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Presenting Your Portfolio

I often get asked for business advice. This posting is in regard to questions I got from Computer Magazine‘s Rob Carney about portfolio presentation for an upcoming article in the great how-to art magazine ImagineFX. It includes a lot of knowledge I’ve gained the hard, painful way from personal experience. It is presented here so that you don’t have to go through what I went through and make any of the same dumb mistakes I made…

Q: What’s the secret of good portfolio?
Here’s a few:
1) Presentation, presentation, presentation. Instead of a nicely organized professional folio, at times I’ve been handed random, creased bits of smudged paper with pencil drawings (not even finished pencil drawings, mind you). Be professional! If you’re not presenting your art in a sleeved portfolio book, then at least matte the art that you’re presenting (with nice mattes; replace them if they get dirty or dinged).

2) Don’t show too much stuff. Anyone with brains and taste can tell if you’ve got talent after seeing twelve pieces (or less). Please don’t ever show more than twenty pieces.

3) Start your portfolio with a bang. Think “first impressions”. Begin your portfolio with either your best piece or your best known piece (for that “Ah-HA — you’re that guy!” moment).

4) One portfolio does not fit all. Gear your portfolio to whomever it is being presented (your client). Research who they are and what accounts they have. If you’re showing your work to a company that produces G-rated kiddy stuff, don’t show them picture after picture of explicitly nude, rotting zombies getting their heads blown off in gruesome, graphic detail.

Q: What should an artist’s portfolio include? Everything they’ve ever done?
A: NO!
It should have twelve to sixteen (no more than twenty) examples of your best (and/or best known) work, including at least a few pieces that show you can draw really well without the aid of PhotoShop.

Q: Is it important to tailor your portfolio to specific individuals/industries you want to impress?
A: Absolutely, but don’t be anal about it.
I research potential clients before our meetings (easy to do now with Google and the internet) and find out what accounts they have and choose most of my portfolio pieces with that in mind. But I always include a few of my favorite works regardless of content as well. I like to show my range and seeing something out of the ordinary (or outside of their particular “box”) might excite them and trigger you both into a fruitful direction that neither of you had planned.

Q: What are the big ‘dos and don’ts’ of a portfolio?
DO be on time. It shows respect for your client and your client’s time. If you’re late, your client will see that as the first indication of a potential pattern or that you might be someone who is casual about deadlines. Leave much earlier for your appointment than you think you should. Bring a sketchbook; you can always kill some time drawing if you show up too early.
DON’T use a rep. Generally, reps are people who take big chunks of your money for doing minimal work on your behalf. I’ve also observed that reps are usually on the client’s side — not the artist’s side. Unless you are completely inept socially, represent yourself. If a client has a choice between giving a job to someone whom they’ve met and liked or a complete stranger, to whom do you think the job will go?
DO be your own biggest fan (but not obnoxiously so).
DON’T be arrogant or a smart ass.
DO try to begin your conversation by personally connecting with your client, if you can, before getting to the business bit. Making a personal connection is very good business. Regularly maintain them in a timely, personal (but not too personal) and professional manner (I’m pretty bad at this but am consciously trying to get better at it).
DON’T sell yourself short or under price (or undervalue) your work.
DO find something genuinely positive to say about your client and/or his company.
DON’T ever bad mouth anyone in the business. Keep that ugly negativity to yourself.
DO be calmly confident — even if you have to fake it.
DON’T feel you have to negotiate everything at the first meeting. If you’re uncomfortable about anything (rights, fees, perks, travel expenses, schedules, etc.) postpone discussion of that topic (any excuse will do, even a simple “I need to think about that for a day and get back to you”). Then go home and do your homework before unnecessarily putting yourself into a bad business deal.
DO have a professional presentation. No loose scraps of paper and no unfinished work.
DON’T show too many pieces. Twelve to sixteen pieces should do it; certainly no more than twenty.
DO think about your personal appearance as well. Look successful. Be clean (I’m amazed at how many artists I’ve interviewed who didn’t bother to shower first. Body odor — UGH!). Wear fresh (and ironed) clothes; don’t walk into the interview in shorts or a loose, rumpled shirt. You’re at a job interview, not a friggin’ kegger. No one wants to hire someone who looks like a slovenly loser, no matter what their talent. One wouldn’t think this advice would be necessary but sartorial skills seem so rare among artists that my friend Dave Stevens was often referred to as “the artist whose clothes fit”. If you have any doubts about how you might be presenting yourself, ask some classy women friends to evaluate your appearance and make appropriate recommendations.
DON’T show a portfolio in which everything is PhotoShopped. Any idiot can doctor a photo nowadays. It doesn’t mean you can think or draw.
DO show work that has ideas (preferably, your own). It shows you’re more than just a hand; it shows you can also think and potentially function for your client as a problem solver, too.
DON’T explain any of your work unless the client asks you to. Your work should speak for itself. You want to avoid being intrusive or too eager to please during the interview.
DO show pieces that exhibit your traditional drawing skills.
DON’T make any excuses for your work. If a piece is not up to snuff (no matter what the reason), it shouldn’t be in your portfolio.
DO shut up and LISTEN to your client. If you’re talking, you’re not learning. That’s especially important before the interview. Please allow me to use myself as a good example of a bad example (my example here concerns writing but it applies to getting art jobs as well):

I met producer Debra Hill (Halloween and many other film hits) at a party and we really hit it off. Upon finding out I was a screenwriter as well as an artist, she asked me to make an appointment to see her at her production office to pitch her any ideas I might have that could work with her newest professional connection, the kids’ network Nickleodeon. She told me she was looking for ideas that were edgy. For some reason I only heard “edgy” and that she was open to me pitching her some TV series ideas. That part about “Nickleodeon” went right out of my brain.

I went home and came up with several new very edgy show ideas. We set up a meeting time and date. Although I was confident in my brilliant concepts, I even did a piece of art for each show to help sell them.

In the middle of my pitching a brutal sci-fi prison drama that takes place inside a huge steel head, the wide-eyed expressions on Debra’s and her staff’s faces made me suddenly remember that this was supposed to be for Nickleodeon. Kids’ “edgy” is not the same as adult “edgy”. I quickly skipped the part about the gang rape, wrapped that pitch up, tried to spontaneously soften and salvage my next “edgy” pitch idea and completely scuttled the one I had brought along about a nightmarish version of Peter Pan with Captain Hook as a lascivious drag queen in search of little Lost Boys…

What in the hell was I thinking? Worst. Pitch. Ever.

Next time (you usually don’t get one after a pitch like that — I didn’t), listen.

It’s rough out there right now, so Good Luck! And go subscribe to ImagineFX so that you can see what other artists had to say on the subject.

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