Simply stated, a commercial portfolio for a cartoonist (illustrator or sequential artist) is a collection of any set of drawings that have or can be applied to commercial projects.
As examples, my commercial portfolio includes cartoons and illustrations that I have created for tee shirt companies, industrial firms, retail specialty stores, various product lines, gaming companies (both video and board games), recording companies, automobile manufacturers, media development, etc. That is, anything outside of my work in comics could be considered part of my commercial portfolio.
The problem that I faced when I began was that I wanted to work for all these sorts of companies, yet felt that I had to impress them with how many different styles I could work in. So I’d send them samples in the half dozen different styles I’d experimented with while at college or on my own, only to get passed over for work time and again.
It was a slow process to understand that the few jobs that I did get were helping me narrow my style down, and then the subsequent published samples I had to show were building a portfolio in that narrow style. Once the process had narrowed the style down sufficiently I began getting more positive responses from clients.
They actually tell you this in college; they also tell you this in all the guidebooks: “Narrow your portfolio down to one or two styles at most, and send those out as samples. Trying to prove you are a master of all styles will only result in being passed over for assignments.”
The experts say this, but almost nobody listens.
So it makes me wonder why I’m saying it again–and I’m not claiming to be an expert, just a guy who’s fallen on his face time and again.
It took me 15 years or more to finally begin to get it. I finally narrowed down my “book” to two styles and sent that out as samples and got some bites. With those bites I had some more samples to show around. Those samples got more bites and so forth.
Okay, so that’s the first trick.
The second trick is to apply that one or two styles to as wide a variety of projects and subjects as possible. That will impress clients.
Think of the times you’ve ever seen some great comedic actor who’s gone out on a limb to make a dramatic film. Have you ever seen one of those films and liked it? Almost never right? Now think of the times that a comedian has starred in a remake of some drama, but played it as a comedy. It’s a whole new twist on the theme, and most of the time it works, right?
It’s very much the same for the commercial artist. He has to find his “voice” and apply it to the project, whatever that may be–not be a chameleon and submerge himself behind the project so that no one can discern the voice.
When a client hires you, most of the time he wants to be able to see what YOU are going to bring to the project.
(Okay, sad to say that there has been a lot of “chameleon” work in recent years. Particularly in the field of 3-D animation. But I actually see that turning around. I see that audiences are, by-and-large rejecting that sort of cookie-cutter approach to storytelling, character creation, world-building, etc. )
But even if the client is looking for a cog for their machine–they’re still looking for just the right cog to fit that machine. That’s where you come in. Nobody is looking for a blob of silly-putty to put into that spot. The client needs to know what they can expect from you on a consistent basis, not a one-off basis, and a wide variety of subjects treated in a similar manner by you is the only way for them to understand your capability.
I’ve gone on too long about the “soul” of this type of portfolio. Some specifics before I finish for today. A commercial portfolio can be longer than some. Ten to maybe twenty pages (though that may be pushing things, try to keep it under fifteen if you can), demonstrating your ability to illustrate a wide variety of subjects and/or products using one major style and possibly a slight variant on that style.
This does not mean that you should cram every page as full as possible with minute detail. If that’s what you do normally, then fine. (I’ve got friends and associates who do that sort of work, and that’s cool for them.) For most of us, the idea is to keep the samples open and clean. (Make your point, sit down and shut up.)
You may note that I’m still talking as if you, the artist, are making your presentation in person. And I’ll continue to maintain that this is how you are going to make your most successful presentations and win clients. I didn’t believe it when my Dad (the former traveling salesman) told me about back in my teens, but I’ve come to understand it now that I’m in my 50s.
Sure, you’re going to lead many clients to your website for further samples. Other clients will make contact with you via some sort of web contact and you’ll have to quickly find specific samples on your computer that you can send back to them that are close to what they seem to be looking for.
But as far as sweeping numerous clients into your proverbial net in a wholesale manner, it’s going to be by showing them samples at trade show, or other public event where you just happen to be carrying around your portfolio–but only if it’s well organized and doesn’t confuse those potential clients.
A disjointed, messy portfolio is worse than no portfolio at all.