How to Build Your Art Portfolio

Building your art portfolio is no easy feat. It might be even anxiety-inducing, especially if it’s your first time. If this is your case, I’ll try to break it down into simple points. While my focus is illustration—based on my experiences as an illustrator myself, and as an art director hiring fellow artists—the tips might be useful for several kinds of art.

First, a question: are you an extremely prolific artist, with a bag full of illustrations and sketches? Or are you an artist with a lot of ideas, but not so many finished works? I have an answer for both, but let’s start with the second type.

Building a portfolio from scratch:

If your art bag is empty, the first step is to calm down. Yes, I know, you want to get this done, but don’t hurry. A good art portfolio doesn’t need a lot of material, but it needs variety enough to show what you know. So set a small goal, no strings attached, of filling up your bag with around ten finished works that show your range.

Some of those illustrations won’t satisfy you, but it’s important to finish them—the lessons you will learn after finishing something you didn’t like are also important, even if you find it ugly. 

Do fanart of your favorite book, redraw the cover of a classic, illustrate a song, get inspired by that pretty photo you took, etc. Don’t force yourself to draw something you hate, of course, but insist on finishing it, no matter the result.

Choosing material:

Here is the point where you, prolific artist, and you, artist-with-ten-new-illustrations, meet again. Both of you have work to choose from. Now I want you to choose the ones you love the most, and limit it to 5-15 pieces.

No, no more than that.

Choose only the pieces that you believe represent well your current work. Sketches and older pieces (no matter if they’re beautiful) will inflate your portfolio and make it harder to navigate; leave that kind of content for your social media, and show only the best you can produce right now.

What is an art director looking for?

As an art director actively hiring artists to illustrate stories, what I search for is:

  1. Backgrounds: if an artist is excellent at drawing people, but all their art has a white background, they are less likely to be hired to illustrate books or similar media. If you focus on character design, that’s not an issue, but I still think it’s important to fight the fear of backgrounds. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but showing that you can, if necessary, matters.
  2. Interesting compositions: Art directors like to see more than a character drawn right in the middle of the image, or a profile. Both can be perfectly interesting, but again, variety is key.
  3. Style consistency: Mastering different styles can be a selling point, but if your work has no consistency whatsoever, your potential client might now know what to expect if they hire you. I suggest at least three illustrations of each style that you’re most proud of, so a client can say “I love your digital art, but what I had in mind was something like that watercolor series.”

Hosting:

Now that you already have a bunch of complete (and recent!) illustrations, with style consistency and interesting compositions, you can start thinking of hosting.

Here is the point where you give up on the fancy, expensive website that you dreamed of. If you’re not making a living out of your art yet, a free website is 100% okay and no respectful art director should judge you for choosing something you can afford.

Free websites that are functional are Behance, Wix, Carbonmade, WordPress and even Tumblr (if you use this Tumblr exclusively as a portfolio, that is—save the memes for your personal account). Despite listing Tumblr here, I suggest you avoid other social media as a portfolio. They’re great as a starting point: the public gets to know your art, and potential clients might find you in the vastness of the internet, but social media accounts and portfolios have different purposes. A portfolio is a short selection of the best you can do right now, that’s all.

Final touches

Now that you chose a limited amount of recent illustrations that showcase your range, creativity, variety and consistency, and you have a website that is simple and clean, here are some other details that might help you get finished:

  • Your email should be visible and easy to find.
  • Write a third-person about/bio to introduce yourself, your work and experience. It doesn’t need to be a full curriculum, just a paragraph telling who you are, where you come from, or anything that you find pertinent regarding your art.
  • List your social media, if you have it. Here, it’s perfectly fine to show sketches or the pieces you might have decided to keep off your portfolio for whatever reason.

After that, show your portfolio to the world! Crosslink it to your social media, send it to open submissions and application calls. And, while you wait for a response, draw some more to keep those illustrations updated with your best work.

Dante Luiz

Dante Luiz (@dntlz on Twitter) is an illustrator, art director for Strange Horizons, and occasional writer from southern Brazil. He is the interior artist for Crema (comiXology/Dark Horse), and his writing was published by Constelación Magazine, Professor Charlatan Bardot's Travel Anthology and in Portuguese by Mafagafo Revista, among others. You can see more of his work on his website.