The Artist Portfolio

The Artist Portfolio
the artist portfolio, creating the perfect portfolio
Each week I write a new article to support members of our three wonderful art groups on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look at sprucing up your creative portfolio and if you haven’t got one yet, I will be giving you a few ideas to get you started. 
A portfolio is essential especially when you work as a freelance designer or artist. Clients tend to want to know what you have to offer that other artists don’t, because clients can be picky like that, and so they should be because just like us, they like to compare and shop around. When you are about to be interviewed for a graphic design job or to work as an in-house artist, then you won’t get far without one either. It seems everyone wants to take a look at an artists portfolio so it really does make sense to get one, and it makes sense to make it look as good as you can. 
Back in the day, that time when I was much younger, a portfolio usually meant that you had a nice folder. There was no internet and computers were relatively new and even newer to the world of art. 
I remember taking a folder full of paper to an interview when I left school. Inside that folder were print outs of digital art I had created on a Sinclair ZX81 computer using a thermal printer. The art had been created using letters and symbols of the alphabet which is what today we would call ASCII art. Back then we just called it messing around and being creative. We did the same thing with calculators and spelt rude words with numbers. 
For one of the artworks I had recreated the Mona Lisa using nothing but the characters produced by this most basic of machines together with a RAM expansion pack which took the beast from a paltry 1kb of RAM to a whopping 16kb of RAM. 
RAM or Read Access Memory was expensive and to have 16kb of it was a luxury few people had, I was one of the lucky ones because I managed to convince my parents that it wasn’t just for playing better games, Dad would be able to use it for his business too, although he never did. 
I had crafted a few designs at school using one of their computers by plotting 8x8 blocks on an x and y axis, but we only had two computers in the computer science lab and they weren’t that much better than the ZX81. The computer teacher at the time didn’t know much about computers, he was once the physical education teacher. It was that type of school. 
For those who haven’t got a clue what a Sinclair ZX81 is, it was one of the first affordable home computers and it was marketed as the Timex Sinclair 1000 in the USA and it came in at just under $100. It may have been affordable but what it wasn’t, was a graphics powerhouse. No colour, no sound, and it needed to be used on the family TV, and we only had one of those. 
It did though get me on to the path of creating digital art. Without that Sinclair I’m not sure I would have got into creating it in the first place. I later went on to create with the follow up machine called the ZX Spectrum and then a few more home computers until the Commodore Amiga, the very same model used by Warhol. It was a few years after this that I started to produce work on a PC and a Mac. 
I digress, the story of my 8-Bit art days and creating graphics and video games can wait, this week it is all about the portfolio. The portfolio I took along to that interview was nothing more than a cardboard folder stuffed with bits of dot matrix and thermal paper. Today it would be laughed out of any room because when it comes to portfolios, they really do need to be a work of art in themselves. The portfolio has evolved. 
Creating the portfolio…
Creating a standout portfolio today has never been easier, but creating one that really stands head and shoulders above the usual portfolios takes a little more thought. A good portfolio is the tool that will help you win commissions, freelance jobs, or just a better job, but there are many neglected portfolios in the hands of even the most veteran of artists or designers. I really need to focus on my own again, and just recently I made a start. 
If you are taking your portfolio along to a creative agency then you need to understand that mostly, the creative heads who will be looking through your portfolio won’t have a lot of time. It needs to first catch their attention and second it needs to keep their attention and make them want to give up some of that time that they don’t have. 
It might be worth us first running through the basics because before you take your portfolio anywhere, you need to decide how it will be presented. Will you create a physical portfolio or will it be digital? Why do you even have to choose? 
Well you don’t have to really make that choice because there is nothing that says that you can only have one or the other, and you might want many more, each relevant to different styles, subjects, mediums, and each targeting different viewers or clients. 
The decision then comes down to just how many pieces of work you want to include in the portfolio. For physical portfolios you should be thinking of around 25 pages, for online and digital portfolios, I would say that around 30-40 works is sufficient to get a flavour of what you are about and the style of work you create. It is tempting to make everything that you have ever created available in your portfolio but you have to make sure that it’s only really a snapshot that gets the viewer to want to see more. And remember, the more you add, the higher the chances of someone finding a reason to not like what you do. 
Portfolios should be live, as in they should always be relevant to the gig you want. If you are chasing the portrait commission then the commissioners will be looking for previous examples of your portrait work, or it may be that you are chasing that coveted graphic design position, in which case you might want to showcase some of your typography. 
There’s nothing at all to say that you should only ever have a single portfolio, some artists and designers will work with multiple portfolios which can be interchanged. Sometimes they will include work from their typography portfolio and include it with the portraits, or whatever it is that they have. This makes it a little easier to respond quickly to different situations without having to create a specific and new portfolio from scratch.
Remember the documentation…
I have seen a lot of portfolios that are missing the simple things and it really does make a difference. Documentation which includes annotations, notes, how and why the work was created, a statement about the work including a description of the medium and indications of any sizing, these are all things that many creative heads will be looking for from your portfolio.
The great thing about including documentation is that it also gives you pointers to strike up conversations. If you find that you are stuck for something to say you can always use these notes and annotations as talking points. 
It doesn’t hurt to add in short case studies within this documentation. These might include references from past clients and they demonstrate how you went about meeting any given design brief. It’s a good way to show how you tackle a project and again, this can give you key areas to focus on if you start drying up and can’t think of anything to say.
It also gives the person looking at your portfolio a feel of how experienced you are, if they can see your process alongside the completed works they will get a better flavour of how you tackle design briefs. But it’s important to remember that not everything included in your portfolio needs to have been work completed for clients. You can add self-commissioned projects and these become increasingly important for freelance work where the client might want to see that you have a broader range of skills.
Make it simple…
Overly complex portfolios will put most who look through them off. Making your portfolio simple by adding in an index table and clearly marking each section of work with headings and including page numbers will help with navigation of the portfolio. 
Making sure that each of the works in the portfolio is clearly labelled will also help when trying to keep that navigation simple. If you are building your portfolio online, there are plenty of dedicated portfolio services that will also provide clear instructions on how to get the most out of them, but if you are going it alone and you want to create your own online portfolio website from scratch, it is the simplicity of navigation that you will need to focus your immediate attention on. 
Presentation in a portfolio really is everything and if it is online then you will need to think about how the portfolio will display on other people’s devices. What works well on a desktop browser might look awful on a tablet or smartphone. To avoid this issue you should be looking at responsive web design where the page is rendered differently depending on which device is being used to view it. You might want to test out how it looks on other devices too, just to be certain that everything appears as it should. 
If you are looking to create your own online portfolio then make sure that you add in the important things such as contact details, and don’t forget to include any social media accounts you have so that people can give you a follow and see what you are up to online. 
Talking of social media we all know that you should always add a call to action element in your marketing posts. A buy now button, or asking people to click on a link, and online portfolios aren’t any different. You need to make sure that there is a prominent call to action and you can do this by simply remembering to add something like a ‘Hire Me’ button. 
This is a very clear call to action which should be visible throughout your portfolio. You might also want to add in client testimonials and reviews, and again this is a great section to include that all important call to action. 
With simplicity in mind you should focus on the important aspects of your portfolio especially if it is online. I have seen some beautiful work included in portfolios over the years, but then the designer has gone over the top with adding bells and whistles and pointless GIFs which detract from the overall quality of the presentation. The gimmicks won’t sell you or your art, so focus on what you want people to see. 
Make sure too that you have a way to keep your portfolio updated. As I said earlier, this is a living portfolio and it can change whenever you need it too. You might add in some new work and take out some older work from time to time, or you might want to change the layout to reflect new design trends. That goes for both online and physical portfolios, once they are done they are never really done, it’s only the start!
creating the perfect art portfolio
What images should I include?
My best selling work is one that I created in around an hour. It’s also not my favourite piece if I am honest but it continues to sell as a print some three or four years on from when I first created it. It’s the one piece I can have some confidence in selling at least two or three times a month and sometimes more.
There’s no way you can know how someone else will view your work or what they will think of it either, art is after all, subjective. So despite this work not being one of my favourite works I still include it in my portfolio if it has a fit with what the client might be looking for and where I want to show some diversity in my style. Everyone is looking for different things so you have to have at least some diversity in your portfolio, don’t be afraid to throw in the wild cards if you think it might help.
You have to also consider how your chosen work flows and how well it works with the other pieces you have included. The works you do include should ideally be the kind of work that you want to be hired to undertake, and you need to make sure that the works you have selected show off your skills. This really comes down to experimenting with curation, so play around with things until you feel comfortable. 
If you have created pieces for high profile clients and they were happy with the results then definitely include these, but there might also be work that has never seen the light of day that shows some of your skills in a different way but you should curate with care!

personal and business branding
Branding is a difficult one especially for artists. It’s tempting to have a brand and create a logo and then focus too much on that brand and not you or your art. It also gives hirers something else to contend with and to also critique and if you get the branding wrong, it could detract from your work. 
Your brand as an artist is you and your unique style, so focus on those two aspects when thinking about branding. From the perspective of looking through portfolios I would rather see an artists or designers name neatly presented than something that doesn’t immediately associate the work to an individual, and I think most creatives who look at portfolios probably share the same thinking. 
We talk a lot about building brand awareness especially on social media but for artists the brand really is the artist. Would Thomas Kinkade been as successful if he had sold all of his works through a brand that didn’t identify him as the artist? Who knows, but my guess is that without his name it just wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same recognition. Whatever you think about Kinkade, he certainly understood that using his name was the key and he built the brand around himself.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a nice logo and it certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t have a corporate style or theme, but there is a difference between personal and business branding and besides, if you go with a business brand you will be competing with other brands who might do that kind of branding much better. Personal brands give you a very distinct voice and knowing the differences between business and personal branding will help you to choose the right one.
Formats for portfolios…
You might want to add an online portfolio to a physical portfolio, or you might want something that is a combination of offline and online or you might want to present a digital portfolio that can also be accessed offline.
I have seen some truly great creative portfolios presented as PDF documents and as e-books and these can work well when coupled with a website. So don’t think that everything has to be overly technical or over complicated because it really doesn’t. 
A physical portfolio is something that you can carry around and this is especially useful if you have been invited along to a gallery. If you are including original works then physical portfolios can convey the detail that is often lost online or on screen. That’s worth remembering too because when posting any images online, the works should be displayed in high resolution and photos must capture the image as you would want people to see it, so no dimly lit or badly focussed images. 
Whether you choose digital or physical portfolios or a combination also depends on the work that you have and who will be taking a look. Some galleries and art schools also set out very specific rules on presentation of portfolios and the decision might be taken away from you altogether. They might have preferences over number of works or layout, so make sure you make yourself aware of any specificities.
If you go with physical portfolios then they should be presented in the best possible light and that also means using quality paper and card stock. It shows that you care about presentation and quality. Sometimes the portfolio viewer might want to also take a look at any notebooks containing ideas that you had along the way, although this is rare but for school admissions it is still a practice that is often used. 
What might viewers like to see?
That’s a question that is difficult to answer without knowing who the viewer is and for what purpose they are looking through your portfolio. In the main those looking through your work will want to see completed pieces to give them a sense that you aren’t in the habit of not completing work, but there may be times when the odd unfinished piece is acceptable so long as you can explain why it’s unfinished. 
Most creative heads and gallery curators don’t want to see obviously copied work. When I looked through some portfolios for a friend of mine it was obvious that each of the artists submitting their portfolios had studied in the same class. There were subjects which were strongly associated with a curriculum I knew they had each studied, and the result was that at least half of the portfolios were very similar in the subjects and references. 
So with this in mind it becomes a little clearer that for the most part, those looking through your portfolio will want to see something that is different and something that really stands out amongst the many that they have probably seen in the last hour or day alone.
This is the time to demonstrate how you stretch your creative muscle and how you think differently, so throw a few of the weird pieces in there too if they have a fit.
Ask for help…
I remember cobbling together a portfolio to get a place on an art curriculum many years ago and I really didn’t have the first clue what the admissions staff would be looking for. It was more through luck than judgement that I managed to get accepted and only because I threw in a couple of wild card pieces that were totally different to the landscapes I had presented. Today that same portfolio would never stand a chance of gaining entry into the same course.
My advice to anyone today is to get their portfolios looked at by someone who knows exactly how portfolios should be presented. A fresh set of eyes can bring a new perspective and give you some new ideas that you probably would never have thought about. Get friends and family to take a look too but ask them to be objective and not to just say that they like whatever you show them. 
If you don’t do this then it is easy to make the assumption that everyone will take from your portfolio what you want them to take from it. They won’t of course because everyone is different and even two curators working in the same gallery might have very different views about what does and doesn’t work. When it comes to portfolios, being objective is just so very important. As an artist you’re probably your own harshest critic (I know I am), so if there was a time to be objective then this is it, but don’t be overly harsh on yourself because that doesn’t help either!
Not everyone will have the means to access a professional who is able to objectively critique a portfolio, professional feedback can be an extra unplanned expense and especially if you are taking it to someone who has some prestige in the art world. If this is something you can’t afford then you might want to consider community based art groups who can offer feedback. Some art schools will also hold events at certain times of the year but if they are offering free critiques then expect long lines. As with all professional critiques you also need to be ready to hear things that you feel uncomfortable in hearing but the trick here is to step away and look at your work with the same objectivity as the person giving the critique, listen an then make the changes they suggest. 
Online portfolio sites…
If you do decide to present your work in an online portfolio the good news is that you can find plenty of low cost options. There are even a few free options but they tend to be a lot more limited than the paid for services. Having said that, there are some paid for options that just don’t have all of the tools that you really need to develop something that doesn’t end up looking too similar to the portfolio sites that other artists have set up. Take some time looking through other artists portfolio sites and try to be a little different. 
It’s worth remembering too that portfolio sites are just that. They are a market place for your talent as an artist and not necessarily store fronts to sell your work directly on. I have been using Adobe Portfolio for a while for my private clients and collectors who get access to a password protected portfolio and it works well. 
This is where my existing collectors get to see some of my traditionally created art and can then get in touch with me if they want to find out more. I am making a couple of changes to it this year mainly in that I will be creating a new portfolio site that’s a little more open and will display some of the other types of work I create. As I said earlier, portfolios need to always be fresh!
So where do you go first?
Adobe Pf…
If you have a Creative Cloud membership with Adobe, then something like Adobe Portfolio is a solid choice. It comes with the lowest price photo package subscription which is less than $10 per month and includes access to Photoshop and Lightroom so you can even refine your work to include in your portfolio. I love Adobe Pf, others I know don’t like it at all, but if you are a subscriber to CC already it kind of makes sense to at least take a look. 
You can check out some example portfolios right here, and when you are ready to create one you can also pick from a range of themes and customisations. 
You can password protect your portfolio, add a custom 404 page not found, and create a cookie banner, and even optimise your search engine optimisation from within the settings. You can also link to social media profiles, and add a link to your website pages. 
I like Portfolio in that it’s a quick way to at least start building up your portfolio, and because there are some rich features that are not always present on some other portfolio sites and if you already subscribe to Creative Cloud, it comes as part of that subscription, oh and it also links with Behance too.
This is the portfolio site I have been using for a while now and I have to say that it’s got everything I need from a portfolio site, but more than anything I love its speed and the responsive design of its templates mean that it is accessible from any device. Couple that with the fact that it’s included in my existing annual subscription there’s simply no point in me paying out for anything more. Remember this might not be your main website, but if you provide links to it from your main website it can work really well. 
I have never really tested out Format but I know a few people who have and who swear by it. Again it is simple to pull together a professional looking and importantly a responsive portfolio site within minutes, and there is a key difference here that takes it slightly beyond other offerings. You can also sell your products directly from your portfolio.
It also offers client access so that you can provide your clients with a password protected proofing area through a custom URL and what’s more you can publish and update your portfolio very easily even on the move. One feature that stands out for me is the ability to manage your portfolio directly on the iPhone and you can also add your Instagram images directly to your portfolio too.
Costs vary depending on your chosen plan with the lower cost options offering only three products in your store, 15 pages, and 100 images for $6 per month. There are also pro options and an unlimited option. For an e-commerce platform though the unlimited option is perhaps the way to go. You can find out more here.  
Fabrik gives you the opportunity to create some professional and very slick design visuals and is a system used by leading film makers, artists, and photographers. It’s a relative newcomer but it promises a lot. 
There is a cost, which works out at £6.25 (UK) per month which is billed annually, and that plan allows 50 projects, 10 portfolios, unlimited blog posts, and 2 GB of media storage, but if you want to go with an unlimited option their packages start at around £18 (UK) per month or £15 (UK) per month when billed annually. Whilst it’s not the cheapest, it’s certainly not the most expensive and I do love the styles on offer from Fabrik.
As I said, the overall cost is a little higher with Fabrik but there are no hidden costs which are usually found in some packages, and there is a free 14-day trial available. 
It uses intelligent themes to give you the best presentation but you also have control over colour themes, fonts, and styles. You can as you can with the others here today, add a custom domain which you should be doing anyway, and the overall end result is something that not just looks slick, it is easy and simple for your clients to navigate. 
You can take a look at some example portfolio sites right here.  
I mentioned Behance earlier but this is more of a social network than true portfolio site. It’s not necessarily a replacement for having a portfolio site, more that it is a companion to a portfolio site. 
I included this one because it is a fantastic way to find out what is currently trending, and to talk directly to other artists, and there are often live interviews with leading creatives. Many of the artists using Behance will also have separate portfolio websites so if it is inspiration you are looking for then it's worth taking a look through the site.
You can still upload your projects, but it is perhaps the social interaction that is most valuable for me. If you are not already in the Behance community then it’s definitely worth signing up for. You can join Behance right here.  
Other Portfolios…
There are other portfolio sites and as I said earlier, some of them offer free or very low cost plans, but to get the very best experience and ensure that your clients see a professional portfolio, I really can’t understate the need to pay hard cash to access these services. If you were to create anything by doing the coding yourself then you will certainly spend more on hosting the site and maintaining it than even some of the top end plans would cost you and by paying for one of these solutions it becomes so much easier to keep up to date. There are downsides in that other artists might use similar themes and templates but it is still possible to customise everything a little further to make it different enough. 
Some of the free alternatives are not dedicated portfolio sites at all and you will soon outgrow them as your career develops. Social media platforms such as Facebook aren’t portfolio sites either, yet these platforms are increasingly used as such. Social media should be the driver of traffic to your portfolio site and your sales site, where the viewer will then be able to escape from the noise that social media creates and having a dedicated portfolio site will help you to really stand out in your field. 
Most of the big portfolio sites will offer a free trial period so make sure you take advantage of testing them out before you make a final commitment, and make sure that any themes they offer have a fit with your art or photography. Most of them will have something that works but take a look around online and work out how many artists offering similar work are using the same themes. Some of these services will allow you to add your own themes and CSS pages, others are quite rigid and offer less variation. There is a trade off with convenience and how the site displays with many of them but having created my own online portfolios in the past, paying someone else to do the hard work is worth every penny. 
Don’t worry too much about search engine optimisation for now. If a plan features the ability to optimise SEO then that’s a good thing, but the focus should be about creating quality content and a quality experience at least initially. SEO becomes more important later on, but even then, a well strategised marketing plan using social media can drive traffic to your portfolio, if indeed you do want traffic. You might just want to allow access to those who need it such as new clients or existing collectors. 
As I also said earlier, I am in the middle of recreating my own portfolio site and making it more accessible to everyone, my existing collectors will get access to a dedicated collector only area but as soon as work is complete I will leave a permanent link on this site for you to hopefully get some inspiration from. 
If you do set up a new portfolio then feel free to leave a link in the comments below and we can all take a look at it! 
About Mark…
Usually this is where I write war and peace and eventually I politely ask you to visit my art sales page and to kindly make a purchase to support the upkeep of this site. Not this week though…
You can buy my artwork here: because you want to support an independent artist and this site and because I need to eat. 
You can follow me on Facebook here: because I make reference photos available for free and honestly, I kinda need the likes. You can even share my posts if you want.
And on Pinterest right here, because y’all read about Pinterest the other week oh, and Twitter @beechhouseart because, well, twitter.
You can donate the cost of a cup of coffee to support this site right here, because no one else has yet, so here’s an opportunity to be the first!
If there’s a subject you want me to cover, I’ll try my best to cover it if you let me know what subjects you want. Just leave a comment below! 


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