Thursday, September 1, 2016

3 Essentials for a Children's Book Portfolio

A few weeks ago I posted on Twitter offering free portfolio reviews to anyone looking to get into the children's book industry. A few people took me up on the offer, and reviewing their portfolios gave me some ideas for this blog post. By attending conferences, reading blogs, following art directors on Twitter, and getting portfolio reviews from them in person, here's what I believe are the three most important things that publishers want to see in illustrator portfolios.
  1. Children. You'd also be surprised at how many artists tend to draw awkward, gangly, unattractive children. Guys, this is a dealbreaker for this industry. Your portfolio must show that you can draw cute, fun, expressive children of various ethnicities and ages looking consistent across multiple scenes. They don't have to be realistic, like the sample on the left. But they do have to look like cute kids.
2. Animals. So important! Children and animals should be the meat and potatoes of your portfolio. You must have drawings of attractive, expressive, cute animals doing things and looking consistent across multiple scenes. But being able to draw animals realistically is not what's important....
  3. Narrative. have to show that you can tell a story. Don't just draw characters standing around on blank backgrounds, or portraits of beautiful women surrounded by flowers. Draw the character existing in a world, interacting with other characters, and doing things. I'm not saying you have to have a fully developed novel behind each illustration: just enough to peak a viewer's interest. Don't just draw a fox; draw a fox wearing crutches and knocking on the door of a rabbit's home. Read "A Cure for Head and Shoulders Syndrome" by Joe Sutphin.

Things NOT to include:

  1. Nudity, blood, sexuality. Your portfolio must be absolutely G-rated. Even artistic nudity is a no-go.
  2. Figure studies, landscapes, still lifes, logo designs, t-shirt designs, mobile app designs, etc. People commonly include these things in order to "prove they can draw" - but this is a rookie mistake. Everything in your children's book portfolio must relate to children's books.
  3. Fan art of pop culture. This is kind of a tricky one, but let me explain. Unless you're interested in doing licensing illustration, don't include fanart of movies, tv shows and video games. Publishers aren't interested in your "Disney princesses as sailor scouts" fanart. You can include fanart of books, if you're working from the original material and not from tv/movie adaptations. Choose classic books, like Little House on the Prairie or Call of the Wild rather than something that's been done to death, like Harry Potter. For example, I have some Island of the Blue Dolphins fanart in my portfolio. Think of it less as "fanart" and more as pretending you've been hired to illustrate a new edition of this book.
While there are many more things to take into consideration when building your portfolio, I'd say that these three things are the most essential. I think it would be very difficult to get a commission in the children's publishing industry without them.

I hope this gives you some guidance towards building up your children's book portfolio! Please post any questions in the comments!


  1. Thankyou!
    My question is how much is not enough/too much?
    And should we present different drawing styles or just one thats good and consistent?

    1. Between 8-15 images is generally considered enough pieces for a portfolio. But what's most important is to only include your best work.
      Multiple styles are fine, if you have multiple examples of each. You need to show that you can consistently perform in these different styles. Don't just have a one-off that's totally different from the rest.


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