Sunday Mailbag

November 20th, 2011 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: What advice would you give on preparing and showing a portfolio for obtaining freelance work?

A: This question isn’t really from anybody specifically, but last week when visiting the Savannah College of Art and Design I did a round-table portfolio review for a group of students, and I thought some of the questions and information disseminated there would make for a good Sunday Mailbag post.

First off, let me say that the era of hauling around and showing a physical portfolio to art directors in pursuit of work is all but over. The term “portfolio” used to mean the leather case containing the bound samples of an artist’s work. Now it simply means the work itself, as more and more “portfolios” are websites. That said, much of the advice that used to apply to those physical portfolios still applies to showing your work to art directors, no matter what way this is done.

Here are what I think are some of the most important elements in preparing showing a portfolio in the pursuit of work:

  1. Show them what they want to see, and nothing else- In the case of a specially tailored viewing (i.e. sending or showing work directly to an art director or potential client), do a little research and give some thought to what it is they are looking for. It does you little good to show funny animal illustrations to the art director of a sports magazine. That’s not to say you have to show that art director nothing but sports-related art, but try to focus what you do show them to what is relevant for their needs. In the case of a sports magazine, that would obviously be sports illustrations but also anything with action, caricatures, people or maybe crowd scenes. Also, the type of art they seem to lean towards matters. If most of the illustrations they use are on the realistic side, the goofy cartoon stuff would likely not appeal to them.
  2. Leave out the sketches and unfinished work- It might be interesting to show other artists parts of your process, or other aspects of your artwork to show how “well rounded” you are, but art directors don’t care about that stuff. Unless part of what they are looking to hire someone for involves conceptual work or life drawing (like animation work, for example), leave that stuff out. They only want to see finished work that they can imagine printed in their publication or incorporated into their project.
  3. Don’t overwhelm them with too many pieces- Fifteen to Twenty pieces are enough for them to get a solid idea of your abilities. Too many and it gets too long and arduous for the art director to slog through. Too few and it looks like you haven’t done much work.
  4. Include as many published pieces as possible- Also either use an actual tear sheet or printout of the finished layout (type and graphics included). At worst include a label with client name and publication date. Any published pieces are like gold in your portfolio because it demonstrates to the client you have completed a job for a client, met a deadline and did work that met with client approval and was published/used.
  5. Start and end the portfolio with your best pieces- This is an old cliche but a good one. You want to start and end strong, as that both gets the art director’s attention at the beginning and leaves them with a (hopefully) memorable piece at the end. The success of a portfolio showing is measured not by how impressed the art director is at the time they see it, but by how long they remember your work as the days (and potential jobs) go by.

The prevalence of virtual portfolios makes some of those points harder to accomplish, but they are still important. It might be easy to put up every single piece of art you have ever done in your website portfolio, but that is not wise. You can and should have more pieces up than twenty, but many dozen are too much. I keep my online portfolio limited to 45 pieces, which is plenty of pieces but still manageable to go through… especially using the scrolling thumbnail feature I have incorporated into my website design.

I always thought it would be a great feature on someone’s website to allow for a private portfolio section, where an artist can send an email link to an art director and invite them to look at a specially tailored selection of pieces just for them. That might be too much work to do very often, but it would allow an artist to put together a perfect amount of well-selected pieces to show.

Thanks to Nobody in Particular, MN¬¨‚Ć 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!


  1. Brian Fies says:

    Tom, I’ve got about one-ten thousandths your experience and skill, but once in a while someone asks me to look at their stuff. In my experience, the Number One mistake people make in a portfolio review situation is apologizing for their work. “This one’s not quite finished.” “I didn’t have time to color it right.” “I should have done that differently.” I understand insecurity and the urge to criticize your own work before someone else gets a chance (“Yeah, you’re right, I stink”). I think I’ve probably done it myself. But all it does is raise the question: If it’s not your best work you’re proud to stand behind, why’s it in your portfolio? Show some confidence (but not arrogance)! And if someone criticizes your work, right or wrong, there’s usually no point in arguing. Say Thanks, walk away, and try to learn from it.

    • Tom says:

      I run into that also when looking at student portfolios, but I was assuming anyone out in the ‘real world’ they’d know better than to talk down their own work when showing it. However you are probably right to point out that’s bad. People often have trouble with silence when someone is looking at their work, and feel they need to fill it somehow. Also, I would assume no one would put in a piece they don’t think is very good, but again… best to point that out. Thanks.

      I will say this, most art directors will NOT give you a critique of any kind when looking over your work. They aren’t teachers. You shouldn’t expect or ask for one.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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