Portfolio Critiques With Mela Bolinao

Originally Published: Feb. 1, 2011

by Karen DelleCava

On January 11, three lucky artist’s portfolios were selected in a drawing for an on-the-spot critique by Mela Bolinao, illustration agent of MB Artist. All in attendance benefitted from her insightful comments.

Mela looks for 8-10 images of one style—the artist’s signature style. She says, “It’s important to explore many styles before preparing your portfolio but ultimately the artist should focus on one and present the work that makes him/her most happy because that will come across in the art.”

Artwork targeted for children ages 0 to 14 should vary in subject matter and environment but the style should remain consistent throughout, giving your portfolio a unified look. Show your depth as an illustrator by showing character development, perspective, composition, and color palette. Mela wants to be drawn into the story like a film where she feels the emotion of the piece.

She cautions not to “dumb down” the work for the youngest viewing audience, 0 to5 year olds. Be sure to capture their attention, bring in background and rich details to hook the child and keep him involved.

Young readers are drawn to color so Mela recommends presenting a color portfolio with perhaps only one or two grey tone pieces. Regarding color, Mela pointed out that many experienced illustrators settle into a “comfort color palette.” She often suggests going to Home Depot for paint swatches to explore new color palettes. It is extremely important to vary your color palettes within the portfolio to accurately reflect “time of day.”

Mela discussed photo references as a foundation for one’s work, but as an illustrator, you must make the work your own. Capture real life moments in your signature style. Vary facial expressions and body positions to avoid repetitive poses and loss of movement in the work. Make your characters come alive by finding the human connection and emotion of the character.

Mela discussed how the children’s book market for illustrative style is cyclical. Presently the trend is moving toward “stylized realistic.” Should an illustrator change her style to match the present market? Mela recommended not changing your style but perhaps exploring other markets and capitalizing on where your style fits best, such as toys, products, puzzles, and licensing. You can always return to the children’s book market later.

A strong portfolio will show off your signature style. Your newest work should come first to make a powerful first impression and the last images should be memorable enough for an art director or agent to call and say, “I have the perfect job for you!”

Karen DelleCava’s fiction, crafts and games have appeared in Highlights for Children magazine. Her first contemporary YA novel, A Closer Look, is being published by WestSide Books and scheduled to be out this spring 2011.


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