Sunday Mailbag

May 23rd, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: If I have just begun working as a cartoonist/illustrator what should I include in my portfolio since I never gotten published before? I know I should include my best work but what’s the subject for me to illustrate? Finally, how to get my work noticed?

A: These days a “portfolio”, meaning a little case that contains samples of your illustration work, is almost a thing of the past. It’s the electronic age, and websites have taken the place of the traditional leather portfolio. Website porfolios have so many benefits over thier physical counterparts… they are accessible 24/7. They do not need to be dropped off or returned, thus the client has it at their fingertips always, you can change it easily while sitting at home with no pants on, etc. I can’t remember the last time I sent out my actual portfolio or brought it to show to an art director. Still, many of the concepts that apply to the preparing and presentation of the old fashioned leather portfolio still apply to the virtual kind. Preparing a portfolio is like any exercise in marketing: you identify your target audience and their needs, tailor your presentation to fulfill those needs and then present it to them in an easily digestible form.

Your target audience is of course your potential client and their readership or audience. You determine what they are looking for by examining their magazine/publication to see what kind of content they publish. I’m not talking about looking at the illustration work already in their and trying to show them something similar (although the type of illustration they use can tell you if your style is something that might or might not appeal to them), I’m talking about seeing what kind of articles and audience they are reaching. If it’s a magazine about sports, showing them product illustrations of sandwiches probably won’t be very effective. Some things are universal… like illustrations of people and people interacting is some kind of scene, but it’s best to show them work that fits within the scope of their audience. If it’s a sports magazine, show illustrations of athletes and people playing various sports. If it’s a magazine for the entertainment industry, caricatures of celebrities are always good. Medical magazines want illustrators that can draw hospital equipment and doctors in uniform, etc. Art directors as a rule won’t spend any time trying to imagine if the artist who’s unrelated work they are looking at would be able to draw their kind of subject matter. They want to look at pieces in a portfolio that they could imagine being printed as they are in their publication.

It might seem unrealistic to tailor a portfolio for a single client like this… it likely would involve doing some sample pieces specially for that client, and who has time for that? True, but you can generalize and use many pieces for multiple portfolios. A caricature of a baseball player could be shown to any sports related publication, but would also fit well for showing to newspapers, entertainment magazines (especially if the player is A-Rod or some other tabloid darling), health and fitness magazines or any publication that might use caricature. A humorous hospital scene would be good to show not only medical themed publications but those dealing with insurance, finance, business or health in general. In fact a humorous scene like that would be good to show any art director looking for humorous illustrations.

Also, you need not have every single piece in your portfolio specifically targeted to the client in question. Actually just a few of them would do, as long as the rest are in general of the type that would appeal to them. If you are showing your work to a serious art colletors magazine, having a bunch of goofy cartoon work in it would probably not be wise. Likewise if you are showing a portfolio to a kid’s entertainment magazine (if there even is such a thing anymore) it’s pointless to show them realistic paintings of ducks.

The virtual online portfolio is a little harder to tailor to a specific client since you don’t show it just to them but it is there for the entire world. In that case it’s best to break your work into categories of sections, possible using tags and simple links for things like “Caricature”, “Sports”, “Humorous”, etc. It’s tempting to put every piece you’ve ever done on the website since you have virtually unlimited room, but too much work makes it unappealing and overwhelming to browse. Limit yourself to a few dozen pieces at most, or create more specific sections with similar themed artwork in multiple mini-portfolios like the categories previously mentioned. If you want a great template for creating a solid onlien portfolio, visit this link at FreelanceSwitch.

Finally, there are some things you DON’T want to include in your portfolio. Sketchbook work is one. It’s fun to look at people’s sketchbooks… if you are another artist or a fan. If you are a professional art director you don’t give a damn about a potential illustrator’s creative process or how good they draw stealth caricatures of people in the coffee shop. They want to see publication-ready work. Likewise do not include life drawings, which are just another kind of sketchbook drawing and have no commercial applications. Don’t include x-rated or possibly offensive stuff unless that’s the kind of work you are aiming for.

As far as “getting your work noticed”, well, that’s the trick. Having a strong portfolio is great but doesn’t do you much good if nobody sees it. You need to aggressively look for publications and clients who you think your style would appeal to, and then get your work out to them. Doing a postcard mailing with a few samples on it and your website URL is a good direct marketing technique, but it involves a lot of legwork to find the contact info you need. There are mailing list services that will provide you with a list of buyers of illustration for a price, and that might be a good place to start. Postcards and mailings cost money, but you have to do some investing in your business to get it off the ground. Other possibilities are source books like the Directory of Illustration or the Workbook. which cost a fair amount of money to be a part of.¬¨‚Ć There are also online source books like the iSpot. Again, these cost money and may or may not be effective for you. I would start with the direct marketing mailers and go from there.

Thanks to Kim Chen for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

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