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Fine-Tuning Your Portfolio Part 1 – “Skimming the Fat”

April 29, 2010

(Illustration by Melanie Matthews)

What follows is Part 1 of the Fine-Tuning Your Portfolio series, which offers suggestions on ways to maximize the effectiveness of your Illustration portfolio.

As you probably already know, your portfolio is the single most important promotional tool you have as an Illustrator, because it shows a potential client the best of what you can do.

Or the worst.

When was the last time you evaluated your portfolio?  If it’s been a while, there just might be certain pieces that either don’t belong or that degrade the overall impression your portfolio makes about the quality and style of your work.  That’s why it’s essential to regularly revisit the collection of images that you present as your best body of work and consider whether any part of it might hurt your chances of impressing Art Directors and other potential clients.

Skimming the Fat

“Skimming the fat” means removing the less desirable images from your portfolio and revealing a leaner, meaner body of work that packs a solid punch and quickly displays the high quality of work that you are capable of.

If there are any Illustrations that you are even slightly unsure of, now is the time to get rid of them, because there’s a good chance that an Art Director will like them even less than you, which can mean the difference between them contacting you or moving on.  You don’t have much time to capture your visitor’s interest, and with so many competing artists fighting for attention, it’s much easier to lose them than to win them over.

Less is More

I’ve said this before, and it bears repeating here: “When selecting which of your Illustrations to include in your portfolio, focus on quality.  Avoid the temptation to throw everything you’ve got into the mix.”  There’s no reason to have 50 images in your portfolio, and every Illustration you include is another opportunity to either impress or underwhelm.

If you want your portfolio to be an effective means of inspiring Art Directors to choose you for their next project, I highly recommend that you skim the fat and only show off the meatiest chunks (or, if you’re a vegetarian, trim off the brown, woody stems and show off the freshest pieces of Illustration produce).

This is the first, most important step in fine-tuning your portfolio.

You can now read Part 2 of the Fine-Tuning Your Portfolio series: Consistency.

Special thanks to Melanie Matthews for providing the artwork for this post.

About Melanie Matthews: I am 22 years old, I live in Melbourne, Australia and I love to paint and draw. When I’m not drawing, you will probably find me reading, tinkering with websites, or relaxing with some videogames – I’m a bit of a geek at heart. My work is influenced by modern art and graphic design, children’s book illustrators from the 50’s and 60’s, retro cartoons and vintage cereal boxes.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2010 10:56 AM

    This is a very timely post for me, and excellent advice. I’m in the midst of sending out a new batch of promotional cards, and it struck me today that I really should weed out the older, less wow-factor-y work from my portfolio before I start telling people to check out what I can do. I removed a few pieces already, but I think I need to do another pass – the part about not needing 50 pieces in your portfolio? Definitely something I need to take to heart.

    Thanks for the great post! I can’t wait to read the rest of this series.

    • April 29, 2010 12:52 PM

      Thanks Amanda. I think you put it perfectly with your description of the “wow factor”. You don’t want to do anything less with your portfolio. Besides, art directors often make their choice without looking at all pieces in a huge portfolio.

  2. April 29, 2010 2:55 PM

    Excellent idea for the series. We recently had to make a portfolio for college – I’m in my final year, and many people did it for the first time in their lives. What I found weird is that, even though our professor told us to include 15-20 pieces maximum (after telling us a story about when he printed a 300-page hardbound portfolio at the beginning of his career and art directors pretty much laughed at him – none would look at his encyclopedic portfolio), a lot of people showed up with well over 50 images, ranging from finished pictures, to alternate images, to sketches and experiments.

    What I think is the hardest to do is learn to ‘let go’ of images that are so close to your heart, but very outdated quality-wise. They can unfortunately bring the whole portfolio down.

    • April 29, 2010 3:12 PM

      Agreed, Dona. I think a blog is a great place to show additional work, sketches, works-in-progress, etc. That’s a much more acceptable place to show the work to people who are interested in learning more about an artist’s creative process.

      A portfolio should be a sampling of the best. It can even be a good idea to exclude some of your best work if it helps to have a more concise overall portfolio.

      • April 29, 2010 6:54 PM

        Something everyone in the arts industry needs to learn: “Murder your Darlings!” There will never be room for improvement or growth if you’ve got your art in a smothering stranglehold. As far as following directions-those people will learn, or they will eventually disappear.

  3. April 29, 2010 10:11 PM

    Documenting your process is very important for your own learning, but no art director/client needs to see it. There are probably exceptions, but the ‘wow factor’ can be diminished by showing process work alongside it.

    Also, if you have an old piece that has a strong concept, you can always redo it to a higher standard. No law against that :)

  4. April 30, 2010 7:52 AM

    Hi Thomas,
    Thanks for a great post. Its definitely something i need to pay more attention to.
    Fine tuning your portfolio is so essential though i admit i have always put it on the back burner.

    Personally, I paid a great amount of attention to choosing my illustrations for my portfolio page when i initially created and uploaded my site but after that i did not reassess or fine tune.

    It’s my blog page that sees most of my changes even though my “front or landing page” is my portfolio page. Just on that. Do you think the front page of an illustrators site should be the blog or a more static portfolio page?

    More or less, a potential client can only judge what he sees on your portfolio page. A few weak pieces can really take the shine off the good ones.

    I also think that you need to show the work you want to attract. E.g If you have illustrated children’s books in the past and now want to move away from that kind of work then it should not be on your site. Don’t just include a piece because you have done it and you want to fill up the page.

    I think it’s really about not being precious about your work and asking yourself in what kind of direction you want to go.


    • April 30, 2010 10:56 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Eddy. I like what you’ve said about showing the work that you want to attract. It’s very true, and I’ll be talking about that in the series very soon!

  5. April 30, 2010 8:06 AM

    Thanks for doing this series Thomas! you had some great advice when I was first developing my blog site. I finally have my portfolio site but I feel like it is a little too cluttered, so I might go back in to tidy it up a bit.

    Thanks again, your site is really a helpful tool. : )


    • April 30, 2010 10:53 AM

      Thanks Amanda. I’m glad you’re finding some good stuff here. Good luck cleaning up the portfolio!

  6. May 27, 2010 12:06 PM

    Thank you for this series of articles. It reminded me that I had not really done this for some time and as soon as I finished reading this first article a few pieces came to mind that I knew I needed to make go away. So, I went and ‘skimmed that fat’ from my portfolio and it looks much better. I also went and reordered a few of the images in my online portfolio to give it more of a visual punch.

    Thank you again. This site is an awesome resource for someone like myself who is just starting to build their freelance business.

  7. darksealdotcom permalink
    June 13, 2010 10:57 PM

    I have a really hard time doing this myself. I wish I could waive a magic wand and have only the best images remain… Great articles, great site. I’m glad someone over at DA told me about you!


  1. Manelle Oliphant Illustration What is an Illustration Portfolio? - Manelle Oliphant Illustration

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