Tips for Beginning A Portfolio

So you want to make an art oriented portfolio but you don’t know where to start?

This is going to be the top tips to start making a digital portfolio, to be specific a portfolio that you host online or present digitally, not necessarily a digital art portfolio. Some of the advice applies to physical portfolios however, it wouldn’t be as practical for some of the implied context. The reason this is specifically for digital portfolios is because I have more experience with them than traditional ones, as well as being a lot more flexible in presentation and used just as if not more often as of lately.

To be clear, this post is specifically for the content and suggestions of the portfolio itself, I will most likely cover other aspects of an art portfolio in other posts and content on this blog. Because of that, I would recommend subscribing to the newsletter so you get a weekly notification on what kinds of articles and tips I make, including portfolio related. This is advice and tips gathered from different recruiters, other artists I had the pleasure to hear the opinions of, and my own experience so keep in mind that this is a fusion of different experiences and view points. Now that I have that cleared up and settled, are you ready?

The philosophy of a portfolio:

We have to be clear on why portfolios are made in the first place so we can wrap our heads around them, even if the reasoning may seem simple, it’s best to be clear and focus on that. Portfolios to show what you’re able to create, and presenting it the best way to persuade the viewer that you are more than capable and competent at what you do. It’s about your creations, not what tools like “i know how to use {insert specific version of a software}” or whatever else, as that’d more of a tidbit that’s nice to know unless the criteria for the portfolio specifically states you need to know how to use that software. The thing is, that software isn’t “evergreen”, they have an expiration date and they are often not “stable” in the art market even when they appear to be at the time. Knowing how to use a program won’t guarantee to the viewer that you make good art by their standards. Skills and results are a lot more reliable to show. So put that at the forefront of your portfolio. Let the pieces “speak” for themselves.

And it’s important to have the idea that if things aren’t looking so good right now, that you can get better at it with the right guidance and practice.

How should I choose to gear my portfolio?

Example of a visual grid for a portfolio criteria, specifically that of Gnomon’s BFA for Digital Production

You have to concentrate on what you’re going to use that particular portfolio for. You have to ask yourself “What am I going to use the portfolio for?”, “Who is going to see my portfolio? who is my audience?”, “Is this portfolio for getting into a school, getting a job, or what?”, “Is this portfolio focused on concept art, illustration, animation, painting, or what? What am I showing off?”. Let’s narrow it down.

If it’s a portfolio made to get accepted for a concept art job, and you know what job you want to apply to, and it’s going to be seen by recruiters that are super busy then: Either only show concept art related work or mostly concept art related pieces. Then, check what the company’s philosophy is and how other concept artists that got the job to try to get on their level or better – they will be your peers if you get accepted after all! Then check how the portfolios of those recruiting make their portfolios look like to get a small speak peek idea of what the “higher level” is, and present the portfolio straight-forwardly without interruptions or having too many things to click to just to see what they want to see. Make it accessible, quick, and simple to see your portfolio pieces – the presentation that is.

In other words: You have to sit yourself down and ask yourself what you want to do with the portfolio, and research.

Focus the content of your portfolio to the goal you have for it. If it’s to land a illustration job or be approved for an illustration class, then focus on illustrations and their art fundamentals! While it’s nice to know you sort-of know how to take photos, it’s often not necessary and could even weaken your portfolio when you’re not as good at it or detract from the main subject.

If it’s a general art portfolio for a generalized role that specifies that they want to see variety in your creations and abilities, it’s then that you can go wild with the options they give you.

To have an idea of how your portfolio should look like, search portfolios accepted by the specific companies/schools/market you chose or other successful but realistically achievable portfolios. Another thing is going to Linkedin or a company/school/etc’s website and seeing the staff there and searching their portfolio and look through a couple of them to get an idea of what you’re getting into and take notes on patterns you see.

You have to understand your audience! Get in the head of who is going to see what you’re presenting. Pretend you are them, and give yourself constructive criticism on how to get better or change the presentation.

It’s important that once you think it’s ready to be shown, to first get it checked by other artists, laypeople (the common folk that can take a step back and see things from a different perspective), and portfolio reviewers besides the people you’ll end up submitting it to in the end, so they too can give constructive criticism that you can take notes on.

You should have enough variety in your portfolio that it doesn’t look like a “copy and paste”, but have something that “glues” them together and harmonizes them so they don’t look too different from each other that they don’t “fit”. The harmonizing factor can be bits of the art style, subject matter, coloring style, quality, whatever it may be. Be creative with it!

Show it in “real” spaces — as stickers, as paintings, as murals, etc. if the portfolio is going to be used for products or pieces that take up “real space” so they can imagine how it’d actually look like.

Whatever the case, you should have an idea of how it should be like in your specific circumstances by finding a criteria list from the school or job you’re applying to, or seeing the portfolio of the recruiters and accepted artists (your peers).

Inspiration Grid’s homepage. full of different graphic design and illustration examples

How many portfolio items should I have?

The median amount, the number that’s most recommended, is to have around 10 pieces unless otherwise stated by portfolio criteria. The reason it’s “around 10 pieces” is because that’s the closest to a perfect amount there is when you keep in mind how busy most recruiters and artists that view your portfolio are going to be. They might have hundreds of applications and portfolios to go through, as is the case most often, or just plain too many. It’s because of this that, that it should be quality over quantity, but have enough pieces to show you’re experienced.

SHOW YOUR BEST WORK. Always. If you have old work in it, then review your latest creations and see if the old piece is dragging it down, you have to show what you’re currently capable of with the best pieces you have. If you don’t have enough work to show that is on-par with the rest of your pieces, then include less pieces in total or make more to update your portfolio. It’s better to have LESS and all of them look good and accurate, than have pieces that are mediocre and makes the person looking at it think your work from a different phase in your artistic growth is indicative of your current level, making them think that the others were just flukes.

If you have 10 items, and you already have the best of the best pieces on hand, then the best way I’ve heard from artists with decades of experience is to order them like this (where 10 is the best and 1 is the “worst”): 10, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. The first thing they see is something amazing as the first impression – a good hook to get their attention (important!!), and they slowly get eased in again to look at the rest and end at a high note with the second best piece.

ArtStation’s homepage full of different artist’s creations and portfolio pieces.

How to get ready for a portfolio?

Read!! Read!! Then apply what you read and what you see. Observe what other successful and professional artists are doing and research how they learned it. See life and make it inspire you. Keep making, re-iterating, then checking real life and your studies again to see if you did mistakes, and try again until you wittle down the parts you misunderstood or couldn’t pull off at first. Study fundamentals: Form, perspective, color, lighting, composition, value, anatomy, gesture, line, edges… Those are more important than what brushes you use and how to render things to make them spotless (surface-level) as opposed to the deeper level of understanding you get from fundamentals. With that, you will end up with good pieces.

Vilppu Drawing Manual - Glenn Vilppu | shopswell
Glen Vilppu’s “Drawing Manual” book cover.

Absorb as much knowledge as you can. Glen Vilppu, Andrew Loomis, Michael Hampton, James Baxter, Ollie Johnston, James gurney are some classic contemporary artists that have plenty of books and resources that you very much SHOULD read. And then add the artists you admire, see how they make their art – especially their professional work if they have any-, and mix it with your own interpretation of life. That will inform your “unique” voice, without it being made out of ignorance and being misguided. With your newfound knowledge you will be able to form your voice in art from having a bigger inner encyclopedia to reference and know why things do and don’t work.

Interact with other artists, especially the ones you consider as being a “higher level” than you so you can absorb their experience and knowledge, and of course those that are on the same phase of their art journey as you so that you both can drive each other on your own paths.

Another aspect of the portfolio, believe it or not, is networking — it’s the social aspects! It’s not just making the portfolio itself. Humans are social creatures, and it’s best to have connections with the people around you and in the industries you want to be in, make things enjoyable while you’re there, and make people familiar with you and your art. Interact with the teachers and staff beforehand, even artists and people that aren’t a part of your company/school/whatever-else. Send them emails, ask about their day, ask for advice, help them out without overwhelming them – show that you’re pleasant to be around. All of that gives a “face” to your portfolio and makes you human. Art is about communication, so communicate and make it enjoyable!

Just a few places for inspiration and references:
Artstation (mostly illustration and concept art), dribbble (misc), theinspirationgrid (graphic deisgn), sakugabooru (animation), pexels (photography), and social media if you follow your favorite artists.

It’s important to also see inspiration beyond your own creative field, even in things that aren’t usually seen as “artistic” — even math! It is from expanding the view further and combining them with your own perspective and abilities that they become “creative”.

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