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What Your Portfolio is Saying to Art Directors

By Tom Baxa | 29/04/2014
What Your Portfolio is Saying to Art Directors

In the field of fantasy art illustration the number one most important factor in getting a job is the quality of your artwork. That’s why it’s so important to keep learning and painting all the time.

Your portfolio is your calling card. What you put in it represents you as an artist and a working professional, and should tell a prospective client everything they need to know.

In my new ebook, Get Work as a Fantasy Artist, I discuss many strategies for finding illustration jobs; strategies that helped me secure work on Magic the Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons!

The following excerpt from the ebook, which is available at, will give you some insight as to the kind of messages your portfolio might be sending to an art director as they flip through it and considers whether or not to give you an assignment.

Keep it Lean

Every artist’s first instinct is to load up his portfolio with every awesome piece they’ve ever done. But that’s not the way to go. Your portfolio should have only your strongest work in it. A tight well thought out portfolio with a small amount of excellent pieces, is better than a portfolio with a few great pieces and a bunch of mediocre pieces. Here’s why:

You want your portfolio to pack a punch, like a good movie trailer does. In the short time that you have with an art director, you want them to be bowled over by what they are seeing. You do that by doing good work, obviously. But if your portfolio has too many pieces in it, even if they all rock, the viewer will get overwhelmed and you will have lost the wow factor. A few pieces are plenty to show off your skills.

Obviously, your portfolio won’t be perfectly targeted for every art director you meet, but you want to do your best to cover a range of your abilities and still keep your portfolio tight.

Send a Clear Message

You don’t want your book to send mixed messages to an art director viewing it. Remember, you may not be there to explain things when an AD looks at your samples, so make sure they speak for themselves. Fair or not, a confusing portfolio can inadvertently send a negative message. Here are some pitfalls you want to avoid:

A sloppy presentation

Message: This artist is disorganized, messy, and doesn’t take pride in his work. He didn’t even take the time to make his portfolio presentable; I doubt he will take a job or deadlines seriously. He’s not a pro. Solution: Make sure your portfolio is clean, tidy, and put together in a professional manner.

A few excellent pieces mixed with mediocre pieces

Message: This artist is inconsistent and I can’t count on what level of work I’ll get from him if I give him an assignment. Solution: Only put your top work in your book, and cut the rest

Believe it or not, one of the most important things to an AD, even above the artistic ability of the artist, is his ability to consistently turn in good work on time. When an AD assigns a job, they want to feel confident that the job will be done right without their having to check up on you or work too hard with the artist on revisions.

If you are too much trouble, miss deadlines, don’t respond to their emails in a timely fashion, or turn in sub-par work that needs revision, the AD will drop you and work with someone else that gets the job done with little effort from the AD. ADs will often work with less talented artists that they know because they can count on them without fail. It puts their mind at ease that they can send out an assignment and know it will be done right and on deadline.

Student work in your portfolio

Message: This person hasn’t created much artwork yet, and doesn’t have much, if any, work experience. They are untested and I’m not sure what will happen if I hire them. Solution: Put only finished illustrations in your book that incorporate the things you’ve learned.

It’s usually best not to include student work in your portfolio. Most work you do in school is designed to teach you something or help you develop your skills. They are exercises, not illustrations. Examples of things not to put in your portfolio include: life drawings, perspective drawings, sketches, warm up drawings, color swatch exercises, rendering exercises, etc. These things just tell an AD that you took some classes, and not much else.

It may be true that you are right out of school, and that’s ok, but your portfolio shouldn’t broadcast it. You want to seem like a pro, even if you aren’t one yet. Show the AD that you understand what it takes to be a working pro.

Don’t worry, even if you are new to the game, if you present yourself well and your work is strong, ADs will hire you. In fact, many ADs pride themselves on giving new artists their first shot!

If your portfolio is a bit heavy on student work, take it all out and spend some time doing one or two really great illustrations that incorporate the things you have learned. For example, do one illustration with scantily clad barbarians (figure drawing) in a dynamic pose (drama) fighting a giant lizard (rendering skills) from a worm’s eye view in a cathedral (perspective + architecture). See what I mean, in one finished illustration, you can show an AD a lot of things.

Exception: If the industry you’re trying to break into likes to see certain preliminary stages of artwork, then you should include that work in your book. For example, animation ADs actually want to see life drawing pieces in your portfolio to see if you have a good understanding of human and animal forms. Concept art positions require quick idea development, so a page of sketches is ok to put in your book.

Unfinished work in your portfolio

Message: Why didn’t they take the time to finish this illo? Does this artist have trouble bringing things to conclusion? Will they be late on their deadlines? Do they have trouble coming up with interesting compositional solutions? Are they a quitter? You’re not a pro. Solution: Include only finished illustrations

There is no reason to put unfinished work in your portfolio. No AD wants to hear a list of excuses as to why you couldn’t get it done. Just finish it! Or leave it out. There are times when you want to do demos or show your process, but save that for your blog, not your portfolio – unless it is an integral part of the job you are applying for.

How can an AD determine your skills and give you a constructive critique if the work they’re looking at isn't finished. All it does is make them wonder about you and your professionalism.

Too wide of a range of subject matter or styles

Message: You’re all over the map – I don’t know who you are as an artist or what style I’ll get. I can give you some direction, but it might be more trouble than it’s worth. Solution: Focus on what kind of work you want to do, and emphasize that in your portfolio. Or have several portfolios (or divide it in sections) for different industries.

There’s a difference between showing a range of what you can do, and sending mixed messages. This is a fine line, and a tough thing to figure out. You want to show that you can do a wide range of things so that an AD will feel confident that you can handle anything they throw at you, and to maximize your chances of getting jobs. On the other hand, if there is too much variety, it might appear that you lack focus or don’t understand the needs of the position you are applying for.

It’s best to start by seeing what’s being done in the industry that you’re interested in getting into, then doing some illustrations that cover some of the iconic elements of the genre and requirements of the job.

Too little range

Message: You only paints dragons, I don’t know if you can do other stuff. Solution: Get familiar with your genre, industry, or company that you want to work for and have enough range in your book to give them a good idea of what you can do.

You want to paint what interests you, but if you focus is too narrow it will be harder to get work. And, unfortunately for a lot of ADs, if they don’t see it in your book, they think you can’t do it. You might also get pigeon-holed as the “dragon guy” and only get dragons to illustrate. I know you’re thinking, “Great, I love dragons,” but believe me, it will get old. And you’ll continue to add new pieces of the same thing to an already narrow portfolio.


Tom Baxa

Thomas M. Baxa has been creating fantasy creatures that haunt the imagination as an illustrator for over 25 years. He works primarily in the role playing game industry where he has contributed to countless games including Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Vampire, Magic the Gathering, and World of Warcraft: TCG, and much more.

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