Getting Started in Children's Book Illustration: What Needs to Be in my Portfolio?

Getting Started in Children's Book Illustration: What Needs to Be in my Portfolio?

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In Getting Started in Children’s Book Illustration, I’m answering your questions about getting started in this field.  Submit your questions via email or check here to read answers to previous questions. 

In this installment of Getting Started in Children’s Book Illustration, we’re tackling the question: What kind of work should I have in my portfolio?

So let’s chat about creating a beautiful, well-rounded portfolio for children’s book illustration.  If you’re brand new to this business, you have the exciting yet daunting task of thinking up enough ideas to showcase on your portfolio site.  Let me help you with that!

Don’t Worry About Specific Trends

You’ll drive yourself batty trying to keep up with every fleeting trend, so if that’s not your jam then don’t bother with it.  If you’re lucky, a trend might line up with your interests anyway!

I think more than focusing on what’s trendy, it’s important to focus on telling a story with your art and showing that you can create consistent, pro-level work.  And if you also happen to love drawing unicorns or whatever, then cool, create some art around that trend.  If not, then don’t worry about it. 

Do Create Pieces You’re Passionate About

This feels so obvious now but when I started working on illustrations for my children’s book portfolio, I felt that I should create certain illustrations to fit in certain categories. My opportunities illustrating children’s books blossomed when I started illustrating what I was passionate about: animals. 

Make work that you love.  That’s probably going to be your best work anyway, right?

Don’t Include Things You Don’t Enjoy Drawing

Don’t enjoy drawing bicycles and horses? Then don’t include illustrations with those subjects in your portfolio. 

Take it from a lady who doesn’t enjoy drawing vehicles but recently finished not one but two books that featured vehicles, you can’t escape your illustration nightmares forever, but you can still make your life easier by not including those things in your portfolio. 

If you couldn’t stand drawing a particular subject for 32 pages over the course of 12-18 months, you probably shouldn’t include it your portfolio. 

Do Post Your Best Work

Again, this goes without saying, but here I am saying it.  Your portfolio needs about 12-16 pieces that represent the best you can produce.  If you’re sharing mediocre work, art directors will feel cautious because they know if they hire you, that even though your portfolio has a few gems, you might produce work on that mediocre level. 

Editing your portfolio to include only your best pieces might mean that you start out with less than 12 pieces.  That’s ok, because you can continue to work and add new pieces along the way. 

Don’t Have Too Many Styles

If you’re showing too many styles and mediums, chances are your portfolio won’t look polished, professional, and cohesive. 

Most of us have one style that we lean into and that’s the style you should be showing, the style that you want to work in.  Just because you’re good in several styles or several mediums doesn’t mean that they are appropriate for your children’s book portfolio. 

If you truly believe you have 12-16 pieces of pro-level work in my than one style, I recommend organizing your portfolio site, so you have one portfolio page for each style gallery.  Keep it organized and easy to navigate. 

Do Show a Variety of Illustration Types

Your portfolio should include full spread illustrations, vignettes, and spot illustrations to showcase your ability to tell visual stories in all three formats you’ll use when illustrating children’s books. 

Do Show a Variety of Expressions

You’ll need to show that you can illustrate one character consistently in a variety of poses and expressions. 

You can do this by illustrating 2 or 3 scenes featuring the same character or by illustrating a sheet of one character in various poses and with various facial expressions. 

Do Include Varied Subject Matter

It’s helpful to include illustrations of animals as well as people and to showcase a variety of age and diversity as well.

Don’t forget to include beautiful environments and detailed settings too!

Do Include Action and Narrative Detail

Heck yes, it is so much easier to just draw a cute character standing around being cute, but art directors are looking for illustrators who can tell a story with their art. 

Take the time to focus on narrative details, interactions between characters, interactions between characters and their environments, and conveying a sense of emotion. 

Do Build a Portfolio Around the Types of Books You Want to Draw

If you want to illustrate board books, that’s the kind of work you need to show.  Want to draw middle grade chapter books? Cool, then your portfolio needs to have age appropriate characters illustrated in black and white as well as color. 

Not sure yet what type of books you want to illustrate? Head to the library or bookstore to browse the children’s section and get a sense of where your work will fit best. 

Do Include Bonus Skills

If you’re good at drawing maps or doing hand lettering or anything else that can be used in illustrating children’s books, include that in your portfolio as well.  Those bonus skills can make your work even more appealing to art directors. 

Do Revise Your Portfolio Often

Check your portfolio at least every other month to see if anything needs to be removed or updated.  Maybe you’ve created new pieces that you prefer, and you need to do a little portfolio shuffle, removing old pieces to make way for new. 

Your portfolio isn’t static and will be constantly evolving as your work evolves. 

Got questions about building a portfolio for children’s book illustration? Leave them in the comments below!

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