For an Artist the portfolio is the presentation card and summary of her or his career. It is quite a big deal and it deserves time and dedication. Arguably, it is the single most important thing that will get you a job. We are constantly updating this portfolio to fit our goals and needs, and although there are many ways to build a portfolio I would like to share some of my own experiences doing it.
Goals & Context
I believe that it’s good to have goals for yourself. These goals can be broad or specific depending on where do you stand on your professional journey. Regardless if they are short term or long term, the important thing is to have them because they will shape your portfolio. For instance, if you want to become a 3D Generalist your portfolio should showcase variety but if you want to become a UI Designer for mobile apps then you will only showcase the work that is relevant to that field. Another thing to consider is context, as in – the industry within which you practice, or want to practice. Let’s imagine that you want to become a VFX Artist for Film but where you live there is no Film industry. You have decided to get some experience in a local studio and grow from there. Moving to a bigger and bigger studio until your dream comes true. That is a good and realistic plan to have and your portfolio needs to be part of it every step of the way. With every iteration you need to ask yourself if this portfolio is inline with your goals within your current context.
Fig. 1 Demo Reel 2004. Music composed by Pablo Maya.
Back in 2004 I was living in Ecuador and my goal was to become a 3D Animator. I felt that the local industry would not satisfy my aspirations and in order to achieve my goal I wanted to study abroad. My work covered a wide range of disciplines: web, interactive media, print, 3D, motion graphics, illustration etc. I was a generalist because that is what the Ecuadorian industry demanded from me. But I knew that outside this market jobs were more dedicated and specific and I wanted for my portfolio to reflect my aspirations as 3D Animator. I decided to exclude all the projects that were not related to my field of interest. By 2010 I had some experience working in the international market and I was able to showcase work that was more relevant to my job title. Around this time I began working with games and focusing on Motion Graphics and UI. In the following years my portfolio changed dramatically because my goals and context also changed dramatically.
Fig. 2 Demo Reel 2010. Music composed by Pablo Maya.
“Back in the days” we had CD-ROMs and DVDs but today it’s very common to showcase an online portfolio, it’s the easiest way to reach your audience. There are a lot of tools and platforms for this purpose and most of us will have multiple online portfolios. I personally like to have my own website as my primary presentation card but I do strongly encourage showcasing your work in other dedicated services as well. The advantage of these sites is the possibility of networking with other professionals in the industry. Places like ArtStation or Behance are a great choice. There are many others and some of them lean more towards a specific industry like Concept Art, Editorial or VFX to name a few. It can be challenging to keep track of all the places where you showcase work, yet it is very important to maintain coherence throughout your portfolios. In other words: you need to brand yourself. You are a brand and your skills are your product. This is a bit tricky because you want people to be able to recognize you but you don’t want to overdo it.
I built my 2004 Portfolio as a DVD and I decided to create a box for it. I was very pleased with the quality of the packaging and the coherence between the interactive DVD and the physical box. But looking at it today I feel that I went a bit too far with it. It looks like an anniversary collector’s edition of some movie or something. It feels too “important”. The thing with branding is that it cannot shadow the work itself because your work is the important thing, not your logo.
Fig. 3 Portfolio 2004 packaging.
Fig. 4 Interactive DVD Menu.
It’s really challenging to stand out among the crowd. As creative practitioners we are constantly searching for something that will separate our work from the rest. I believe that it’s paramount to become proficient with the skills that characterize your field in order to innovate. When you become an expert in your area that is when you can see for yourself where are the gaps for innovation. For example, if you are a texturing artist then you have to make sure that you can do that job properly first. But once you feel comfortable with this skill then you will have the confidence and expertise to develop your own style or push the technology in a new direction. You will be able to innovate and show originality in your work. Needles to say, it’s the work that has to show originality more than the presentation of your portfolio. Your portfolio can be original, of course, but that originality has to serve the purpose of highlighting your work.
My 2003 portfolio was an interactive CD-ROM and I was really proud of it. But it was difficult to navigate and my work was displayed too small on the screen. Being a huge fan of Cyan’s work I was really inspired by their puzzle games and this inspiration influenced my work, and the presentation for my portfolio. I think that this was the most original portfolio that I have done so far but unfortunately it was more of a riddle than a portfolio. It did not served the purpose of a portfolio, although on it’s own it could have been an interesting project to showcase originality in a portfolio.
Fig. 5 CD-ROM Portfolio 2003.
Quality & Quantity
Your portfolio has to be short and showcase only your best work. A portfolio usually consists of around 20 samples of your best work. Alternatively, a demo reel is usually a one or two minute edit of your best material. It’s important that your portfolio is easy to find once people land on your website. Please do not confuse your portfolio with a list of your projects. A portfolio of your projects – meaning a list of your best individual projects – is not an Artist’s portfolio. There is nothing wrong with showing all your projects on your website but that is not an Artist’s portfolio. Your portfolio has to be one single page, or video, with only selected samples from the different projects that you have worked on. This will make it easier for people to review your work. You have to remember that employers are usually busy and they don’t have time to navigate through all your projects on your website, so you need to make sure that you present your portfolio in the easiest-most-accessible way possible.
I do like to showcase a list of my best projects on my website and I decided to create a section clearly labeled Projects for that purpose and a separate section labeled Portfolio for my Artist portfolio. When I send an application for a job I only send the link to my Portfolio page. There is no need to send more, if they like the work they will look around.
Fig. 6 Projects Page 2017.
This is not a step by step recipe of how to make a portfolio, there are plenty of tutorials for that already. With this post I want to offer a broader perspective of what does it mean to build a portfolio and that is why I haven’t focused on one discipline alone. I hope you find my ideas helpful and please don’t hesitate to send your thoughts.