Becoming a professional illustrator is a difficult but achievable goal. If you’ve worked hard honing your skills and creating an illustration style, it's time to sell yourself to clients and start working.
Showcasing your hard-earned skills in an online portfolio is the best way to accomplish that. Here are some illustration portfolio tips to help get you hired and working your dream illustration jobs.
"The whole point of being an illustrator and having a successful style is to communicate and connect with others. If our work fails to resonate with others, there is no point." — Tom Froese, Illustrator, Designer, & Teacher
Art by Tom Froese
What is the purpose of an illustration portfolio?
Portfolios are important for illustrators and graphic designers who want to impress potential clients and get jobs. Hiring managers and art directors need to see you can do the job and bring creative ideas to the table. If you're a freelance illustrator, a good portfolio website is even more important because it acts as a primary advertising tool.
Types of illustration portfolios
There are many types of illustration, and each has its own portfolio best practices. Most illustrators specialize in a few types of illustration, so their portfolios need a mix of entries. Here are some of the main types of illustration and what they might require in a portfolio.
📝 Editorial illustrator
Editorial illustrations complement or clarify a body text. Book illustrations are one of the most common forms of editorial illustrations, but they are also used in newspapers, blog posts, magazines, and anywhere text could benefit from more imagery.
If your goal is to land editorial illustration jobs, your portfolio projects should include the accompanying text that the illustration goes with to put your work in context. This tells clients that you can match the tone of the text and tell the story visually.
You want to show you can be given a piece of text and create an illustration that goes with it — not just create a random illustration that doesn’t really fit.
With editorial illustrations, the style choice is based on the text. However, art directors also like to see a consistent style in a portfolio. The best solution to this contradiction is to include portfolio entries where the illustration style and color palette matches the text but there’s a common underlying style too.
Example: You could have an illustration for a mystery short story that’s black and white, dark, and has a more classic style as well as a children’s book illustration that’s bright and colorful. Then you might ensure the two are tied together by line styles or medium.
👩💻 Brand & product illustrator
Product illustration makes products and features easier to understand and adds more enjoyment to the user experience. It can also add a human element to user interfaces that makes processes—from shopping to setting up an app—easier and less frustrating. This type of illustration typically involves abstract characters and basic scenes. Product illustrations in your portfolio should include some context for what they were used for.
Brand illustration typically refers to a set of illustrations that fit a visual brand. They’re similar to icon sets but are full illustrations designed for just one brand.
✍️ Hand-lettering illustrator
Hand-lettering illustrators can help brands stand out and be more recognizable than they might be when using a basic font. A hand-lettering portfolio should appeal to that desire by including creative designs that break out of generic and trendy looks.
You should include a variety of hand-lettering forms in your portfolio, including graphic logos, quotes, and messages as well as hand-lettering illustrations with representational images or scenes. It’s also a good idea to show the lettering design in use, such as a hand-lettered book title in context on the book cover.
📊 Infographic illustrator
Infographics straddle the line between illustration, graphic design, and even data visualization sometimes. Their purpose is to communicate complex topics more effectively than a body of text can alone. Infographic illustration differs from editorial illustration in that the text information and illustration are part of the same design instead of one sitting next to the other.
An infographic portfolio should show visual communication skills as well as design skills. To really be impressive, the entries should tell cohesive stories and make good use of the principles of design to create movement from one idea to the next. You don’t want infographics that look like random bits of information and pictures neatly arranged on the page.
👚 Fashion illustrator
Fashion illustration is used to mock-up fashion designs for brainstorming or presentations. It differs from other forms of illustration in that the illustration is not a final product. The mockups are used to create clothing and outfits. It’s a good idea for fashion illustrators to include the illustration with a photo of the final product in their portfolio.
💡Concept artist or character designer
Concept art jobs are dreams shared by many illustrators. But the broad appeal of this illustration field means there’s a lot of competition when you’re applying. Your concept art portfolio needs to be exceptional to stand out.
Concept art is all about coming up with ideas that enhance characters, stories, and settings. It’s important not to get lost in creating beautiful, detailed character illustrations for your portfolio. You want to show you can generate concepts—not just draft pictures. For example, a set of sketches showing a character in different outfits and doing different things would be better than a high-level rendering of a character’s face.
What clients look for in your illustration portfolio
When hiring an illustrator, clients look for an illustration style that is consistent, versatile, and can match the style of a desired project. They, of course, also want to see quality rendering skills and knowledge and application of the principles of design. An impressive client list with case studies and reviews can also help sway potential clients.
"The hallmark of a good illustrator is their ability to transform a common idea or object into something more symbolic or spiritual." — Tom Froese, Illustrator & Designer
Art by Ada Vishneva
What to include in your illustration portfolio
There are many things you can include on your portfolio website. It’s not like in the past, when all you had was a folder full of drawings. You can really expand on what a portfolio can be, adding everything from blog posts to e-commerce options for selling pre-made work. Here are five of the mainstay elements to include.
✔️ Your best work
Your portfolio should showcase your best illustration work. It should also include work that’s cohesive and has a consistent style. Take time to look through all your previous projects and pull the ones that are truly impressive. The entries don't all necessarily need to be recent work as long as your style hasn’t changed dramatically.
✔️ Case studies
Case studies provide an in-depth look at projects you’ve worked on. They show how you solved creative issues and what thought went into the solutions. Compelling case studies demonstrate you’re a professional and know how to work with clients to help solve their problems.
✔️ About you page
A short biography explaining who you are and what you do is a good addition to your illustration portfolio because it can help create a narrative and make you more memorable. You should include relevant details in your bio. Talk about your illustration education, important influences, and your creative process. Avoid too many unnecessary or irrelevant details. A short, concise, and memorable bio is best.
✔️ Contact information
Making it as easy as possible to connect with you increases the chances of clients reaching out. Include all the best ways to contact you in your portfolio. If you have any relevant social media accounts, include those too.
✨ Bonus: Blog posts
Adding a blog section to your portfolio adds a personal touch that could help you stand out and also acts as a path for clients to discover you. You could include posts about illustration, design, projects you're working on, and tutorials.
Art by Marisa Schoen
How to make an illustration portfolio from scratch
Creating an illustration portfolio is one of the biggest projects you must complete on your path to becoming a professional illustrator. You'll be competing with a huge pool of other beginning illustrators trying to do exactly what you are—and experienced pros as well—so take time to make your portfolio stunning.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating an illustration portfolio from scratch.
Step 1: Choose a format for your portfolio
Figure out how you’re going to showcase your portfolio. Online illustration portfolio platforms and illustration portfolio websites are the most common way to display illustration work. You can still have a hardcopy portfolio to show clients in person, but being online makes it much easier for clients to find your portfolio and get in touch with you. There are a lot of portfolio website builders to choose from, so you can definitely find one that fits your needs.
Create your own portfolio site instantly on Dribbble.Build your portfolio
Step 2: Collect and create work
Take a second to collect all your projects and get an inventory of what you have and what you need for your portfolio. Even old illustration projects from when you were in school could make good entries. Any big projects, like mural paintings, are contenders because they show you can handle a large scope and all the planning that goes with it. You may have to create some new work to fill in gaps in your portfolio.
Step 3: Find illustration jobs to boost your portfolio
Once you have a basic portfolio created, it’s time to start leveling it up. Getting some freelance illustration jobs from real clients to add to your portfolio can make it look more professional and result in landing bigger and better jobs — which you can then use in your portfolio. Keep that cycle up, and your online portfolio could be filled with impressive entries.
Step 4: Create case studies
If you’ve worked on some impressive projects, use them to create case studies on a dedicated project page. Case studies are a powerful way to boost your portfolio and take your illustration career to the next level.
How to craft a compelling illustration case study
A compelling case study tells a story. You want the reader to get drawn into and excited about the process. It should also paint you as a creative problem solver and master of visual communication. Include details about what you did and how that met the client's needs.
Case studies are where you get to explain all the work and thought that went into your projects. They show clients what they’re paying for when they hire you.
Illustration case study example
McDonald's: The Last Straw Illustration by Ray Dak Lam
In Ray Dak Lam's illustration case study for McDonald's, the illustrator does a fantastic job at telling the story behind the work. Ray highlights the goals of the project, his creative process, and the final results of his work.
Creative illustration portfolio examples to inspire you
Looking at what other people have made is a great way to get your creative juices and motivate yourself to create a stellar portfolio. Study the best illustrator portfolio websites and illustrator portfolios to see what works well and get some ideas for yours.
Here are three top designer portfolios and what makes them good.
James Round, Editorial & Infographic Illustrator
James Round is a freelance illustrator specializing in vector-style editorial and infographic illustrations. His online portfolio includes a large range of illustration types with different audiences, moods, and purposes but maintains a consistent overall style. He also makes use of case studies to add a story element to his portfolio.
"I created some self-initiated projects that were longlisted in the Information is Beautiful Awards, and soon after that, I started to see requests come in from clients. Since then, I’ve created data visualizations for clients like the BBC, WIRED and Norwegian Airlines." — James Round
Gloria Shugleva, Multidisciplinary Illustrator
This illustration portfolio website uses small animations to make it more fun and engaging. Gloria Shugleva is a graphic designer and illustrator who works on a variety of platforms and sells products in a few different places, so she links to everything on her website. This makes her website both a portfolio and a gateway to all the ways you can work with her or buy her products.
Art by Gloria Shugleva
Radostina Georgieva, Product Illustrator
Radostina Georgieva’s portfolio includes entries that are all in a similar style and specialization but are done in a variety of mediums. She also makes use of a clear and concise brand statement — “helping companies tell compelling visual stories” — to sell herself and communicate her value to clients.
"When working on a commission, my process always starts with a discussion around the goals of a project and the expected results." — Radostina Georgieva
Art by Radostina Georgieva
Visualize having your dream illustration job
Sometimes a dream job can feel like just that — a dream. It can be hard to see yourself actually doing it. But there are tons of successful illustrators, and it’s a goal you can achieve if you put the time in. Get inspired by illustrator success stories to visualize yourself doing your dream job. We can't wait to see your creative illustration portfolio!
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