The first step in identifying where your work belongs to ask yourself is: What kind of work do I love? I studied fine art in undergrad, and while I had taken illustration courses, my portfolio consisted of narrative drawing and painting with no real focus on any specific type of commercial client. I knew the kind of work I liked according to a specific aesthetic sensibility but didn’t necessarily understand how that fit any commercial sensibility. When I was struggling to find work after graduating, I began making a list of the illustrators I admired (the next article will elaborate on researching clients and artists). Regardless of the fields that categorized those artists, I paid more attention to the kind of work they were making. It was more important to me to be making work that I felt was interesting rather than to be working in any specific field. I wanted to find artists successfully doing that to find out who was paying them (so I could convince those same clients to pay me). I did have a strong political sensibility in my work and had grown up reading comics which helped inform my decision-making. All the artists whose work I admired had worked in either editorial, books, or comics, so I began to make artwork specific to those markets by interpreting that content through the filter of my style. I developed a portfolio with the new works and started approaching clients. My earliest gigs resulted from writing to art directors whose work was closest to what I was doing. So, the basic questions to ask yourself in deciding what kind of clients are right for you is: Who is making the work that you like? Is it work that you could see yourself doing? And where are they working, who is hiring them?
In researching artists, there is an important issue which concerns the opaqueness of social media; are the artists you look at working professionals? It can be hard to identify how artists are making money. An artist’s work can be very popular but not commercially viable, which is to say the content of their work has no direct relationship to any commercial market. Their work may have a much larger following than an artist who is very commercially successful, which is not a qualitative assessment, only a practical one. Again, this was an issue I ran into after college. When I sent my fine arts thesis portfolio to art directors, I got a lot of positive feedback, but none of them were critical of the quality of the work. The overall assessment was that they did not know how to use it because there was no content in my portfolio related to what they published. The response was: “Make something we can use, and we will be glad to hire you.” Key learning here is that popularity or quality in illustration does not guarantee commercial viability. Your work must be useful.
A clear way to structure your portfolio is as follows. If you want to work in book publishing, take your favorite book and create a cover and interior illustrations for it. If you want to work as a concept or production artist, create character line ups, background landscapes, and interiors, have storyboards to show. If you want to work in editorial, start reading the Op-Ed page of the New York Times and create illustrations for articles that interest you. You can choose to develop one of these topics into an entire portfolio to target a very specific field, or you can have an example of each of these in your portfolio, but they should all look like they came from the same imagination, from the same artist. Your portfolio should show that you can solve visual and narrative problems with a consistent stylistic approach. I’ve heard art directors say that when they think of an artist, it is very useful if one or two specific topics or themes in connection with that artist come to mind, which can mean a particular mood, a type of story, a consistent worldview. You should be able to demonstrate this consistency through a portfolio of no less than ten images. Once you have resolved these very essential issues, you will be able to start building a list of clients and promoting your work.
Special thanks to Molly Magnell for her contributions to this article.