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Monday, July 12, 2010

Designing Your Portfolio: Vexations From An Artist Who's Been There & Done It

There are a lot of things you have to do yourself in order to get it right, and building up a portfolio is one of those things. It's hard work, mind numbing, and very tedious, but well worth doing in the end. 

I am fortunate enough (though more often than not I feel it is unfortunate) to have a class dedicated to building up a personal brand, portfolio, and website among other promotional things such as business cards, postcards, and learning about resumes and such. And fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of networking to get critiques from professionals in the field about the process of making a portfolio. 

A few things that are key is that it should look professional, be unique to you (express your voice), and consist of around 15 pieces that look polished and focus on what it is you like to do. One thing that has helped me to think about my own portfolio process has been WoTC Senior Art Director's blog In addition there is a very awesome art community to be found there for help on such topics as this. 

But, to the main business.....

For me, a vital part of my art has come from gaming. I wasn't fond of it to start and it took years to get me to sit down at a game table to play anything at all. But eventually it grew on me......or rather, out of me. I created a character that really stuck and has become an integral part of my life, my sweet little demolitions engineer, Jynx. She can blow up things in a fictional sense when I would love to do it in real life......things like homework assignments, creepy clowns, and the Easter Bunny (<---he is EVIL!). 

So when it came time to branding our artwork and tying that unique identity into our presentations it was very clear that Jynx had to be a part of that (she threatened to blow up all my hard work if I didn't).

The above image is the introduction page of my process portfolio. I wanted to mimic the feel for the process as is seen in my sketchbook, so I scanned in pages of my moleskin sketchbook to create a template. From there I added the image of Jynx scribbling what I came up with for a tagline (and the title of this blog) 'Madness to the Method. It felt appropriate to use this as a tagline as anyone who has seen my sketchbook can tell you it is quite messy in there. Yet from the madness come some pretty cool pieces in the end. 

Surprisingly a lot of non artists don't realize how stressful our line of work is, and how much junk we have in our minds. 

To set the feeling off I added some early sketches of my character in the background, ghosting them to make them look more sketchy, and finally adding in my name and information. This is important in case for whatever reason your portfolio gets separated from you. (I also tore the edges of the paper where the binding would be so that once placed into a portfolio book they would look like real pages torn out of a book).

With the intro page out of the way I am free to begin to plot out the interior pages of my process portfolio. While I did feature the final pieces in this portfolio, it is really more about how I got to the finished piece rather than the finished piece itself (though it is still important). A process portfolio can be an important tool to take with on interviews to clients so that they can get a feel for how you work. It can also help to open you up to conversing about your line of work and what it is that you love to do.

For me this is true. At Origins Convention 2010 only a few weeks ago I took a few of my process portfolio pages with me to show. I didn't have a complete portfolio together at this time, and I didn't even have them in a nice folder at all since I was still in the process of putting it together, yet it was able to help me not only get my foot in the door, but work as well. (Well, and my friend David helped too since he introduced me to the art director who then took a look at my stuff).

While I didn't have a complete portfolio with me I was still able to confidently talk about what work I did have to show. And I was also able to get critiques from other artists on putting a portfolio together. 

The above pages are facing pages, one that shows my process and the the other that shows the final piece. A process portfolio will be more useful in a commercial sense so that companies can see how you work. But it can also be useful for concept work, since process work is also vital to this field. 

With the process portfolio done and out of the way it is time to move ahead to the finished portfolio. Here I have moved away from the sketchbook feel because this is more integral to polished work. The design reflects another type of professional branding that I used on the written side of things. The design follows suit with my design resume (that means that it is my resume that has been dressed up a lot nicer to be handed out once I have already gotten an interview). Again, this is an introduction page to my portfolio and it is important to put your information here in case you lose your portfolio but also to remind the person looking at it who you are.

I switched to black out of necessity I will admit here. One of the pieces featured in my finished portfolio looked so out of place on a white background that I decided to use a black background instead.

Here is the same piece from my process portfolio modified to fit into my finished portfolio. There is a big difference in how the piece looks now with a cleaner and simpler design than in the first portfolio.

With this I made a template once again that has the title of the piece, what it's application would be, the original dimensions, and the media used. These are tidbits for the person looking at it which might strike up questions about the piece during a review or interview.

The finished portfolio pieces should all look polished and as though they are already published. While the majority of the work in this is student work that isn't mentioned in the portfolio. Instead I use applications of what the pieces intended use would suit.

Making a portfolio is by no means an easy task, and each one is different. Also, I am not happy with the final result of my own portfolio because I am always striving to do better, but with that in mind I also  know that in the next few years my portfolio will go through a metamorphosis. I am not sure if I will ever be happy with it, really, but I don't hate it either. I merely see there is room for improvement, just no way of getting there yet.

But some day.....

And of course, the most important thing is that if my unfinished process portfolio and my own confidence in what it is that I do was able to help me get my foot in the door then I have already accomplished something.

So for anyone struggling with putting one of these together:

Yes, they are a pain in the ass and you will want to veg out on the couch with a beer and not pay any attention to it, hoping that some magical elf will come in and make it for you.

No, you probably won't be happy with the first couple ones that you produce, but it's magic in the making!

Get feed back. I know it's scary to open up and show people what you are working on, not to mention talking about it. But that's the thing, you need to show people and talk to them or else why bother in the first place?

One thing I have observed in my own experiences is that while commercial illustrators (like ad people) will hoard their secrets like a dragon does a coin that most artists out there will give you some scraps. I am not saying all commercial illustrators are so with holding (a fair share of them aren't), merely that it is my experience that professionals in the field(s) I am pursuing are and have been willing to share information and opinions when asked.

Worse thing comes to worse is they ignore you or turn you away.

Take what crits you get with a grain of salt and always be polite about it. Remember, that you aren't the only one getting help when you ask questions. A lot of times that I have asked for advice it spurred the artist or art director to considering something else that had nothing to do with me at all. Nurture relationships the same way you do your art or children (<---no I don't have any kids of my own).

You will have late nights up tending to the needs of your art, spend hours fussing over it, get angry and send it to the corner, feel guilty and apologize to it later, snuggle up with it late at night. Like all good things, they happen over time. I won't say anything about patience, since I never seem to have any of it to be honest, but you will get through some how.

And no matter what, don't do anything that isn't you or what you like. Why risk getting stuck in a place like that for the rest of your life?

Hope this has been helpful.

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