Wednesday, February 27, 2019

4 Portfolio Types

When I look at the portfolios of aspiring artists online, I notice that they tend to fall into four different categories:
  • the Beginners
  • the Students
  • the Nearly Pros
  • the Professionals
I've going to talk about the common characteristics of each portfolio type, and I'm going to show examples of each. I'm using my own art as an example because, well, I can't exactly post someone else's art as an example of a "beginner" or "nearly pro," can I? So I had a lot of fun digging back through the drawings I did in art school and even way back into high school! (Hope you enjoy LOTR fanart!)

Keep in mind that I speak from the experience of a book/editorial illustrator. Other career paths, especially studio jobs such as animation/concept art, have slightly different expectations for portfolios.

So let's talk portfolios!

The Beginner
A bit of this and that. You have an eclectic assortment of sketches and mediums, usually with a big dose of fanart and/or anime, maybe a few portraits of family and friends. Or, maybe you only have a few drawings, and they're all almost the same. Either way, you may have some skills but overall your work shows a lack of fundamentals: composition, anatomy, perspective, shading, color theory. Everything is generally rough and unfinished, and sometimes collected on random scraps of paper from notebooks and sketchbooks.

My advice:
Study the fundamentals. Your portfolio isn't bad: it's just a beginner's portfolio. At this point, there's not much I can critique or review, because my advice would always be the same: study the fundamentals. Sign up for some beginning art classes like figure drawing, chiaroscuro, color theory, etc, and draw as much as you can. I realize that sounds like shallow advice, but the only way past this stage is through instruction and practice, and that's the same for everybody.

Further reading for you: How to Start Drawing: 2 Do's and Don'ts

The Student

A good grasp of the fundamentals, but not a voice or a focus. Your drawings are clearly homework assignments, such as master studies, still lifes, portraits and figure drawings. Influenced by the tastes and requirements of different teachers, your drawings may vary radically in style. Besides homework,  you may also have a mixture of fanart, logo designs, t-shirt designs, tattoo designs, or portraits of friends and family.

My advice:
Focus and declutter. Clearly you've got some solid drawing skills, but generally those aren't enough to land you a job. Eventually you want to start transitioning from "student" to "professional," and that usually involves doing a lot of work outside of school. Invest time into researching different illustration industries, and consuming large amounts of published art from those industries. Start creating art that fits in with that industry's style. Once you've finished your fundamental classes, try to find classes that teach more specialized skills that are aimed at specific industries.

Further Reading for You:
Types of Illustration Careers
Wylie Beckert's "Creating a Targeted Portfolio Sample"
Options for Online Art Classes

The Nearly Pro

Characteristic features:
Promising, but an inconsistent level of skill and style. Some of your work shows the beginnings of an artistic voice and a good level of polish, but other drawings (usually older works) are less strong. Some of your pieces are clearly derivative of popular artists. You have lots of characters posing in front of simple backgrounds, or head-and-shoulders portraits of pretty ladies. You have a few anatomy problems here and there; maybe you avoid drawing hands, feet, or perspective.

My advice:
Keep going! You have some promising work in your portfolio, you just need more of it. Identify your strongest pieces, create more art in that direction, and start replacing the older stuff in your portfolio. Sheer quantity of practice will help you solidify your style and workflow, and will take you over that line into the realm of professionalism. Meanwhile, try to diversify your influences. Don't copy the style of any one or two of your favorite artists; look at many, many different artists and see what you can glean from all of them. Get personalized portfolio reviews, consider finding a mentor, and (like the student above) take classes that teach specialized skills that are aimed at the industry you want to get into.

Further Reading for You:
Tips for Staying Motivated
Options for Online Art Classes

The Professional

Characteristic features:
A cohesive style and consistent quality. Whether the art is client work, personal work, homework or fanart, it's all fresh and creative and drawn in your unique style. A variety of subject matters, perspectives, and compositions showcase your range of skills. If multiple mediums are used, they all show the same level of quality. You've presented everything cleanly, both in physical and digital format.

My advice:
Focus on networking and marketing. If your portfolio is at this level, then you probably don't need my advice. But if, by chance, you're not getting decent work, then you need to focus your efforts on marketing and networking. You're creating good art, now you need to get it in front of the right people. Who "the right people" are depends on your career goals, so that's something you'll have to research on your own. If your art is this good then once you start investing time into marketing yourself, it's probably not going to take long before you get a break.

Further Reading for You:
Escape Cheapskate Clients and Break Into Professional Illustration
Make Your Art Work
Does Online Popularity Matter?

(That nobody actually asked me but we can pretend)

So you're saying that my portfolio should look more like yours?
Not mine specifically, no. As you can see in the images in this post, over time my art became more complex, more realistic, and more colorful. But that's not everyone's path - some people's artwork may develop in a direction that's darker, more muted, more stylized or abstract. The point isn't for your art to look like mine; the point is that, however you draw, you need to develop consistency, in both skill and style.

How do I know what my style is?
Your drawing style is similar to a personality. During your adolescent years you probably tried on various personalities before time and life experience sculpted the personality you have now. Similarly, your drawing style is already a part of you, and only through time spent drawing will it solidify into something recognizable. (And both personalities and drawing styles will continue to change over time.) Experiment, keep drawing and have fun. Eventually you will find something that feels "right," that (to borrow a phrase) "sparks joy."

What if I want to work in multiple styles?
Definitely possible, but hard to pull off. You'll have to avoid the "jack of all trades, master of none" look. Your portfolio will need to show that you're able to work consistently in different styles - which means that you'll need multiple samples of each style, and they all need to be good. A tall order; but if you can do it, you'll be attractive to a wide range of clients.

What if I never went to art school? Do I skip the "student" portfolio?
The point of the "student" portfolio type is that it's mainly composed of art that imitates other people's styles. A student imitates their teachers. If you've never been a student, you're probably imitating artists you admire; they're kind of your informal teachers. This isn't bad, but it is something that you need to grow out of eventually.

What's your problem with fanart?
Often, when people draw fanart, they're exactly copying the style of the pop culture IP, or they're copying a photo of an actor/actress. This is fine if you just want to have fun, but that stuff doesn't do much for your portfolio. Most companies want to see something fresh and creative, not yet another Harley Quinn/BB-8/Deadpool/whatever character is popular now. If you want to do fanart, think about how you can put your own unique visual spin on it. (One big exception is if you're interested in licensing as a career. That means you would specialize in copying the styles of other IPs; for example, if Disney hired you to draw a Frozen coloring book.) Claire Hummel has a GREAT Twitter thread where she explains this better than I can.

Can I ask you for a portfolio review?
If your goal is to get into publishing, whether children's books or otherwise, then yeah you can email me. If you want to do something else, such as comics, animation, concept art, etc., then you would be better off asking a professional who works in those fields.


I hope you guys found that helpful! If you feel like your portfolio matches one of the beginner, student, or nearly pro types, don't let that get you down. Everyone's portfolio goes through all four stages. No one is born clutching a fully-formed professional illustration portfolio in their tiny baby hands.

If you're not where you want to be: keep going.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Memories of Stockholm

When my daughter was 8 months old, my husband and I took her on a trip to Stockholm, armed with nothing but the phrase jag √§lskar k√∂ttbullar.

It was partially a work trip for my husband, and partially just for fun. Every day I would stick my daughter in a carrier on my back, hop on the subway and explore the streets of Stockholm. My husband usually worked during the morning and joined us in the afternoon. My favorite area was Gamla Stan, the impossibly charming "old town," where the cobblestone streets were narrow and winding and lined with colorful little shops. The first time we went there, I felt like I had stepped into a fairy tale.

Even though traveling with a teething baby (~*~*a teething baby*~*~) and also trying to work from my laptop was a challenge, our time in Sweden will always be a special memory to me. Exploring the city with a baby on my back, eating cinnamon rolls every day, overhearing Japanese tourists talk about my daughter's white-blonde hair.

Last year I had the idea of creating a drawing of our trip for my daughter's nursery. It took several months until I had some free time to get started. The was my initial thumbnail.

I wanted to experiment with a new, simpler style than my usual work. I was inspired by some picture books illustrated by Jez Tuya that he had been kind enough to send me for Christmas. (And which my daughter requested that I read over, and over, and over again.) I also looked to the art of Maike Plenzke and Takako Fisher for inspiration.

The buildings in Sweden are often these warm gold, orange and salmon colors.

So I knew that I wanted my color scheme to be based around warm golds and pinks as well, with touches of green and black. I cleaned up the sketch a bit, then starting blocking in color.

I added little details for my daughter to notice.

Pf course I had to include a bakery! During the course of our trip I was probably a one-woman boost to the Swedish cinnamon roll economy.

I'm really happy with how it turned out!

I had the image printed at a 16x20" size at INPRNT, and it turned out very nicely. I ordered a custom frame and mat from The frame and mat look fine but the acrylic covering is scratched up and looks pretty bad; I've contacted them about it to get a replacement.

Looking at it in the space, I regret not printing it at a larger size. It would have had more presence on the wall. Oh well. 16x20" just sounded so big in my head!

As I finished hanging up the frame on the wall, I stepped back and my daughter cooed, "Woooooow! Vey peh-ee!"

Possibly the best feedback I've ever gotten from a client!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Ranger in Time: Disaster on the Titanic

Ranger in Time #9: Disaster on the Titanic released on January 29!

This was one of the most research-heavy books I've done so far, because of the massive amount of resources available about the Titanic. There are so many photographs, illustrations, and of course film adaptations! It was a lot of opportunity for me to get little details right - or wrong! 

I drew a total of 15 interiors for the book, but I'm going to focus on just one that shows how I construct some of these scenes. For in the illustration chapter 7, Ranger was going to be swimming through the half-submerged mail room of the Titanic, while Patrick stood on some stairs behind him.

Some websites claimed that this is a photo of the Titanic mail room, but I wasn't able to verify that from any reliable sources.

So, I did my best to construct a rough 3D model of the scene in Google Sketchup, complete with dog and boy stand-ins:

Next, I posed on some stairs in order to get Patrick's pose right:

Next, I looked at some stills from the movie Titanic which took place in half-flooded rooms. This helped give me an idea of what the water reflections would have looked like in these conditions.

neeeeeeeear, faaaaaaar, whereeeeeeever you aaaare

Then I sketched the scene:

This was approved to go to final without any revisions.

That's how I'm able to construct historically accurate scenes. It's a matter of doing as much research as I can on the elements that make up a scene, using whatever resources I can collect (such as 3D models and my own photo references) to stand in for those elements, and then using my imagination to make them all work together.

Luckily there are a lot of detailed models of the Titanic available on Google Sketchup, and I relied on them for the wide shots like this one:

If you enjoy reading about the Titanic, pick up a copy of RANGER IN TIME: DISASTER ON THE TITANIC. It's detailed and historically accurate while also being genuinely heartbreaking. I especially appreciated Kate Messner's focus on the third-class passengers rather than the rich and glamorous first-class ones.

Also, give this cover of "My Heart Will Go On" by Postmodern Jukebox a try. I listened to it many times while working on the illustrations for this book, and it cheered me up when the research got too sad.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Death at Glenville Falls

I was commissioned by author Carol L. Wright to illustrate a cover for her cozy mystery novel DEATH AT GLENVILLE FALLS. Her story was set in a small New England town, where the protagonist runs a cute used bookstore. The client sent me a very detailed brief. Some of the specific elements she requested were:
  • Interior of Gracie's Garret bookshop looking from the middle of shop toward the bay window and door. 
  • a few books strewn on the floor; some have pages torn or cut out, also strewn on the floor.
  • a knife stabbing one of the opened books
  • at least one overturned chair (or part of a chair). It could have a broken leg.
  • a yellow tabby cat somewhere in the store
  • enough of a view of the exterior through the window to get a sense of the small town atmosphere
  • If possible, it would be nice if we could see the sign for the bookshop through the window. (Gracie's Garret/New & Used Books)
  • Door to the store should have a shop bell above it that rings when the door opens. 
  • Perhaps an open/closed sign on the door
  • A pressed tin ceiling
Here are the three roughs I sent her:

The client decided that #3 was the closest to the bookstore she imagined in the story. However, it needed to adhere more closely to the layout she originally described. At one point in the story, the cash register falls on the floor, preventing the door from being opened. So it was important that the room be arranged correctly.

The client and I went back and forth on the layout of the shelves, doors and window. I'm a little embarrassed by how long it took me to get what she was asking for! I'm just not good with verbal descriptions of places; like, if someone tries to tell me driving directions, if there's more than 2 steps it just goes in one ear and out the other. Here's one of my attempts at getting the bookstore layout, but this one wasn't quite right either.

The client was kind enough to draw a blueprint of the shop for me, which helped a lot! Finally I figured out how to make the layout, window, door and cash register all work together in a way that was accurate to the story but also looked good visually.

Next I sent a color rough. The client asked for autumnal colors outside the window and warm wood tones inside the shop. In order to offset all that orange and brown, I chose a cool robin's egg blue for the walls and chairs. Some golden light streaming in through the windows helped keep the cozy, nostalgic feeling, and also let me highlight the tabby cat.

I was approved to go to final!

Here is the cover with the final design. I think it turned out really nicely! That's definitely a bookstore I'd love to spend an afternoon in with a chai tea and a good book.

DEATH AT GLENVILLE FALLS is available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble! Thanks Carol for thinking of me for the cover of your book.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Speak Truth to Fire

Last year author Matthew Candelaria emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in creating a cover for his self-published novel, SPEAK TRUTH TO FIRE. He described it as "a dark urban fantasy set in the United States during the 1920s," where a private detective and a witch use magic to fight evil demons that have been summoned by the Ku Klux Klan.

Um, yes.

Yes I would be interested in that.

Matthew said that he'd like the cover to be inspired by vintage pulp covers, but with a female character working as a team with the hero. He wanted the two of them in period clothing, ready to fight a serpent made of flame, one with a gun, the other casting magic. He sent me some pulp covers for inspiration, which sent me down a rabbit hole on Pinterest.

These were some of the more tame covers I found! Thanks to this project, for a while my Pinterest feed was a strange mixture of vegetarian recipes, Scandinavian interior design, and pulpy mid-century softcore porn.

In other words, my job is amazing.

I studied the covers and came up with a list of common traits:
  1. Solid, graphic backgrounds
  2. Bold colors
  3. Dynamic poses
I started sketching some ideas that would incorporate these elements, and got my husband to help out with photo references.

Here are the roughs I sent to Matthew:

Matthew chose the first rough, but asked me to work in a burning cross from which the fire serpent is being summoned. It took me a while to figure out how to work in the cross in a way that felt natural and still left space for the title text. Everything I tried just seemed too in-your-face, like, WOAH THAT'S A BURNING CROSS! In the end I liked having the cross as a graphic shape in the background rather than being a literal cross in the scene.

I love the crimson red that ended up in the background. It's kind of a bloody, menacing color that I don't usually get to use for children's covers!

Matthew OK'd the rough and from there I went to final. While painting, I studied the pulp covers and tried to imitate the brushy, painterly texture and avoid too much digital polish.

The heroine's coat is based on a design from the 1920's that Matthew sent me as reference. I absolutely love the art deco piping along the sleeves. I would buy that coat - especially for $14.98! What a steal!

We went back and forth on whether or not to give the heroine a cloche hat.

Matthew decided against it, which I think was probably the right call, but part of me still really likes that hat.

Here it is with the title text (which I also designed!) and some weathered paperback texturing, just for fun.

I'm super happy with how this cover turned out, and I enjoyed reading SPEAK TRUTH TO FIRE very much. It's a fun urban fantasy with an impressive amount of authentic historical details. My favorite character was the WWI pilot who is continually haunted by a ghost plane!

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

2018 Client Christmas Card

Every year I send out Christmas cards to my agent and some of my long-time clients. This year I re-used an illustration that I did for Brio magazine.

In the original story, a bunch of kids are performing a nativity skit at a local children's hospital, which is why there's a wheelchair and all that medical equipment in the foreground of the scene. For my card I thought that stuff would be confusing, so I removed it.

I like to get my cards printed at Zazzle. The print quality and color accuracy is excellent, and the glossy cardstock is nice and thick. The prices are also reasonable considering that there's no minimum order. (I always place my order during Black Friday.) They do print a Zazzle logo on the back of the card, which doesn't bother me but I know that some artists might not want to confuse their branding.

Merry Christmas or whatever holidays you celebrate this season, blog readers. I am thankful for each and every one of you. I really appreciate the encouraging comments and emails that you send to me. It's been a struggle to keep this blog updated this year, not because of a lack of things to write about, but lack of time to write about them! I have some really cool projects to show you next year so I hope to see you again in 2019.
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