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3 Mistakes Illustrators Make in Their Portfolios

September 13, 2010

(Illustration by Øivind Hovland)

It’s no secret that an Illustrator’s portfolio, whether online or physical, is their best chance at making a good (or bad) impression on an Art Director or other potential client.

The thing, is many Illustrators still get things wrong in some very critical ways.

I’ve covered the basics before here at EFII, such as consistency, quality vs. quantity, and segmenting your work, but today I’d like to focus more on the mindset of an Illustrator, and the ways that we can sometimes make decisions that hurt our overall body of work.

So, here’s a brief look at some simple things to avoid with your own portfolio:

Mistake #1 – Trying to Please Everybody

One of the most enlightening concepts to be found in Episode 47 of the EFII Podcast with Marshall Arisman is the idea of creating the type of work that you feel passionate about.

Rather than spending too much time trying to figure out what every Art Director wants, be sure to balance that with a healthy dose of your own vision and aesthetic.

Naturally, it makes good business sense to pay attention to the needs of your clients, but never at the expense of your own artistic spirit. If you go too far towards trying to please others, you’ll betray many of the reasons you wanted to make a living creating art in the first place.

Instead, focus on the type of work that you actually want to do. Marshall Arisman offers some great advice on trying to determine the subjects that you have actual knowledge of, and presents his own career as an example of what can happen when you create from within yourself, rather than from without.

“I spent three years trying to please somebody, I didn’t know who they were. Now that I’ve gone back to me, this thing seems to be working.” – Marshall Arisman

Mistake #2 – Including Published Work That Sucks

For better or worse, published Illustrators are generally perceived as having more clout, experience, and even talent, than unpublished ones. You and I both know that this isn’t always the case.

This also goes for the work itself.

One mistake that many Illustrators make is to fall prey to the temptation of including certain pieces in their portfolio simply because it has been published, even if the quality is inferior to the rest of their work, or it simply doesn’t fit.

Rather than elevate the impression your portfolio makes, this actually has the opposite effect. When Art Directors are viewing your work, they are most influenced by the worst piece, not the best, and they are rarely as impressed as you are that something has been published, especially if it sucks.

Instead, your list of recent clients or projects is a much better place to mention that your work has been published, without feeling the need to show the work itself. This concept simply brings us back to one of the most basic and important elements of your portfolio: quality over quantity.

Mistake #3 – Holding on to Work for Sentimental Reasons

When refining your portfolio, it can sometimes be difficult to remove a piece that lowers the overall quality of your work if you are too emotionally attached to it.

It may have been the first project you ever worked on.

It may be an Illustration of your favorite character.

It may even be an Illustration of your favorite pet.

Come on, we’ve all done it.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that Art Directors and other potential clients don’t have a sentimental attachment to your work. They have a job to do and are looking for an Illustrator to hire.

As I mentioned earlier, clients are most influenced by your worst piece, so including work for the wrong reasons can mean the difference between landing and losing a gig.

Removing an Illustration from your portfolio doesn’t mean it no longer exists. It simply means that your portfolio is reserved for the work that will help you get your next project, and should be treated as such.

We make the mistakes above because we’re human.

It can be hard to draw the line between business and pleasure when building or fine-tuning our portfolios. Our egos and emotions can get in the way and cloud our vision of what works and what doesn’t.

It can always help to get a second opinion from someone you trust, but in the meantime, consider whether you’re making any of these mistakes with your own portfolio.

Do you know of some other mistakes that Illustrators commonly make? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Special thanks to Øivind Hovland for providing the artwork for this post.

About Øivind Hovland: Øivind Hovland is an experienced freelance illustrator with a long list of international clients, covering a broad range of media.

He is also the author of two illustrated books, published by Tabella, and his work has been short-listed for IMAGES and the Nationwide Mercury Prize Art Exhibition.

Øivind is represented in the UK by NB Illustration.


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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2010 9:05 AM

    One thing that I have seen is people not including enough information about themselves in the “About” section. I think that this leaves the user without a complete picture of who they are as an artist, and leaves the user/Art Director without a complete picture.
    Also, contact information not being readily available is another issue that I have seen as well…

    • September 13, 2010 9:30 AM

      Two great points, Moe. Leaving out your contact info is a mistake that is way more common than it should be, and it’s unfortunate.

      Also, it can be very helpful to have a comprehensive About page, without going overboard of course. It can go a long way towards telling your story and making a connection.

  2. September 13, 2010 12:21 PM

    Great post! As someone who is still in the initial stages of developing a good portfolio, it’s even harder to skim the fat. (not much fat to skim as of yet)

    What has been helpful to me is to go ahead and display all the finished work that I’ve done, even if it’s not the greatest. Seeing this work on my site with my art director goggles on gives me a clearer perspective on what needs improvement.

    My website already provides the overall aesthetic that I’m working towards. It actually creates a helpful environment where my branding can evolve primarily on its own throughout the rest of my work as I decide what’s acceptable and what is not acceptable. Does that make sense?

    • September 13, 2010 12:25 PM

      Thanks Mathew. It’s nice to see all your work out in front of you, so you can see what fits and what doesn’t. Is that the approach you’re talking about? It’s amazing how things pop out at you when you’re looking at it all together.

      • September 13, 2010 1:05 PM

        That’s pretty much what I’m getting at. When my work is up, it’s basically performing on stage. Not only will I have a better perspective of what’s not doing well, it also helps me see exactly why it’s not doing well.

  3. September 13, 2010 2:09 PM

    Excellent article! Hmmm… updating my online portfolio currently. Hard as hell deciding what stays, what goes. I still think it’s too much, but these designs of mine are from a 22+ year career, I gotta lot of stuff that’s really really good. It leave little space for explaining how humble I am. . . LMAO!!!
    Seriously though, I’d love for you to have a look see.

    One last question: Is this site ok, or should I build my own site? (I really don’t want to build a site, but will if you think it’s best)


  4. September 13, 2010 11:28 PM

    These are really key points in a portfolio I think, and I imagine that remains true throughout one’s career.

    I just wanted to add something to point #1. In addition to what you’ve mentioned, that if one is trying to please everyone and ignoring one’s personal voice it goes against the basic reasons for working as an artist, I think it’s important to remember that if you work from your own viewpoint and do the kind of work you love the work is BETTER. It will be more confident, more inspired, and it will be uniquely yours. This means a better and more marketable portfolio.

    The point about staying true to what you want in art is a very important point, but in case for some it seems sentimental or somehow less-than-critical from a business standpoint I want to emphasize that doing the work you love, and hence the work you do best, is good business.

    • September 14, 2010 10:28 AM

      I wholeheartedly agree, Peter. That is, after all, what sets artists apart and makes them successful. It takes courage to follow your vision, but it always wins out compared to trying to please people. If you want to make an impact, it’s necessary to take risks. Thanks for your comment.

  5. September 27, 2010 5:46 AM

    Nice wee article, thanks!
    The point about ‘the piece which is remembered most in your portfolio is always the worst one’ seems obvious now it’s been pointed out, but I hadn’t really thought of it before, and am guilty of including loads of published work, even though it’s not so hot.
    I will prune from my website immediately!

    -Another point worth noting is :
    ‘Don’t include styles of work which may be really high quality, but you don’t want to do again!’
    (I have in the past included on my web site hand painted watercolour book covers produced for a publisher. (Floris Books in Edinburgh)
    I was quite proud of these, but they took so long, and the standard payment for this type of illustration simply wasn’t worth the time invested in the paintings.
    It was just vanity on my part wanting to show them off, with no intention of producing similar for a client!
    Anyway lesson learned with that one
    Thanks again for the articel

  6. December 6, 2010 5:41 AM

    Great article, very informative..

    I myself have done some projects in the past which I don’t want the public eye to see (haven’t we all?), I wouldn’t want to post these on to my portfolio where potential employers might look to hire me for a job. But I see far too many people doing this and it is a shame for them..

  7. amritfiltration permalink
    March 1, 2011 6:52 AM

    These are really helpful tips.Thanks for sharing.Share this…


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