5 Ways For Your Portfolio to Standout at a SCBWI Showcase

When it comes to getting work illustrating for the children’s book market, a strong portfolio at a SCBWI event can leave a lasting impression. But if you’re uncertain how to leave that impression, I’ll answer 5 questions that might help.

1) What kind of portfolio case should I use?

Before anyone sees your illustrations they see the portfolio case. Personally, I believe first impressions are important and I'd like my audience to know immediately what level of work they can expect from me. It's very common to see a simple black case, and if you want to go that route it's completely fine. But if you want to stand out and start selling your work and telling your story from the moment someone sets their eyes on your portfolio, there are plenty of other options available for you.

I've heard many times that you should start creating the work you want to do even before you're hired. Personally, I don’t want to only illustrate interior book pages, I want to create covers as well. So I thought: Why not create a cover for my portfolio that will show Art Directors that I can illustrate covers as well? I created a sleeve for my portfolio that mimicked one you would find on a hardcover book. I even included a title on the spine and an author bio on the interior flap.

For me, this was the perfect idea that felt like it fit in with my work and ambitions. But this isn’t the only option out there. Maybe your work is earthy, and often uses nature as a subject. Then a nice wood case that feels like it sprouted from your art might be more fitting for your style. If your work is more handcrafted then perhaps your portfolio should feel more handcrafted as well. You get the picture; take some time to discover what case would best represent your work, while maintaining a professional appearance. Just make sure you read the guidelines for the portfolio showcase before you get to work. Each event has different guidelines for the size and format of what’s allowed.

2) How many pieces should I include?

Between 10 and 12 pieces is usually the perfect number. There aren’t any rules dictating how many pieces you have to include, but this number is often enough to prove that you can do work at a consistently high level. Also, your portfolio is only as good as your worst piece, so there’s no need to include everything you have.

A good time to go over this number is if you have different sections to your portfolio. For example, you may include picture book work and middle grade book covers. These are for two different audiences and they may be done in very different styles. You will definitely want to separate these two sections in your portfolio; 8 to 10 pieces for each would be an appropriate number. This could leave you with 16 to 20 pieces altogether.

3) What kind of pieces should I include?

I will create a list of things you could consider including within your portfolio, but most importantly you want to make sure you're including the type of work you actually want to create. If you want to illustrate picture books, include pieces that look like they were just ripped right out of one. If you want to design young adult book covers, then make sure you're displaying that. The same can be said for the genre and the subject matter you love depicting.

But if you want to diversify your work and show Art Directors that you’re willing to illustrate the gamut of subject matters, here’s a list that you can use to help cover as many bases as possible. It's okay if you don't have everything on this list, and you can certainly include multiples items on the list in one illustration.

  • Repetition of a character to show consistency

  • Different actions and emotions

  • Interior and exterior scenes

  • Different times of the day

  • Landscape scenes

  • Modes of transportation

  • Animals

  • Children around the age group you're illustrating for

  • Adults

  • Different seasons and types of weather

  • Varied compositions

  • Diversity

  • Black and white illustrations

  • Different inanimate items

  • Tell a story (It’s very helpful if you can have several illustrations to prove that you can tell and pace a story through multiple pages.)

A few things that should not be in your portfolio:

  • Licensed characters (Don’t draw characters that belong to someone else, like Peppa Pig, Donald Duck, or Pete the Cat. You want to show that you can create your own strong characters.)

  • Sketches (Lets keep it to your best, finished work.)

  • Unrelated art (Don’t include work that is clearly not created for a children’s book audience.)

  • Old work (It’s okay if you have a few fantastic pieces that remain staples in your portfolio, but you need to be updating regularly.)

4) Can I use different styles?

If you're like me, then you're fond of different styles and may have a tough time narrowing yourself down to one recognizable style. My art is starting to look more unified, but occasionally I still feel a piece would better reflect the story in a different style. I don't want to sacrifice what’s best for the story just so I can maintain a distinct style, so I don’t. It's fine to have just one style and it’s fine to have multiple, there’s no right or wrong answer here.

But I will give you a warning that you should consider before creating a portfolio that looks like it could be a collage from different artists. Imagine you’re an Art Director; you’re taking a chance on every artist you hire. You use the artist’s portfolio as a guide, so you can imagine what the finished pieces of the book will look like. If all of the pieces in a portfolio are wildly different from each other, then it’s harder to predict what the finished work will be.

Don't feel like you have to confine yourself to one particular way of creating art or risk never being hired. But when you do include more than one distinct style, ensure that you’re depicting that style consistently through several illustrations to prove that you’re capable of completing a full book with that appearance. I’d recommend limiting your style to only 2 or 3 approaches. With more than that it would be difficult to prove your competency in each without your portfolio becoming too large.

5) In what order should I arrange my portfolio?

When you’re putting your portfolio together you want to think of it as a compliment sandwich. You start with one of your best pieces and end with one of your best pieces. You also want to sprinkle your good pieces in between your weaker pieces.

Another thing to consider when deciding the order of your illustrations is that you want to keep styles together if you’re including more than one. This also goes for separating your portfolio for different audiences. Baby board book pieces shouldn’t be mixed in with illustrations for older children. Try to keep your portfolio organized and well-thought-out.

You can also pace your portfolio like you might pace a book. If you have a few highly detailed, action-packed pieces in a row, you may want to include a more serene, calming piece to allow the viewer to breathe before you hit them with another intense illustration.

Don’t forget to bring business cards and postcards to display next to your portfolio. I also like to bring post-it notes and a pen for feedback. Sometimes the showcases will supply these on the table for you, but I like to bring my own just in case. This is a perfect opportunity to find out which pieces are really striking a cord with your audience. You may be surprised by what you discover. Before you leave out anything, make sure this is allowed at your event.

Even if you don’t feel like your work is at its best and you don’t have time to perfect it, I would still suggest entering what you have. Achieving perfection is an impossible task. If you keep yourself from entering because you don’t think it’s good enough, then you may never enter. It can be a good exercise of bravery to put your self out there. Think of it as a learning process and ask for feedback so that way you can make your next SCBWI portfolio showcase that much better.