Building a Strong Portfolio
New subscriber here, hi!
This one hit pretty close to home as I’m literally focusing all my energy on my portfolio for my first SCBWI conference in LA this summer.
I totally understand the importance of the business plan, and knowing your market, but at the same time it seems like a “cart before the horse” sort of situation.
I don’t mean to play the devils advocate, but what about someone like Kadir Nelson? His work doesn’t fit into a box, he’s done everything from book covers to album covers, to fine art shows.
Instead of making your work “fit” into hyper specific subcategories of publishing wouldn’t it be better to develop your personal style and vision and then decide where you fit best?
I don’t want to compromise my “artistic vision” so to speak. To me it seems a bit inauthentic to create work in the way described in the episode.
@Sean_H I wonder if you're simply articulating two different approaches to a developing a career... There are many artists that first develop a style and then apply that style to specific projects. But I would venture a guess that those projects are probably presented to them from others, not necessarily the other way around where they pursue those individual genre opportunities.
The one approach depends on the capacity of others to think outside of their boxes: an Art Director sees an artist's work and thinks "This style would be beautiful in a children's book!" The other approach caters to an Art Director/Editor directly by eliminating the need for them to think outside their box too much.
What frustrates me is the box itself. I would imagine life as an Art Director is rather like a studio head making a film: you look for directors and projects that fit a predetermined, safe formula that has a proven track record of success. I would imagine it's the rare children's book publisher that takes a chance on artists that haven't demonstrated their capacity to "play it safe" at some level.
There's only so much risk publishers are willing to take. Much like film studios, they seek a formula for repetitive success, and taking a chance on an artist's style requires them to have a measure of success with that style in other ways. That's why so many movies are adaptations of books, or cast successful musicians in starring acting roles.
And the ripple effect is profound--my field is theatre and can I just tell you it has always been less risky for producers to mount theatrical productions based on existing IP and movies? That's why we currently have a musical of Tootsie on Broadway, and why The Tale of Despereaux as well as a stage version of Almost Famous are being mounted at the Old Globe in San Diego. It goes all the way back further than adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (which, in the mid 1800s was the most popular theatrical piece in the US with over 200 touring productions country-wide). I could make a mile-long post of theatrical pieces developed from famous musicians (The Who's Tommy and Duncan Sheik's Spring Awakening, or Cyndi Lauper's Kinky Boots and Sara Bareilles's Waitress) to Intellectual Properties (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, The Lion King, Aladdin, Spider-Man: Take Back the Night...) to novels (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wizard of Oz...)
Making original work is hard, but selling it is harder. It's pathetic, but now casting directors are more likely to cast actors with a large social media following than someone with authentic talent but unknown. Famous movie star wanting to go back to the stage? You're practically a shoe-in.
Having the vision to embrace work outside of the box is both celebrated and disdained in a number of different professional worlds. That's why Sony's style of animation in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse was so risky and so successful. Purposefully breaking the mold to catch lightning in a bottle is both brave and foolish. Breaking even on risk-taking projects isn't something the-powers-that-be desire (can afford?) to do because it's more likely to fail than succeed.
Seriously, I can't imagine what it's like to be an Art Director, straddling that line between the new and the tried & true. It simultaneously makes me absolutely livid that there aren't more brave ones out there taking chances on the fresh or bold, and chastised & humbled that any of them are brave enough to put forth anything different enough to garner the attention of something like the Caldecott committee that is supposed to celebrate the fresh and bold.
Ultimately it's a catch-22. An artist does what they can and becomes as informed as they can, regardless, right? At least that's my justification for learning as much as I can about the different illustration and art industries. They're vast. And as much as there are rules, there are also no rules.
@Sean_H I’m no pro but as a counter argument, I would like to ask “How many Kadir Nelsons are out there? How many illustrators get to dabble in a myriad of industries?” Kadir makes amazing work but it’s evident to me that he’s more of the exception to the rule. He’s an illustration rockstar. As for most of us beginning artists, we might find a safer route by focusing in one field and then perhaps branching out in the future.
@Sean_H Thanks for the reply. I'll try to elaborate on this a little:
Kadir Nelson is a great example of an artist that actually emphasizes the point we were making on the podcast. Kadir's work is highly usable in almost all commercial applications, so that he why he has had success in so many different genres.
The key is finding where personal interest (style) overlaps with commercial viability.
But let's try your example out and we can see where it might not work out so well. If I were to try and find my style by just following whatever I wanted to do, what happens if the work I arrive at ultimately has no commercial possibilities? Then you are right back at the beginning and need to start over if you want to make a career out of it.
Note, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing work you want to do and NOT becoming a professional illustrator. But, once you say you want to work, you have to acknowledge what the marketplace is doing in order to succeed.
Anther side note: if making any work feels like compromising your artistic vision, then I'd use that as a guide for changing what choices you are making. You are totally right that if you are just making work that isn't authentic, then it will be hollow and probably wont work out too well in the long run.
This episode was so good. The story at the end by Will was amazing. Such dedication.
CukiArtist last edited by
@Sean_H like nyrrylcadiz I'm no pro but my way of thinking about it is two fold.
First there are a lot of successful artists that work across fields, in this podcast alone they comment about working on: Picture books, board games, individual artworks to be sold as artbooks or prints at conventions, concept art etc. However I get the feeling that all of them also started by focusing on one field, for @Lee-White it was picture books but for @Will-Terry it was editorial art. As they became more skilled and experienced they started diversifying their fields and art directors had more confidence in these veterans so could offer them jobs with less visual evidence.
So to summarise start by focusing on proving yourself in one field and dream of all the others you can try once you have proven yourself.
Secondly the field you choose should be a natural fit for you and so not really compromising. This is one I struggle with and I would also love other people's take on it. I often get distracted by what I think sounds ok and workable. Such as a period when I did colouring books because they sounded like something I could do and colouring books were really popular at the time, but interest in my colouring books was luke warm and in the end I started looking for greener pastures because it wasn't something I was really invested in. At the moment my focus is on middle grade/chapter book art because I feel it is a good fit for the art I naturally tend to gravitate towards making and I feel less SCWBI artists tend to focus on it so it might not be quite as glut a market.
An exercise I was once recommended and which I still do every couple years helps me better understand where my preferences lie (This WILL change). The goal is to make a folder on your computer and save over 500 images into this folder, they all have to be images that when you looked at them you went 'this is it, this is what I want to make', it's not enough for you to respect the artist or think the art is impressive it has to be the art that most resonates with you. Then when you have your 500+ start analysing those images, what is common content? what is common purpose (book covers, concept art, stand alone illustrations etc) Once you have finished analysing you should have a better idea of where you want to head.
I hope this helps and I would love to hear other people's take on it because I can understand it feels so risky and confining to not try every possible avenue for work.
SarahF last edited by SarahF
Great episode! Appreciate the practical advice, and I enjoyed the business plan restaurant analogy.
One thing I'm curious about... when Lee was talking about narrowing down your target markets, his example was something like "children's books. New York, Chicago"... how much do you feel geographic location plays into what markets illustrators can work in? Of course the internet is so amazing for connecting people, and as a student I'm thrilled to be able to take online classes and learn from people from all over the world. But do art directors still tend to work with professional networks within their own cities?
I'm also curious about cultural differences between different book markets. My understanding so far is that the USA children's book market can be quite different to children's book markets across Europe. (In preferred art styles and subject matter, pay, population size). I did some searching in the forum archives here, and a couple of discussions came up - but I'd love to hear if anyone has any anecdotes or stories about working in different markets? (either different cities or countries)
I just listened to this episode this morning and I loved it! I'm taking notes so I can make pieces that address the criteria listed.
Question: I have longed realized that my problem is producing enough pieces to have a portfolio to critique. Part of that is style paralysis, for which I told myself, "Just finish some pieces and you'll figure it out eventually." But there's a bit of a vicious cycle because not having a defined approach to making images slows production. Also, I know enough to look at my work and see the difference between the quality of the work I can do right now and the quality I want (style aside). And thus I'm never pleased enough with anything to put if in my portfolio. And although I'm improving, this lack of, or very slow, production has been going on for two or three years now and it's really getting to be a problem.
One thing I'm doing is taking classes, but I don't have a consistent style even for those.
Anyone got some ideas to get me out of this stuck place? If so, I would be eternally grateful!
@SarahF About different book markets: I live in Italy, have been to the Bologna Book Fair and taken some classes here, so I can attest that there is a different sensibility, if not a different style.
Here are a couple of links to what is probably the highest quality children's publisher in Italy:
You can also find information on the Bologna Book Fair website, such as this list of all publishers who display there. I have the page set to Italy, but you can change it:
I once heard someone call the style here "intellectual." I would almost call it surrealistic, and I find there is a common style that is more rendered and has more static poses, but that's not everyone, of course.
Here's a major French publisher. I like the French style!
What I can tell from anecdotal experience is that in a country with a smaller market, the overall available audience plays a big part in opportunity (or lack thereof). If you can imagine, it's even harder to make a living in illustration here than in the US, because you just aren't going to get the sales you would in a larger market, and so your advance will be tiny compared to the US. Basically you hope your book will get translated into English. And likewise, many books available in bookstores here are translations of books that were originally written in English, because it's cheaper to translate than it is to support a book from the ground up.
Hope this is helpful in getting you started.
A belated thank you all for your thoughts and perspectives. I've read each and every word. Wow, truly what a supportive environment!
I feel like I've learned a lot just from this thread, thank you!
SarahF last edited by
@LauraA Thank you for the comprehensive reply! These links are fantastic and so helpful, definitely gives me a lot to explore. Thanks for your anecdotal thoughts and observations too.
I'm in Australia and just starting to research the book market here - there's a great local publishing industry, but from browsing bookstores and the library we seem to import US, UK and various translated European books as well. I guess I'm just curious to look at children's books from around the world... there's so much beautiful work in the Orecchio Acerbo and Gallimard Jeunesse catalogs, thanks again for the links.
As to your question about being in a stuck place of style paralysis / slow production - I don't have experience with putting together a portfolio (not quite at that stage yet!) but I can certainly relate a lot to this part: "not having a defined approach to making images slows production". If it's any comfort, you're not alone here! It takes me SUCH a long time to draw or paint anything as I'm still learning the techniques. This comic always cheers me up when I feel things are moving so slowly: https://www.instagram.com/p/BcpcZEenDXJ/
@SarahF I like it! Thanks!!
Jose A Nieto last edited by
Thanks for this one guys! I'm about to finish a children's book and wanted to take a whole month to create at least 31 illustrations for my portfolio and social media and see if I'm able to reach more people to get more Children's book stuff, and and the list Terry gave us is just perfect. Cheers!