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Lessons from the SCBW-I Portfolio Review

The Purple Crayon Blog May 2007
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Once a year the SCBW-I holds a Portfolio Review day at the Society of Illustrator's townhouse offices in New York City. Anyone willing to pay the registration fee, and lucky enough to get one of the 80 slots available each year, can have their portfolio browsed by interested art directors, editors, agents, and art reps. The "show" is not juried, so beginners have as good a chance as published illustrators of getting a spot on the tables.

It's also different from many portfolio events in that the illustrator does not sit behind their portfolio, trying either to engage the art buyers in conversation or to appear studiously indifferent to their interest or lack of it. With 80 portfolios to see in a small space and a limited time to see them in, it's not possible for the illustrators to be there too, so their portfolios alone represent them.

I went this year, as I usually do, and wanted to pass on a few observations that illustrators might find worth keeping in mind when putting together a portfolio. It's interesting to watch the art buyers circulating around the room in which the portfolios are displayed. They move quickly. They pass over the majority of the portfolios very quickly, though different buyers do not always pass over the same portfolios. They linger over a selected few. What's going on? Here's what I believe is happening, and what's true of these portfolios applies to ones mailed out, or posted online:

I'll start with the cruelest observation first: A lot of portfolios get skipped over because the illustrator just can't draw figures well. By that I don't mean that I expect everyone to be able to create detailed scenes with fully modeled figures in realistic period costumes. No, I simply mean that I want human figures in particular, and animals too, to appear natural, not stiff, whether they are sketched in with a few strokes of a pencil or painted in glowing oils. This is very hard to do. The human body is a complex structure, and the face even more so--and even someone with no art training has spent much of their life observing other people. If you aren't comfortable with figures, it will be obvious. The lesson: make sure your work is strong enough before you send it out. Get a cheap critique at a local SCBW-I, or ask an art teacher to look at it, and tell you honestly what they think.

An art director friend asked me to add to the above that she noticed all too often "a distinct lack of painting skill. Backgrounds that looked positively scrubbed with the brush rather than controlling the watercolor to do that wonderful thing it can do in the hands of a master, muddy colors, etc." I'll expand on that by saying that whatever your medium, you must be a master of the techniques needed in it, whether you are using brushes, pencils, or a computer drawing tablet. And speaking of art done on the computer, digital artwork that looks like digital artwork due to the use of straight, unvarying lines and expanses of flat color is another case of not mastering the medium. Whatever the medium, master it.

Be different, but not too different. A good number of the portfolios on the tables in any given year are from illustrators the art buyers have seen before, or who are working in a very familiar style. We stop, and look more carefully through a portfolio, when we see something we haven't seen before, but which we feel isn't too far away from the familiar. What does that look like? Well, I can't tell you, but I know it when I see it, and you will too, if you spend enough time browsing the latest picture books to get a feel for what is on the market.

Don't overwhelm the art buyer. Include only your best work, in one distinct style, or at most a second style if it's both as good as the first and a style you are still actively working in. A portfolio jammed with samples in varied styles is a portfolio that a buyer won't remember.

Unless you only want to do jackets, in which case you should have a few mock-ups, be sure to include a good dummy with at least a few pages in color, or a series of illustrations showing the same characters. Buyers tend to put down the portfolios that feature a lot of single pieces--most of us want to find people who can deal with the challenges of the picture book format.

I could break my observations down further, but those are the key points, and the points that are most likely to be useful for most people.

For some guidance in putting a portfolio together, see the articles listed on the Illustrating Children's Books page.

I hope you have found this page and this site useful. Please visit The Purple Crayon Bookstores page to find some recommended bookstores and to learn how to support this site while doing your usual online shopping. Thank you.

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