A Portfolio Primer

I’m afraid that I am now going to follow Beauty and Magic and Light with nuts and bolts and maybe some tire irons thrown in.

A week ago Tuesday I was the main presenter at our regional SCBWI monthly meeting. The purpose of my talk was to prepare illustrator attendees for the upcoming regional conference in April by reviewing a selection of portfolio submissions. This was a public critique session with an audience of 120 or so people.

First I would like to say how incredibly difficult it is to “keep” your audience when you are giving them bad news. At times I felt like Nurse Ratched and at others Heidi Klum (if a graying 5′ 6″ brunette can dare to say that). It’s tricky to keep the atmosphere light when you have to tell someone they need to practice drawing hands or that a mermaid couldn’t possibly ride a horse like that. If you joke about it you know there is probably at least one person in the audience not laughing.

I received 23 portfolios with up to six pieces each. Overall the caliber of work was impressive. Some of it really blew me away. But I wasn’t there to just talk about all the good stuff. As fun as that might be, that was not going to be very helpful to anyone.

So I apologized ahead of time for making people hate me and started with the following pointers:

How best to take criticism:

  • As gracefully as possible.
  • Do not respond with anger, resentment, tears, excuses, threats.
  • Say thank you when it’s over, even if you would rather say something less polite.

Later, after you have calmed down or cooled off or dried your tears, ask yourself, Was the criticism valid?

If Yes, what choices are you going to make based on that advice?
If No, articulate to yourself fully why you disagree.

Either way, make sure your choice of action is well thought out.


What comprises a strong children’s book illustration portfolio?
This is what I believe that editors/art directors are looking for:

  • a fully developed style or styles
  • command of chosen technique or media
  • evidence of ability to develop a character sequentially
  • narrative ability
  • creativity of concept
  • vision
  • they are not just looking for what you can do, they want evidence of how you think and how you see

Very Important Things to remember when putting your portfolio together:

  • start with a knock-out image
  • end with a knock-out image
  • make sure everything in between has a good reason to be there
  • never put anything in your portfolio that you feel you need to make an excuse for
  • never make an excuse for anything in your portfolio
  • make sure all your pieces are for children. Not grown-ups.
  • make sure your work isn’t too derivative of another illustrator’s work
  • drama is good, shown in both composition, use of color, shapes, vantage point, etc.
  • emotion is good – humor, joy, sadness, wonder, etc.
  • a portfolio is only as strong as its weakest link

Again, but a little louder this time:


Now I would like to show you some of my favorite submissions, and this time, I DON’T have to point out any flaws.

The above images were submitted by Ariel Smith. They are shown in the order given. I have no idea if they are part of a larger dummy, but if they are, I hope to see the entire book some day. I enjoy them for their humor, dynamic composition, and attention to detail. They also are excellent portfolio pieces because of their clear narrative and character progression.

Here are more portfolio samples that stood out:

This beautifully drawn trio was submitted by Margie Segress:

And this next charming set is by Nancy Foulke:

Love those bad dogs and tough cats!

And these two pairs by Ben Clanton:

I especially like the (dinosaur?) bits entering stage left and exiting stage right of the last two images. Who is that and where is it going?

Afterwards I felt somewhat redeemed when a number of the people whose work I had criticized thanked me for the comments and said they were very helpful. They took my advice and said thank you! I wish them all well as they face future, more critical, portfolio critiques.

5 responses to “A Portfolio Primer

  1. Thank you for the awesome post! Really helpful to hear the facts and be inspired by the illustration.

  2. I especially like the weakest link piece of advice. Thank you for this post!

  3. Great post! And again thank you for your critiques! I think we all found them helpful.

  4. Thanks – I need to put one together in 5 days – this is GREAT advice! So important for visual people to SEE what you mean too!

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