Originally Published: Mar. 16, 2012
By: Wallace West
Patti Ann Harris, Senior Art Director for Little Brown Books for Young Readers, critiqued the portfolios of three SCBWI Metro Members on 13 December, 2011. Aside from providing both praise and constructive criticism she offered the invaluable advice of a seasoned industry professional.
In response to the age-old question of whether or not an illustrator should restrict a portfolio to only one style, Harris said it is not unacceptable to have two different styles in a portfolio. However, the illustrator should be able to consistently deliver the styles and it should be clearly defined to an Art Director which style will be used for a project.
“It’s a great thing to experiment [with styles],” said Harris. “Every artist is always hopefully evolving and you have to give yourself permission to do this.”
No matter the content of a portfolio, it should always have the look of high quality printing. Illustrators shouldn’t feel compelled to spend top dollar for good results (sometimes the solution is as easy as printing on watercolor paper with a home printer). The main thing with which illustrators should be concerned is making certain that every image has saturated color and is of adequate size to do the piece justice.
Though the primary format in which an illustrator’s work is seen is an online portfolio, Harris said a hardcopy portfolio should also be maintained for critiques or meetings. Having a book dummy is also essential. Book dummies show that an illustrator can take a character through the motions and emotions of a story. In creating a dummy illustrations should be the focus, don’t get caught up on the text. Take something with a proven successful story arc, like a familiar classic fairy tale or fable, and develop it in your own style. Harris is delighted to see that handwork is coming through in a lot of the work today. “You can’t tell what’s hand drawn and what’s digital,” Harris says. Apart from creating characters and scenes, Harris finds that it can be beneficial for illustrators to, if they are able, bring hand lettering into their narrative work. Though squaring away a portfolio indicative of both your talent and your ability to deliver, Harris believes it’s essential to get your work seen and published in any way that you can. Seeing as much of your work as you can in print helps you see what works and what doesn’t. And she encourages illustrators to directly ask magazines, etc. if you can contribute. Your work doesn’t always have to be solicited.
Opportunities like the Licensing Show, National Stationery Show, and graphic design work are excellent outlets for getting your work seen. Online communities like Etsy.com, Illustration Friday, and Drawger can not only help expose you to other illustrators and their techniques, they can also garner support, praise and critique from other artists. Art Directors are always looking for new talent so illustrators should take every opportunity to showcase their talent whether in print (Harris said Art Directors still like to get postcards) or on-line communities.
Harris said that illustrators should embrace the training involved in perfecting their craft. It’s important to keep a sketchbook and use it often as there is no judgment in a sketchbook and illustrators can really focus on developing both their skill and their style. Part of training also means just letting go, erasing the fear of jumping around and trying new things. It’s important to remember that, while it’s great to be a specialist, an illustrator’s skills should be varied. Diversity can bring more possibility to a job. And above all, keeping in touch with your inner child helps you remember just what makes a book for young reader successful.
Wallace West is a writer and editor making the segue to illustration. His images have most recently been seen on stationery exhibited at the National Stationery Show 2010 and he is currently at work on his first picture book.