toward your future genius. I once heard Cecilia Yung, AD and VP at Penguin, blithely say that she only looks at the absolute worst image in the portfolio and ignores the rest. “If I can live with your worst,” she said, “I can work with you.” If that’s not intimidating enough, the better the great new breakthrough pieces are, the shabbier the old not-so-great ones look by comparison, and the less cohesive the portfolio becomes. What’s a poor artist to do?

Happily, I’ve come up with a handy two-step plan to tackle this problem:

Step 1: Make more art.

Step 2: Show them less of it.

Putting together a portfolio is an exercise in curation. I like to start by doing some super-honest portfolio analysis to get a clearer picture of where I am and what path I should follow. First and foremost, what should be in my portfolio? There’s no right answer to this, but if I were an editor I’d probably want to see evidence of things like this:

  1. A mastery of technique with a consistent and unique style
  2. The ability to tell a compelling story
  3. The ability to draw a consistent character in a variety of poses
  4. The ability to draw diverse characters, both human and animal
  5. The ability to show action, emotion and personality

Sounds good, right? Now comes the “harsh reality” part. Go print some color copies of all of your pieces, spread them out on the floor or a large table, and take a look.

You can start with what I call the “cringe test.” You can do this alone or (even more illuminating) with friend or colleague. If you have a friend who is notoriously hard to please they’re perfect for the job. Regard each of your images, one by one. You will probably start by admiring the best ones. Keep going. Eventually you will run out of shiny new ones and come to one where you feel that internal “cringe.” You might pause and make an excuse or apology, or attempt to “explain” the piece in some way. Hallelujah, this is the sign you’ve been waiting for! It needs to go. Get rid of as many as you need. You might even get rid of the majority of your portfolio. That’s okay. It just means that your skills–and your critical eye–have improved. Pat yourself on the back, and go have some chocolate.

Now that the cringe-worthy pieces are gone, look at what’s left. If you like, you can analyze these images through the lens of the Five Important Qualities that I invented listed above. Are you telling compelling stories that make you want to turn the page? Do you have a variety of characters in different poses? What’s missing? If you’re having trouble being honest with yourself, pretend that you’re the editor looking at the work of someone you might want to hire. What gives you confidence in this illustrator? What concerns you?

Once you’ve identified the holes in your portfolio, you can focus on making new work, keeping those things in mind. It’s always better to have a few strong pieces than to pad your portfolio with filler, so don’t go crazy here. Think of this as practice. When I audited my portfolio I found that there isn’t as much action and emotion as I’d like, so that’s something I’m working on in my new portfolio pieces. That doesn’t mean these new pieces will necessarily make the cut for the portfolio. It just gives me a direction to head in.

At the end of the day, I hope you can create your magical unicorn portfolio where you adore each and every image and it reflects what you love to do and what you’re capable of. It’s no easy task, so don’t get discouraged. Every new image you make is a tiny step forward, and every weak piece cut from your portfolio raises you a notch in the illustration world. Only you know how to take it from here.

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  1. by Brooke Boynton Hughes on January 13, 2016  5:17 pm Reply

    Great post, Jessica!! I'll look forward to hearing about the conference! :)

  2. by Dow Phumiruk on January 13, 2016  9:25 pm Reply

    I love this post, Jessica. I've shared it on FB and Twitter (I thought I left a comment earlier, but I think it didn't go through!). Thank you for sharing, and here's to Sparkly Magical Unicorn portfolios.

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