An outstanding illustrator portfolio makes all the difference between you getting hired.
It encourages clients to hire you, helps you receive more commissions, and brings in more revenue overall.
The better your illustration portfolio is, the more successful you will be.
That’s how highly I rate an illustrator portfolio.
Unfortunately it can’t be average, it can’t be good, it has to be outstanding to really receive the commissions that you desperately want.
The world of illustration is crowded market. Hundreds and thousands of illustrators are competing against you. For this reason, you need to make sure yours is the best. Your portfolio gets you noticed in a world full of other illustrators screaming for attention.
I’m constantly tinkering and improving my illustrator portfolio, with the focus on creating something outstanding. Mine isn’t perfect, but I’m coming from a place where I have built a strong body of work that is constantly improving.
Using my first hand knowledge, within this blog post I’m sharing tips and tricks to help you create an outstanding illustrator portfolio. This will entice clients to work with you, help you create an illustrator portfolio which you would be proud to share, whilst maintaining a clear and direct style.
You’re going to discover tips on how to improve your offline and online illustrator portfolio, and learn how to create a portfolio which attracts even the hardest critic! I’ll also be sharing some illustrator portfolio examples for you to learn and be inspired by. I believe it’s paramount to becoming an illustrator, so sit back, and let’s get started.
What Does A Perfect Illustrator Portfolio Look Like?
An illustrator portfolio converts potential clients into customers.
The perfect illustrator portfolio shows off your skills as an illustrator. It gives potential clients a clear sense of your style of work, your experience and how you can help them. This perfect portfolio has impact and blows clients away – feeling like they just HAVE to hire you.
An illustration portfolio has to be clean, it has to focus on your work, it has be be clear and targeted, and it has to amaze. If you manage to make sure you have all of these components, then you will be off to a winner.
The illustration style that is shown within your portfolio is the same illustration style that clients expect when they commission you. It has to fill them with confidence that you are the right illustrator for the job, and that they can trust you to deliver for them. This is evident in your previous experience which is on shown in your illustration portfolio.
You can’t please everyone, which is why you have to target your clients within your portfolio. For example, if you want to be commissioned for map illustrations, you have to;
- Make sure this is highlighted and shown throughout your portfolio
- Position map illustrations (or whatever you want to be known for) at the start, middle, and end
Think of it this way, you wouldn’t go to Mcdonalds for furniture – that’s just ridiculous. You want probably go to IKEA instead. With your portfolio it’s exactly the same, if you want to be commissioned by a children’s book publisher, this needs to be at the fore front of your portfolio.
This is the perfect portfolio scenario that you should always try to aim for every time you edit, refine or create your illustrator portfolio. Think about what the client wants to see and how you can guarantee success every time.
With this in mind, here’s my tips to help you nail these points, and create a portfolio which is out of this world.
Build a portfolio which focuses on quality, rather than quantity.
How To Create An Outstanding Illustrator Portfolio
Show Your Best Work First & Last
When others look at your illustrator portfolio, first and last impressions count.
You’re remembered from these impressions.
First impressions are important in all aspects of life (including your portfolio).
You want to amaze others by your first image(s) (which introduces them to your portfolio and starts on an good note), but you also want to leave them with a couple of amazing illustrations (that they will remember).
This might sound like a given, but it sometimes goes overlooked.
This is crucial for a physical portfolio. For an online illustration portfolio, it’s slightly different as users might not travel down a page. So you want to arrange your best work at the start of your online portfolio or above the fold, with your weaker ones at the end.
This draws people into your website and keeps those bounce rates down. Create that ‘wow’ moment from the get-go and you’ll have fans for life!
Tip 1 – Physical portfolios: your best illustrations first and last. Online portfolios: best pieces first
Let Your Work Do The Talking
As a creative, you want your illustrative work to be the focus.
This is what the likes of Art Directors (those who commission commercial illustration on a regular basis) are truly interested in, and hire you for.
Focus on your work and nothing else.
So how can you let your illustration work do the talking?
– Arrange your illustrations on a white background
– Remove gimmicks
– Make it easy to navigate and discover more about your work
– For a physical illustrator portfolio, keep your text to a minimum and give a brief explanation of each project (remember to focus on your work)
– Online portfolio: add more content and an in-depth explanation to each project, which can also help your website’s SEO
– Create a super clean website
I believe the more refined and focused you are, the better your work will appear. If you want to improve your illustration style, this blog post by Tania McCartney is a great read – full of tips and excellent advice.
Really celebrate your work!
Tip 2 – Remove gimmicks, place your illustrations on a white background and make it easy to navigate
Focus On Your Branding
Much like a company’s brand – the typography you use, your illustrations, and colours need to be consistent.
If you look at popular brands like Nike or Apple, you will see that they stay consistent with everything they do. From their marketing, their communications, to product packaging.
You remember consistent brands.
Keep this in mind when designing your illustration portfolio.
Use the same typefaces, the same colours, the same messages, everything. You want to guide people effortlessly and consistently throughout your portfolio. This adds consistency to your portfolio, which in turn adds another level of consistency to your illustration work. They really go hand in hand.
This leaves a good impression of professionalism, but also helps them remember you in the future.
For example, I use orange within my branding. I love orange, and my work is often quite striking and eye-catching, which this colour links works well (and hopefully I’m remembered for it too). I also use Gill Sans as my brand’s typography as it’s modern and fits with my illustration style.
What is the brand that you want to communicate?
If you’re a editorial illustrator, your brand may be powerful, striking and bold.. Whilst if you’re a children’s illustrator your branding may be fun and playful.
Tip 3 – Create a consistent look and feel to your portfolio (your branding).
Have A Consistent Illustration Style
Much like a consistent brand, you want to have a consistent illustration style too.
Clients want to know the sort of style they will receive if they commission you.
The worse thing is to have an inconsistent style. This leaves potential customers confused about the work they will receive if they commission you.
We like knowing what to expect, hence why the biggest brands are so popular – we go to Amazon because we can rely on them and offer good deals, go to Nandos because it’s quick and yummy, and fly with Emirates as it’s world class.
Customers shop with these companies because you know you wouldn’t be disappointed, as they always offer a good service, and you’re satisfied by the outcome.
This is what you must have within your illustration portfolio. But how can you improve your illustration style?
- Use the same medium (from digital, acrylic to drawing)
- Illustrate for a certain industry
- Practice, practice, practice (which I’ll go into in a minute)
Encourage a client to work with you by showing a consistent style.
Tip 4 – Make sure all of your illustrations have a consistent style
Practice, Refine And Improve
Always refine, improve and experiment with your illustration style.
An outstanding illustrator portfolio, as I said previously, it’s all about your work.
You’re judged from the outset, so if you’re not happy with your current portfolio, or you feel your current illustrator portfolio is just average, keep improving until you’re happy with it (and make it world-class!).
This will take your work to new heights, and your illustration portfolio will benefit as a result.
Here’s some ways you can improve your work;
– Draw and practice your craft everyday
– Push your skill boundaries and learn something new
– Go above and beyond for clients
– Ask others for their advice and constructive criticism of your work
– Surround yourself with inspiration, go to art galleries, immerse yourself with creativity
– Work on personal projects
– Collaborate with a fellow creative
– Learn a new discipline
These are a few ways to improve and refine your illustrations – work hard and you’ll be rewarded!
Tip 5 – Work daily on improving your illustrative style and your portfolio will improve
Include Commissioned Work
Clients want to hire an experienced illustrator, so make sure your showing your commissioned illustrations first.
This gives you an advantage, as you’re not just an amateur anymore, but a fully grown professional.
Social proof is crucial and gives you the edge.
For example, if your portfolio included illustrations for Nike (I chose a big company on purpose), potential customers and clients will assume you know what you are doing, and are amazing at what you do too.
If you don’t have any commissioned work, that’s ok! Show your personal work and the pieces which you’re proud of. Having no commissioned work isn’t the be all and end all, but it definitely helps.
Tip 6 – If you have it, include commissioned work to raise your social proof
Focus On Quality Rather Than Quantity
If you feel a particular project isn’t good enough, remove it!
Sometimes we want to show absolutely everything in our illustration portfolios, which results in including too much.
You might think including everything is wise, but it’s actually counter-intuitive, as it devalues the quality of your work.
Focus on the quality of your work, and maximise each project or illustration you have. Especially with your online portfolio, include details like sketchbook development, and make others sit up and take notice.
Tip 7 – Remove pieces of work which aren’t good enough!
Creating Your Own Portfolio Illustration Website
Simple illustrator portfolio websites are usually the best, as you want the user to focus on one thing: your work.
To have a successful portfolio website you can simply have three webpages:
– Work page
– Contact page
– About page
If you want to keep it super simple, you can just focus on a contact and illustration work page, as these two are the most important.
To start, create a website with Squarespace or Adobe Portfolio (which is free with CC), or hire a web designer (like me!), to help you design and create your portfolio for you (which is unique and personal to you).
I recommend you use your name as your website URL (if you want to be unique you can choose something wacky and different).
The whole idea of a portfolio website is drawing people into your work, getting them intrigued and hiring you.
If you become overwhelmed whilst designing your illustrator portfolio website, go back to basics. Keep it super simple and let your work do the talking.
It’s important that your online portfolio website is found in search engines, so take the time to make sure your website is SEO-friendly. Make sure you have a good amount of descriptions and keywords, your website is fast loading and mobile friendly.
If you already have a website and want help with SEO, check out this brilliant resource by Neil Patel.
As your website will be image heavy, it’s a good idea to optimise your images for web. This makes sure your images load fast and keeps your website quick. This in turn improves your SEO ranking.
To do this in Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator, make sure you’re always ‘Saving for Web’ at 72dpi. On top of this, further optimise your images by using Tinyjpg – which reduces the file size of most images.
Tip 8 – Use your own name for your website URL, keep it simple and if you’re overwhelmed, have only 3 pages.
Purchase A Remarkable Physical Portfolio
Even though an online portfolio is critical, having a physical illustrator portfolio is also recommended.
Admittedly I don’t use mine too often, but it comes in handy when you have face-to-face meetings. Flicking through pages feels like a greater personal touch than on a laptop screen.
I recommend you choose a leather portfolio, either in A4 or A3 size. A4 is great for transportation, however A3 delivers that instant ‘wow’. I personally chose A3, as I feel A4 is too small.
Whatever size you choose, aim for a maximum of 15 pages. Anything more than this, and your client can become bored (not what you want!).
I recommended PRATT portfolios, which are super high quality, leather and and have become the norm in the industry. Definitely avoid ring-bound portfolios as these look cheap.
Here’s some more things to consider with your physical portfolio;
– Remember to design your portfolio on a white background.
– Consider a splash page at the start of your portfolio (which showcases your contact details, your brand and who you are.
– Place a few business cards or tear-sheets (an A4 sheet of paper which advertises your work, which they can take away with them) at the end of your portfolio.
Tip 9 – Create an illustrator portfolio website with Sqaurespace, Adobe Portfolio, or hire a website designer, and focus on a simple website, which concentrates on your work. For a physical portfolio, choose PRATT leather portfolios.
Inspiring Online Portfolios Examples
Now you’ve discovered the importance of having a great illustration portfolio, (whether that’s online or a physical portfolio), it’s good to learn from real life examples.
I’ve selected 5 online freelance portfolios for us to have a look at and analyse their quality.
Tom Woolley is an illustrator from Birmingham in the UK, has created an eye-catching portfolio that shows off his impressive work.
When you arrive on the homepage you know exactly what he’s offering and what he’s about. The large orange logo to the left communicates that he’s an illustrated map and vector artwork specialist, all combined within the logo (a clever use of space!).
Using a clean design that highlights the work, his images are big, modular and placed on a white background.
A side navigation is used effectively to place all the attention to his work – what you need emphasize with your illustrator portfolio. Here you can easily (without distraction) learn more on his blog, click his social media links or visit his about page.
Key takeaways: Artwork placed on a white background to make his illustration’s jump, with a clear indication of Tom’s direction.
Toby Ng is a graphic designer based in Hong Kong, who graduated from Central St Martins in London and has setup a fantastic design studio. His portfolio offers a top navigation, and again, places the emphasis on his brilliant work.
A clean design encapsulates the whole website, with large full scale images used within each project. This creates a ‘wow’ factor when you look through his work, with an elegant description for each project.
The large thumbnails for each project on the homepage gives the space for targeted keywords and improves SEO.
Find out more on Toby’s website.
Key takeaways: Everything within this portfolio is tied together with Toby’s brand, from the typography used, colours to tone of voice. This links back to his work effortlessly, and gives his work a greater impression.
NotReal is a creative studio based in Buenos Aires, with a focus on art direction and animation. With the work placed on a clean and white background, the work stands out and creates a powerful impact.
With your portfolio and branding, it’s a good idea to think about the message that you’re trying to convey. Is your work bold, subtle or traditional? Try and communicate this with your portfolio. NotReal’s portfolio layout is striking, and ties in with their work.
Like all of these inspirational examples, the portfolio is clean, modern and consistent. Note that each project’s description is always below the main image at the top and is center aligned.
You can also click on each project image and click through each image at full scale – a nice additional highlight.
Key takeaways: Create extra intrigue to your work by adding animations and gifs to your thumbnails – it makes you want to click them and find out more.
Probably the crème de la crème of portfolio examples is Pentagram. If you’re unfamiliar with Pentagram, this is the world’s largest design studio, with offices in London, New York to Berlin. Known for their breath-taking designs for top clients such as Waitrose, Eurosport to Ungifted.
In terms of their online portfolio of work, instead of arriving at a multitude of projects straight away, you arrive at a full scale banner introducing you to an highlighted piece of work.
Again this is placed against a white background, with large crisp images for every project. The interesting aspect of this portfolio design is the difference in scale for their work thumbnails – which adds interest.
Consistency is fulfilled throughout, using the same grid for all of their pages. This creates rhythm in the whole portfolio and adds another element of prestige.
Key takeaways: Highly detailed, large full scale images are used to give you the full story of each piece of work. Each project also gives you the opportunity to discover the ‘story’ behind each project, letting you discover a full depth of information and things for you to discover.
An illustrator working from Helsinki, Finland, the portfolio of Sami Viljanto is a great website to end on. With a digital and colourful illustration style, this website is a great example of someone going against the grain.
First and foremost his work is situated on a off-white yellow background, which actually works!
Different sized thumbnails greet you, with the colourful illustrations introducing you to his vibrant work.
Each project is short and sweet, which places more emphasis on his work. No need for words when you have epic illustrations to feast your eyes on.
This is what inculpates the whole portfolio of work – there are no distractions! A lot of websites out there add too many elements to their website, but this one focuses on the illustrations and nothing else, which works excellently.
Key takeaways: If you want to be a bit different, create a different name for yourself (Sami has called himself Grande Deluxe).
Should You Include A Splash Page?
A splash page is an introduction to your portfolio, often showing your branding, logo and your contact details, like mine below:
But should you put a splash page within your physical portfolio?
I personally recommend it, as it offers a nice introduction. It’s also recommended if you’re sending your portfolio as a PDF via email – so potential clients know your contact details if they want to get in touch with you.
What about a splash page within your online portfolio?
In contrast to a physical portfolio, I don’t recommend having a splash page for your online illustrator portfolio. A splash page on your website can be annoying, and requires your users to commit to an unnecessary action.
Users online don’t have a lot of patience (they say you have 15 seconds to capture their attention), so get them into your portfolio straight away.
Tip 10 – Avoid splash pages for your website and add them to your physical illustrator portfolio – it’s a good introduction.
Should Your Illustration Portfolio Be Landscape Or Portrait?
This is a personal preference.
For me, my physical illustration portfolio is portrait. If I want to place a full scale landscape illustration in there, I spread it across a double page spread.
Equally, a landscape portfolio can be beneficial too – it’s really up to you.
What you do need to consider is the type of work that you usually produce. If you create lots of landscape illustrations, then landscape orientation might be worth going for. However if you produce a lot of editorial illustrations (which are commonly portrait), then portrait might be worth going for.
There’s no right or wrong answer.
Tip 11 – Opt for an orientation that suits you best.
Segmenting Your Illustration Portfolio
Segmentation is great if you have multiple projects, themes, or if you work across multiple industries (if you’re a children’s book illustrator and editorial illustrator).
Segmentation offers the viewer a rest, and I personally use it within my physical portfolio.
For my own segments, I use my brand colour of orange for the background, with the typography on top.
I certainly recommend segmentation if your portfolio is complex.
Tip 12 – Segment your portfolio to break up your portfolio. Use segments for multiple projects, themes or niches.
Should You Include Writing / Descriptions?
Within your portfolio you may want to include a description for each project.
Like the orientation of the portfolio, descriptions are a personal preference. However, it’s important that you keep the focus on your illustration work.
Saying this, descriptions can tell the viewer about projects, and is especially useful if you’re not there in person to tell potential clients yourself.
Just be careful about how much text you’re including. You want to keep the focus on your work, but if you want to include a description, keeps these tips in mind:
– Tell the viewer about the project
– Who it was for?
– The idea behind the piece
With my own illustration portfolio, I include a short, 8 word maximum description per illustration. This insures my descriptions are clear, concise but informative.
Tip 13 – Include a description to help the viewer throughout your portfolio.
Avoid Tedious Portfolio Layouts
Keeping your portfolio engaging is a must.
For example, have a look at this 4 page layout.
This layout becomes boring over 4 pages, but imagine how boring it becomes over 15+ pages!
Now look at this example below.
You can see that mixing up your layout creates interest in your work, and avoids your portfolio from becoming tedious.
Tip 14 – Mix up your layout design to keep things interesting!
What About A Behance, Tumblr, Or A Deviant Art Portfolio?
If you don’t own a website, then you might have a Behance or Tumblr page. These are brilliant at building your audience and I love them, including Instagram.
Saying this, I think it’s crucial for illustrators to showcase their work on their own website. You can use these other websites (like Behance), to direct traffic to your portfolio website.
External websites are out of your control. One minute they may say X, the next minute they may say Y. They might change one of their algorithms and your work may be negatively impacted.
You’re not in control of how the website looks and functions.
However, you are in complete control of your own website. You dictate how it looks, it’s content to it’s structure.
I have my own Behance portfolio, that points to my main website – which is what I recommend you do as well.
Tip 15 – Keep updating your Behance and Tumblr pages, but ensure you have your own website.
What Software Should You Use To Create Your Illustrator Portfolio?
I recommend you use a publishing software to create your illustrator portfolio (like Adobe InDesign for example).
You can set the page size, margins, grids to bleed, and is the best software out there to create publications.
I wouldn’t recommend Illustrator or Photoshop (or another brand similar to use, like Affinity), as these are more appropriate for image creation.
Adobe InDesign can be quite daunting if you’re new to it, so I’m going to keep things easy and simple.
Go to ‘File’> ‘New’ > ‘Document’.
You can set your page size, bleed and margins. I recommend you click on the ‘Print’ tab at the top of the box, and set your bleed to 3mm (you can leave all other fields default). If you want to learn more about document bleed, this is a great resource. Once you’ve done this, click create, and you’re ready to start developing your illustrator portfolio.
I recommend you use the Rectangle Frame Tool (or F), and create your portfolio from this. The rectangle tool essentially allows you to put images on your pages. This is done by clicking and dragging to form your rectangle frame, and then also clicking and dragging each image into each frame (like a PSD, AI to jpg file).
An image can be made to fit within a frame by clicking on the bottom on the top navigation, in the center.
To create new pages, select the page tab on the right hand side, and click on the new page button on the bottom right.
You can then export to a PDF from ‘File’ > ‘Export’. And there you go! Your illustrator portfolio is created!
Any optional extras to include?
Now you have the fundamentals sorted, what are the optional extras that you might want to include in your online and physical illustration portfolio?
– Include a business card, which you can leave with a potential client
– Add an about and blog webpage to your website
– Include real life examples of your work. (For example, you may insert a magazine within your physical portfolio to demonstrate the front cover illustration).
– Use Google Adwords or social media advertising to increase the number of eyes on your work.
How Have You Improved Your Illustrator Portfolio?
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post!
If you’re still stuck with creating your illustrator portfolio (especially your online portfolio), I highly recommend you check out this resource by Format, that showcases the best illustrator portfolios out there for you to take inspiration from.
The key with creating an outstanding body of illustration work is by concentrating on quality. Quality always wins, as cream rises to the top as they say!
So what have we covered?
- When arranging your illustration portfolio, make sure you’re putting your best work first and last (to make a good first impression, and to end on a good note). For online portfolios, put your best work at the top of the page.
- Keep your portfolio simple, with the focus on your work. This is what Art Directors will be hiring you for. This goes for your website too – simpler the better!
- Increase your social proof by showcasing your commission work at the start of your portfolio. If you haven’t worked for any clients, this is ok!
- Purchase a high-quality PRATT portfolio, and if you don’t have the funds to hire a web designer to design your website, choose Squarespace or Adobe Portfolio.
- Practice makes perfect, and the more you practice your illustration skill, the better your portfolio will be!
But I would love to know how you have created, designed and arranged your own illustrator portfolio. Comment be below with your thoughts, and do comment if you have any questions for me also!
Keep illustrating, having fun with it, and action these points mentioned above.
If you would like to discover more blog posts like this one, head over to my blog page for more, or have a look through my own illustration portfolio, and see what you think! I’m well versed in editorial and publishing illustration, and have worked for many companies such as The UKScouts, The Clerkenwell Post to National Musuems Liverpool.
Many thanks for listening and visiting my news page today. You can follow what I’m up to on my Twitter or Facebook pages, I’ll really appreciate it if you do, and don’t be afraid to say hi to me! Many thanks again, and have a great day!