Creative Tips & Resources – Portfolios

Freelance Jungle

So, dear fledgeling illustrator, your metaphorical bag is packed. Filled to the brim with motivation, business cards, pencils and (hopefully) a ton of natural talent.

But hold it right there; before you jump out into the freelance world, you need to make sure your portfolio’s set to go.

Be it luxe and leather bound or a minimalist online slideshow, an illustrator’s portfolio is invaluable. A good portfolio will simply and clearly highlight not only what you’ve done before, but the potential you have for future projects.

It’s likely that at some point in your career you will be invited to drop off your portfolio for review. This omits your chance to explain each piece of work, so you have to make sure your portfolio not only communicates each piece clearly, without a need for description, but also represents you as a potential freelance co-worker.

A dog-eared plastic folder stuffed with crumpled, pixelated images isn’t going to cite you as a competent professional as much as a beautifully bound book, but saying that, it’s not a case of the amount of money you spend. Sure, a £200 embossed leather portfolio might look stunning, but if your work doesn’t speak for itself it won’t do you any good.

You need to set aside some time and a little money to invest in slick presentation, good printing and a carefully selected and organised array of work. Think user-friendly, simple, with clean pages and a rhythm and flow from piece to piece throughout the portfolio.

Tailor the pieces in your portfolio to the person viewing it; narrative and character work for children’s publishers; more conceptual, communicative or decorative work for editorial.  It’s often a good approach to imagine yourself in the shoes of the person you’re showing it to and ask yourself ‘Would I understand this piece without it’s context?’ ‘Does this piece fit with the others in the portfolio?’ and ‘Do these illustrations represent my work and what I want/can do?’. Have a clear view of who you’re aiming your work at and what you want out of a meeting.

I spoke to Ed Burns, founder of Advocate Art agency about the key elements art buyers look for in portfolios: 

In our experience when meeting artbuyers they are looking for continuity, colour understanding, characterization (candid, clever poses), a design element (decorative elements), relevancy to the age group, if it matches the rest of your folio, if it’s ahead of trend or on trend and most importantly an application.“ 

For success in this field everything in your portfolio needs to be relevant to the industry and show your commercial potential. That is opposed to a barrage of self-indulgent pieces which may be difficult for an art buyer to see the suitability for your work in context.

You need to put on your ruthless hat and fearlessly cut out any pieces here that don’t fit or quite make the grade, no matter how much time you spent on them or how sentimentally attached you are to it.  It’s much better to show a few pieces of incredible work than those diluted with fifteen others you’re not confident about. Keep an objective eye, stand tough and ask a particularly honest friend or professional to give their opinion.

I asked Fig Taylor, head portfolio consultant at the AOI what she would describe as a client-stopping portfolio, and what would leave them feeling cold-

‘A good portfolio, regardless of format, has to say two things to your client: “This is who I am and this is how you can use me”. In other words you need to show a consistent body of work, some of which directly addresses the needs of your potential client. A bad portfolio, in my opinion, is one that leaves everything up to the client: a random, unfocused hotchpotch of work that tries to be all things to all commissioners; too much self-indulgence, (endless pages devoted to highly personal projects that bear no relation to the real world, things yanked out of sketchbooks and given prominence for purely sentimental reasons), and/or a protracted or shambolic presentation. Most commissioners are busy so you need to cut to the chase pretty quickly. The only thing that’s going on in their head when they’re viewing your work is, “Is this. Illustrator any good and what have I got on at the moment that they might be able to help me with?”’ 

One thing you’ll hear a lot about is the importance of having a consistent style. A unique visual identity that sets you apart from the rest and have folks murmuring ‘Hey! Isn’t that blahblah’s work? I could recognise that style anywhere!’. But, it’s most certainly not uncommon for illustrators to have more than one style using different techniques, mediums or for another audience entirely.

There’s no crime in lacking a set style at this point, it’s an ongoing process of development. To be honest, if you’re set in stone on a style from the get-go you’re probably limiting yourself from some all-important growth room.  Many popular illustrators have more than one style; digital and painting, for children and for adults. It’s just a case of maintaining a balance in your portfolio and appropriating the work you include for the client you’re showing your portfolio to. For example on your website, create sections for your different styles/audiences so the art director or client can see exactly what they want with one click.

I spoke to Cathy Olmedillas of Anorak magazine about what they look for in a portfolio to commission an illustrator.

What we generally look for is someone who has a consistent style across his/her portfolio. The reason for that is that our illustrators get absolute freedom to treat stories as they wish, so we need to ensure that what we see in the portfolio is close to what we will get.”

This will be the case with most publications as it’s much easier to feel comfortable commissioning someone if you can expect what you’re going to get stylistically.

If you do have different styles, don’t panic. It’s more important to create a continuous ‘feel’ through your work, no matter what medium. A unique voice to the visual language you’re using, tying everything together neatly. Experienced art directors will be able to pick up on this and see that it’s a positive thing that your work can be appropriated into different contexts.

However, if your styles are completely different you could consider having two websites or even use a pseudonym to separate things out.

Just remember to keep it all simple, professional, user-friendly and appropriate. You’ll be fine.

Take a look at these other guides to a tip-top portfolio - 

How to build an illustration portfolio by Heather Castles

Lots of good, clear advice in here on this and other topics about the illustration business.


Heart agent portfolio advice interview on Ideas Tap

Really useful little interview with Jenny Bull, an agent at Heart Illustration Agency about her likes and dislikes in illustrator’s portfolios and some advice to those starting out.


Digital Artists portfolio advice article

Lots of tips, experiences and quotes from industry professionals in here (the likes of Rebecca McCubbin, art buyer for Mother London, Richie Manu, creative director of Consurgo and Fig Taylor of the AOI). Some very useful bits, take the time to read it.


Fig Taylor – portfolio consultant for the AOI

I’ve mentioned her above but thought she deserved her own link. Fig is a long-time industry professional and illustrator portfolio aficionado. On my course at University College Falmouth I was lucky enough to be given a one on one portfolio review with her, which I found very useful. You can book yourself an in-depth portfolio review with her (for a fee) by contacting

There’s also a good interview with her here –


Find out more about Emmeline and her work at or say hello on Twitter

  1. mi-rae sung

    Do you have any portfolio advice for high school students who have hopes of studying design in University?

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