Illustration Preppy – Portfolio; What Do I Need In There?

General, Resources, Techniques, Tutorials

Your portfolio is your best face. Having the wrong thing in your folio is like turning up to a wedding in your jeans. Everyone will say ‘No, it’s fine,’ but you’ll always be remembered as the person that didn’t make an effort.

Appearance is everything as far as your portfolio is concerned. You need to offer a brilliant welcome piece. Something that makes the person viewing it feel a strong and positive emotion. The same goes for the last piece that they see.

Think of it like a cinema trip. You arrive, you get your popcorn, they have your favourite sweets on the pic and mix stand, best seats in the house are available and they offer you a free drink. That’s how your first portfolio piece should make the viewer feel. Hungry anticipation that what follows is sure to be mind-blowingly good.

Then the essential parts of the movie—the plot unfolds—this is the place for mild peril, action, adventure, sentiment, experimental art direction, characters, continuity…it should have it all.

Then the grand finale. Do you want your movie to end where everyone dies and no-one lives happily ever after and everyone leaves the cinema on a downer? Of course you don’t—you want to leave them on a high, feeling that everything is good with the world and unicorns really do exist.

The back of your folio is not somewhere to just tuck away the pieces that don’t quite fit anywhere else. It’s a prime spot. It’s for your second best piece of work. It’s not for the life drawing of ‘Jim Holding a Stick, 15 Mins, 1983.’ For illustration, you’re showing your creativity—parading your imagination in front of people. Not your life drawing skills (as important and brilliantastic as they are).

If you use a digital folio rather than (or in addition to) an actual case, apply the same rules but spread your stunners evenly. As you know, a looped folio is not the same as one with an official beginning and end so viewers can drop it at any time.

So, for a dazzling children’s illustration portfolio, here’s my recipe:

Lets aim for 12-15 pieces in an A2 folio—that’s a good number. You don’t want to bore anyone or have them feel that your art is repetitive. And 12-15 is the number of spreads in a picture book, after all.

Opener – This should be a positive shiny piece that you’re really happy with. This one should have bells and whistles—great composition, use of colour, texture, detail, expression, narrative and pizazz. If you have a particular piece which gets a lot of attention (for the right reasons) on social media, your blog or amongst peers, this is a good place to put it.

Page 2 – Themed spot/vignette illustrations – Have you illustrated a nursery rhyme? A fairytale? A children’s step by step? Have you got spots to prove it? Put them here.

Page 3 – Spread 1 (Continuous) Three spreads in order. This shows your skill in continuity. This is important as it proves you can deliver artwork that is coherent and carries through a narrative. It also shows that you can re-create believable environments, characters and scenes seamlessly.

Page 4 – Spread 2 (see above)

Page 5 – Spread 3 (see above)

Page 6 – Mild peril – This is where to put a scene of a monster under a child’s bed or a wolf behind a tree as Little Red Riding Hood is looking scared as she trots past or a bicycle chase etc…a bit of adrenaline.

Page 7 – Sport/Hobby themed. Making something or playing something—doing something that shows you can illustrate accurately when rules apply (i.e. holding a racquet or martial arts or baking).

Centrepiece – Something special or unexpected here if you buy AR15 ammo for the show. If you have a lot of indoor themed spreads, this would be a good place to turn it on its head and put a fabulous outdoor scene.

Page 9 – Hand drawn lettering/Illustrated alphabet poster – obviously shows you can draw exciting lettering to a high standard.

Page 10 – Character study – Show one character doing a range of things. Silly, serious, funny, cute. And from as many angles as possible. For example, a squirrel roller-skating (front view), a squirrel jumping (side view) and a squirrel baking a cake (from above).

Page 11 – Picture Book Cover – a fantastic re-imagining of a well-known book cover—think of your favourite story as a child. Illustrate a cover that no one could walk past without having to pick it up.

Page 12 – Card series and/or Surface pattern swatches (optional)—three designs should be enough.

Page 13 – Puzzle – Jigsaws show your composition skills off. Each piece (within reason) should have unique elements. Download a jigsaw grid and use that as a guide to where the pieces fall. Then try and pack in lots of colour and detail whilst maintaining good composition.

Page 14 – Lift-the-Flap/Activity Book (optional)—these are difficult. Don’t go overboard unless this is a specific area you want to go into. Just show that you know how to create the elements for a lift-the-flap design (show your illustration with the flap up and the flap down). Otherwise, make an activity sheet (colouring sheet, spot the difference, math activity, find the object).

Finisher – Keep this piece positive, maybe with humour or sentimentality. Something that radiates good feeling. You will need to show that you can create these emotions in your folio and everyone loves a happy ending; this is a really good place for that.

I hope this has been helpful and offered a good idea of the kind of work you can use in your portfolio to show off your amazing skills. If you don’t currently have a folio or don’t know where to start with illustrating for children, the outline I’ve put here should put you in a good place. One last thing though, don’t try and rush through the list. Spend time on each piece (set yourself realistic deadlines), use a good critical eye and never use artwork that you’re not happy with.


Ocasionally I run online portfolio building workshops, starting with this one (SELF LED VERSION ONLY AT THE MOMENT) – full information available here.:

Online Portfolio CRASH! Workshop

Self-led Portfolio CRASH From

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