Squids 101: What I Like to See in an Artist's Portfolio

I went to an SCBWI portfolio viewing at the Society of Illustrators this afternoon. All of the portfolios there were very organized and professional, but for the benefit of illustrators who may not have had much guidance in putting a portfolio together, here are some things I like to see in them:
  • Your best work. Don't put substandard pieces in your portfolio just to fill out the book.
  • All the styles and/or media you feel proficient in. If you're comfortable doing black-and-white line art as well as watercolor and acrylic, feel free to put all three in, though I then suggest organizing the portfolio by medium so I can look at your style and skill in each one. Some illustrators create a separate portfolio for each style/medium, which is good to see if we're having a one-on-one critique, but less practical for general portfolio viewings like today's.
  • Illustrations involving human beings, particularly children, but also covering a decent range of ages, races, genders, settings, and especially expressions. I don't mean that you have to have twenty portraits in your portfolio where the first is an old black woman rejoicing, the next a two-year-old Asian boy crying, the third George Clooney beaming: Just be sure that your illustrations include more than smiling white people.
  • N.B.I.: It's the smiling there that can really annoy me -- when I look at a picture of 10 kids on a school bus, say, and all of them have the exact same vacant beaming expression, then you're not creating individual characters so much as a group stare, which might feel warm but will also feel flat. I'm looking for the individuality that comes out of your characters -- a sense of how real and alive those people are, no matter what medium or style you use.
  • N.B.II.: If you are at all inclined towards caricature or portraiture, it's nice and fun to include a portrait or illustration of some easily recognizable famous figure as rendered by you. (Andy Rash and Sean Qualls are experts at this.) This allows me to get a quick handle on your style by seeing how it compares to the real person. Moreover, the biographical picture book is alive and well, so it's good to know you can recreate real people with accuracy and verve.
  • Illustrations involving animals, either anthropomorphized or real -- whatever your style is best suited for. I would suggest that you have at least two or three of the following common picture-book animals somewhere in your portfolio: a dog, a cat, a dinosaur, a cow, a pig, a chicken, a duck, a horse, a rabbit, a wolf, an elephant, a mouse, a tiger.
  • While we're talking common subjects, it could be useful and fun to have pieces showing your unique take on any of the following: a ballet class; firefighters or fire trucks (or other cars and trucks); a farm; dinosaurs (again); a goodnight scene. These subjects may be familiar, but they never go away completely, and we'll always be looking for new takes on these old stories. (This is not a requirement by any means.)
  • A few (3-4) pieces with the same subject, ideally a few consecutive spreads from the same story (extra points for having the text on the page). This could be an original story or a familiar text -- Mother Goose rhymes and fairy tales are good choices for their familiarity (though I must say that most first-time illustrators will probably not be able to get either a Mother Goose book or a fairy tale retelling published in an overcrowded market). This allows me to see how you handle the same characters in different perspectives, positions, and situations; what parts of the written narrative you choose to highlight in your picture; how you transition from one scene/emotional atmosphere to another; and how you choose to advance the story through your illustrations.
  • Better still: A sketch dummy of your current project, with perhaps one piece of final art. It is probably not wise to make full final art of a book until it's sold, as the editor and art director will likely have some suggestions for you, but I love seeing sketch dummies, as they show how you sustain a story over 32 pages and how you handle your characters and their emotions.
  • N.B.: It's fairly common to see a couple of consecutive letters from an ABC in a portfolio, and while it's always interesting, it ends up being more of a stylistic demonstration than a narrative one. If you're going to spend the pages in a portfolio, narrative progression is generally more compelling, revealing, and useful.
  • If you have an interest in doing book jackets for novels, make some mockups of new jackets for already published books. I'll throw out three covers that could be fascinating to revisit: Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay. (Not that there's anything wrong with those original covers -- just that they provide a wide range of subject matter and characters for you to reillustrate.)
  • A few pieces showing the thing you're most passionate about or you most enjoy illustrating (if they weren't already incorporated in the above). That will likely be the thing you're best at illustrating as well, and it's great to know you're fantastic at and love to create sea scenes, for example, in case a manuscript set on the beach comes across my desk.
  • Samples, postcard-size or larger, including your name, phone number, e-mail address, snail-mail address, and website, and at least one piece of your very best work, as chosen by a couple of honest friends. A good sample makes me think, in order, (1) "Ooh, I love this piece!" (2) "Ooh, I want to see more!" and (3) "Ooh, I'll check out her website right now!" Any sample smaller than a postcard means it's difficult to see the art properly and start the process at (1), which is why I request that specifically.
  • N.B.: If you have not yet published a book and you do not have a website, please make one. I have heard illustrators say that it's difficult to maintain a website on top of everything else they have to do for their careers, and I sympathize; but there is no better way (besides this portfolio) to show me the whole range of what you're capable of, and sometimes a website is even better, as I can share it more quickly with colleagues and access it 24/7. Even a blogspot account (a la Dan Santat) is useful in showing the range of your work and the new stuff you're working on.
When I look at a portfolio, what I'm really trying to see is the illustrative equivalent of a writer's voice: the kinds of things you like to draw; your skill at rendering real life (even if said life involves dragons or fairies); the qualities of your unique style; how that style transforms real life; its emotional range; how that style might be applied to the manuscripts I have on my desk or future manuscripts that might come my way. So it is important to note that the bullet points above are all suggestions and not prescriptions: If you don't like drawing animals and you're not good at them, then by golly don't include them in your portfolio. Show me who you are illustratively, what you're good at and what you have a passion for, and the best projects will come out of those things.

For further advice on picture-book publishing, I recommend Marla Frazee's website (click on "Studio") and, always, the list of SCBWI Publications. And any editors, designers, or artists who happen to read this, please feel free to offer your own suggestions as well.