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  • Naomi Blayney

Building a portfolio...when is it good enough?

This is my first blog in about a month. Actually it's longer, it has been two! I've had a lot going on and I think I was a little burnt out so I took a bit of time to rest. I've had my house on the market recently and it has fallen through three times which brings an immense level of stress. Put that together with the year we've all had, a busy day job, two children, an unfinished portfolio and unfinished stories - things easily pile up and become overwhelming.

To help manage my stress I've taken up doing jigsaws. Although drawing and writing stories is quite relaxing to me, sometimes I need an activity that takes no brain power, no imagination and no skill. I'm just matching up the pieces. Of course I bit off more than I could chew diving straight into a 2000 piece jigsaw that now seems to be a new source of stress as it's quite hard after all the obvious pieces are in place. Once I was left with a sea of green leaves and dark pavement it took a while to finish but last night I did it - 7 weeks after starting it! But it focuses my mind and I shall plod on and start the next one. What do you guys do to help you zone out and switch off?

Last weekend I felt able to pick up my pencil again. I'm busy doing the Make Art That Sells Bootcamp course. Having missed a couple of assignments, the latest one is drawing animals which really appealed to me. I gravitate towards children's picture book illustration so the types of assignment that appeal tend to be the ones that lend themselves to picture book characters.


This week's mini assignment is to draw various types of animals - horned animals, burrowing animals, pets, or fish. We chose based on our birthday and mine being January I got horned animals. Luckily, during half term I took my girls on a Scottish road trip to The Highland Wildlife park near Aviemore and then to Edinburgh Zoo so my camera reel is full to bursting with photos of animals. I started with a rhino and am now busy with a giraffe. The main assignment is to use these animals to create a memory card game of matching pairs of animals. With my leaning towards children's book illustration and the fact it's a game for children I tried to make them a little fun rather than realistic. The theme is that all the animals are drinking different types of tea. Here is Rosie Rhino who likes rosehip tea.


My main aim with my art and the reason for doing the MATS courses in the first place is to improve my craft and build a worthy portfolio that I can send to agents and publishers. These are my two criteria for undertaking work - will it help me build my skills and build my portfolio? If not I might put it off until another day. With a very busy life I don't have time to do everything so I must prioritise.

So far I've learned that I need certain things in a portfolio to enable me to get illustration work. Lilla Rogers' frequently uttered phrase ' show the work you want to get' sticks in my head.. If I want repeat pattern work, show a lot of repeat patterns in my portfolio. If you want editorial work you need lots of icons and illustrations that go with an article or a theme. If I want children's book work I need a selection of characters including children, families, monsters, anthropomorphised inanimate objects and animals. I need character pages, vignettes, full page spreads and covers. I have a few people in there so far having been illustrating my stories about my girls. I illustrated a story about a pencil recently for the MATS Illustrating Children's books course so that gives me an anthropomorphised object. I'm yet to do any monsters so that is clearly a gap I need to fill. So far I don't have many animals in my portfolio so this Bootcamp assignment was both practice at drawing animals - working on my craft - and building an essential element of my portfolio.

I chat with other illustrations who struggle to know whether their portfolio is ready to send to agents and publishers. There is no easy answer. For me, because I started from scratch last year I'm far from ready. I know that I haven't completed the essential elements required for the type of work I want to get. But also I know that I don't have enough work. I need several examples of each. I need several different types of people. I need several different types of animals, several different types of monsters and so on. I think to show one of each doesn't show the breadth of ability, imagination and experience. So I know that before feeling like my portfolio is complete I need to fulfil these elements.

But how do we know when we have enough? From the MATS portfolio course I learned a lot about how to present a portfolio on a website and how to present an Instagram page. We are told that for those agents and publishers who like an actual PDF document - they might like 10-12 (more or less) of your best illustrations. For a web portfolio you can clearly have many more than 12 but you must have enough to be able to scroll down the page a bit and see a good selection of work. Your work needs to be of a consistent style and quality so that an art director is confident in what they are getting when they commission work.

I know many people who have enough, well…I think they have enough! They have lots of work that is of excellent quality, but they still hesitate. 'I just need a few more, then I'll be ready'. My advice (based on no experience whatsoever) is to tick the basic elements of the work you want to get and then start sending. A big part of the hesitation is clicking that button for the first time, putting your work and part of yourself out there to be judged. You are inviting the inevitable rejection emails and rejection is hard to swallow. So it's much easier to procrastinate and put off those feelings until another day.

The disappointment of those rejections can be really hard to deal with. You've worked incredibly hard on a portfolio only for someone to dismiss it with a one-liner or worse still a brief note from an assistant. If you're lucky you might get some feedback which will then be immensely helpful in refining and filling gaps. Writers and illustrators have to be very thick skinned. JK Rowling's now famous experience of Harry Potter being rejected by 12 publishers before being accepted should spur us all on. A rejection email doesn't mean your work is not worthy.

As part of my recent learning I've attended several workshops and presentations that highlight the fact that agents and publishers receive literally hundreds of submissions every week. For yours to stand out it must be different in some way. Sometimes you might just hit lucky and your work lands on their desk at a time they have a particular project in mind, or a brief that your work fits. Sometimes an agent or publisher has a gap in a particular genre or illustration style and your work fills that gap. In either of these scenarios, if you'd sent the same work a week earlier or a week later, the response may be very different. Your work could be excellent but they already have a similar artist on their books, or a story that is too similar in development. There are a million and one reasons to get a rejection letter that have nothing to do with your ability as a writer or artist.

We need to rip the plaster off and just get over that hurdle. We can always send an updated version after completing more work. Send it. Send it to others. Send more later. Just click send.

I ripped the plaster off last year with my writing and sent stories to agents pretty quickly. The rejections were tough but it strengthened my resolve to get better then send again. I knew I wasn't particularly experienced so it wasn't too much of a blow. Once I've worked a lot harder refining my stories I might find rejections harder to take. Once I feel like I'm there or thereabouts with my illustration portfolio and my stories I intend to start sending it out to everyone. Then I will cross my fingers and hope for the best. If it doesn't happen I will keep chipping away improving and building until I feel like I have enough new work to send again. In the meantime, I've enjoyed drawing Gemma the Giraffe today.


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