Cartoon and Illustration

Your Portfolio and You (part four, the commercial portfolio)

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.


Cartoon and Illustration

Your Portfolio and You (a political aside–you’ve been warned)

So during all this talk about portfolios I’ve kind of been wondering something that’s a bit of a hot button right now.  I try to avoid being political here in this blog, but my question (and believe me it’s rhetorical, no reason to respond–really) is why anyone who’s a freelance artist would be a socialist.

Yet I’ve got a lot of friends who make those sorts of noises.  They truly seem to think that’s the way they ought to vote.

With all due respect, I disagree.

As a freelance artist should be a capitalist in every sense of the word.

Though your capital is based on your talents and abilities as an artist, it is essentially no different than the person who’s capital is based on stocks, bonds, real estate or cash.  The very words, “portfolio”, “talents”, and “investment” are all used in both the financial world and the art world.

But perhaps I’d better put this in the form of analogies so we’re all on the same page.

I’ve been re-watching one of those “The Great Courses” series and several times the professor makes mention of the various rulers of Europe who took over, then seizing the art treasures of this or that country and taking them away for his own nation’s collection.  You know, various kings of France, England, Spain–then later Napoleon, even later guys like Stalin and Hitler.  When one mentions those last three almost all of my artist friends get really hot under the collar (as well they should).  How dare those men presume to seize the art treasures of other countries or persons just because they happened to have taken those countries by force?

How is that any different than some socialist administration seizing the 401(k) holdings of people who have been working to save those funds for their retirements?

I’m sure that Napoleon thought he was fully justified in “redistributing the wealth” of the countries he invaded for the good of France–at least at the time.  (He was later disabused of those notions.)

Getting back to my point.  You, the artist, were given an inheritance by your parents:  the collection of genes and chromosomes that make up your physical body; the encouragement you received (or didn’t receive as the case may be) caused you to pursue art as a vocation; the work ethic you were taught; the training you were given to make your work better, etc.

And you have invested time to build your skills and take that latent talent to new heights that did not previously exist.  For years you have presented your work to the public, to art buyers, editors, art directors, etc.  Facing the criticism all of those had to give and bouncing back from all the negatives and building on the positives.  You finally reach the point where you are able to sell your work at a decent rate to publishers and receive a compensation for commission work that will support you and your family in a decent manner.

Now, imagine some no-talent hack comes along and insists that he should be paid the same rate you have struggled the past 30 years to achieve.  “It’s only fair,” he says, “after all I put marks on paper too!  Why shouldn’t I be paid the same rate?  What makes you morally superior to me?”

Do you see the error in the logic there?  It’s not an issue of moral superiority, but an issue of the quality of the work.  It’s an issue of the hours spent doing the work, of learning the skills and applying them to good and upkeep of your family.

It’s at this point that at least one of my friends will argue that I’m being selfish and not following the example of Christ in showing charity.  To which I have to point out their fallacy.  Socialism is not charity.  Socialism forces everyone to pay into the system–and the moment you force someone to pay into something it is no longer charity, it is coercion.

Again, capitalism is the better system.  It allows each person to decide for himself what causes to give to.  Admittedly, many people will decide to give to terrible causes, many will give to no cause at all.  But better that an individual be given that right to decide on their own than have some commissar make a terrible decision on the part of many people who are being forced to comply unwillingly–or (the more likely scenario if history is any indicator) hoarding the money for his own benefit.

Now before anyone accuses me of campaigning for Donald Trump, please get this straight–I am not in favor of conspicuous consumption.  So that leaves “the Donald” out right there.  But neither do I see any wisdom in Bernie Sanders (nor any other Socialist in sheep’s clothing).  Capitalism is not about, “he who dies with the most toys wins.”  It never was.  It should be about responsible stewardship of the resources that we each have as individuals–and we can’t be responsible by abdicating our individual responsibilities to the State.  That was the point of the Constitution.

As for those who claim that the Constitution is dead–well, then why am I still here talking about it?



Cartoon and Illustration

Your Portfolio and You (Part Three “What about Tablets?”)

“What about Tablets (when presenting my portfolio in person<implied>)?”

I don’t get asked this a lot, but I suspect I will get asked this more and more as the days continue.  As down as I was on people presenting their portfolio using a smart-phone in my last blog, I’m not as down on them using tablets.

But I have a few codicils to that statement that may help explain it better.

I think tablets are great–or they can be.  When they first came out I thought they had a lot of potential that, frankly, scared me silly.  Fortunately for me and my limited technology budget they almost immediately dropped into “the valley of fierce competition” and no single tablet has yet to emerge from that platform purgatory as the single dominant means of both creating and presenting information.  At this point it’s not even down to two major platforms (at least with personal computers we’ve lived to see the industry narrowed down to either Windows or Mac, and a number of cross platform programs that are virtually indistinguishable from one another.)

But while I (and the rest of the world) wait for the platform wars to end (and prices to come down) there’s that little problem of proprietorial rights to various on screen idioms–like how one turns a page or zooms in for a closer look.  It seems every different tablet does things differently.

So if someone hands me a tablet at a convention in order to look at a portfolio he or she is going to have to give me a tutorial in how to look at the work.  Whereas if he or she hands me a physical portfolio I already know how to turn the pages, and if I want to “zoom in” I just hold the page closer to my eyeballs!

A few other issues with the tablet versus the physical portfolio.

First off is finger prints.  The few times that someone has handed me a tablet, the first thing I’ve noticed has been all the greasy finger prints.  Sorry, but that just puts me off.  If you’re going to hand me a tablet, wipe it down first.  Eww.

Second, if you’re trying to impress me with how good your work looks in the digital world, then a tablet is fine.  If you’re trying to show me how good your work would look printed then a printed sample is the way to go.  That would seem to be common sense, but it’s amazing how many people seem to miss that point.

Third, (I mentioned this in my previous posting) with a physical portfolio, you can leave a copy with the potential client.  You can’t do that with a tablet–at least not unless you’re independently wealthy.  A physical portfolio never runs low on battery power. A physical portfolio can’t be erased (at least not elegantly) or over-written with someone else’s information. (Also consider the weight factor; you can carry several printed portfolios around before they add up the the weight of a tablet).

So, unless you’re willing to guide the potential client through your presentation on your tablet (awkward at best); make certain it’s clean and clear of finger prints before showing it to client; and you’re only presenting client with samples that are intended for digital presentation I’d stay clear of the tablet presentation for the present.

Plus, I’ve never known anyone to steal an arm load of portfolios at a show (you’d be hard pressed to give them away).  But a tablet is still fair game in the eyes of any pick-pocket.  So take your stress factor into account as well.

In the future–perhaps the near future–the tablet may very well be the means for presenting your work to potential clients, but it hasn’t yet reached that point.  Not in the business of commercial art, nor comics, nor illustration.  Those clients are still looking for originals or printed samples.

For now, leave the tablet at home.


Cartoon and Illustration

Your Portfolio and You (part two: a sketchbook isn’t a portfolio)

Since I got a number of responses from yesterday’s blog, and I had a little time to kill after finishing up today’s work (before running off to tonight’s cartoonists meeting) I thought I’d proceed with my next thought.

That thought is:  A sketchbook is not a portfolio.  Neither is a smartphone.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I enjoy looking at artists’ samples.  It’s what I plan to do tonight–and it’s one of the great joys of my life!  When I’m at comic conventions, cartoonists gatherings, visiting schools, where ever I may find myself–I love looking at artists’ samples–the works of all ages and skill levels.

But there is a great difference between asking to see someone’s portfolio and asking to see a sketchbook.  Some people just don’t get that.  What really gets me is the people who fish out their smartphone (especially if they have one with a cracked screen) to show their samples.

I see a lot of those sort of things at comic book shows.  People who honestly seem to think they’re going to get hired to draw Spider-Man because they showed up with a bunch of loose, dog-eared pages crammed into a folder they bought at Staples (maybe).  I can excuse such ignorance on the part of an eleven year-old.  I was such a person myself at one time.  But by the time one reaches, say, twenty-four–it’s time to get real.

(For the record, I am in no position to hire anyone to draw Spider-Man.  I might be in the position to hire someone to assist me on a job now and then, but thus far no Spider-Man jobs.  So nobody get their hopes up–I’m not.)

I’m a little less disturbed when I encounter the recent graduate who presents a giant portfolio filled with charcoal figure studies–at least the grad has a neat presentation, but when he does this at a comic book show and has no story telling pages I still have to wonder what he’s thinking.

Well, we’ll get to that.  Like I said last time, getting to specifics of a comic book portfolio is like sharpening a pencil.

In years past it was necessary to carry around a large portfolio with originals in it because the artist usually couldn’t afford to make duplicates of all his or her work.  The originals were bulky and difficult to keep organized.  Thank the Lord for recent innovations in desktop printing that have made it possible for artists to inexpensively produce neatly bound, multiple copies of their best work in portable form.

About once a year now I collate my best work from the past couple of years, organize it all into a booklet and have my local print shop make up some booklets of the work to pass around to potential clients.

Sometimes I do one such portfolio for “commercial” clients and a different one for “comic book” clients, because the needs of the two are so different.

There are some similarities, however that work across the board.  I like to make certain that my name, address, phone number, email address, website, etc. are all displayed on each page of the printed portfolio (or in industry parlance, “book”).  Compared to the old zippered portfolio I started out with 30 years ago these books are lightweight and I can carry 20-30 of them around with me to a trade show with no problem (if I’m going to be traveling across the country I usually ship the bulk of them ahead to the hotel I’ll be staying at, but keep a few in my carry-on just in case something untoward happens).

That way, if the potential client says, “Do you have a copy of this I can keep?”  I can happily reply, “You can keep that copy right there in your hands!”  This is what I’m going for when I make a presentation, really.  I want the potential client to ask for a copy.

Admittedly, some folks don’t want to be burdened with a bunch of bulky samples, and so have asked if I have a digital version of the same.  So I have also made up things like thumb drives with the same info on them.  But I suspect that these often get “repurposed”for other use as soon as soon as the client gets home.

Some people seem to think that they can get as much milage out of a good presentation and a business card with a website address included.  But I’m afraid this is another case of out of sight out of mind.  I believe if I can convince a client to take home a copy of my samples I’m that much more likely to convince that person to eventually hire me to do work for them.

This is why a physical portfolio is so important to have, and why having one that you can give to the potential client is equally important.  You can’t expect them to keep your name in mind without a constant reminder–but you can’t be calling them up all the time without risking annoying them, right?

Okay, that’s it for today.