Thursday, July 7, 2011

portfolio crazy

So I'm betting that any of us who are going to the SCBWI Summer Conference are going more than a little crazy trying to pull together a new, clean, awesome and Very Impressive Portfolio That Will Make Everyone Who Sees It Faint From Your Mad Skillz.

No pressure.
If you're already all pulled together and serenely getting on with your well organized and fulfilling life, I don't want to hear about it.
Lots of portfolio bits all over the floor. Yeah, like that.
So, portfolios. There's a lot of good advice about how to pull one together, what sorts of work you should include, etc. Debbie's own story from last year's convention was a real eye-opener for some of us (myself included). I came away from it all thinking that having and being brave enough to show your own original 'voice' had to be one of the most important factors in getting anyone's attention there.

It's a very specialized thing, this Juried Portfolio review at this particular conference; there are tons of very competent, talented illustrators entering it. There were so many portfolios at last year's event that it amazed and humbled me that the judges managed to even walk by all of them, much less give each one considered thought. What made some stand out and others disappear beneath the noise level? All of those various factors everyone gives advice about come into play, of course: quality work, ability to tell a story, consistent characters, style, ability, presentation. But there's got to be something extra to grab a jaded, tired judge or art director or editor or agent who's wandering through the 10th aisle full of portfolios and just wants to go back to their hotel room and crash. And of course that special extra will be different for each of those people, so it's not like there's a sure-fire answer to what will work.

So I'm going to be blunt and rude and say what nobody seems to come right out and admit: Many, if not most artists try to follow set guidelines with the result that a lot of our portfolios end up resembling each other and they all start blending together for a tired art director who's seen it all. Many of us who went to the same art schools tend to end up with similar looks and subjects and presentations and others can easily spot a characteristic 'look' and quickly and easily dismiss our work. This is regardless of the fact that in almost any other context for a working artist, that particular quickly overlooked portfolio would stand out, showing clear competence and talent. The overall level of ability at this show is exceptionally high and when combined with the extreme specialization for childrens' book illustration, it makes it much harder to stand out. The art schools tend to standardize their approaches, their rules and requirements for a lot of reasons and the end result can be that they tend to turn out artists with cookie-cutter portfolios; they can actually discourage an individual's unique voice, though that's probably not their intent.

At least for me, art school emphasized versatility and marketability for a wide variety of markets, and it worked quite well; I got paying work right out of art school and have been working pretty steadily ever since. My versatility was a huge asset, but it never lent itself well to developing much of my own unique voice, since I was always drawing someone else's ideas. People like me who have worked for a wide variety of clients and markets end up having a diffuse base of subjects in a wide variety of styles that really don't fit this particular Juried Showcase's criteria, unless we work hard to make a specific body of work just for this purpose. And as always, time and energy are in very short supply. Time constraints and wanting to make a body of work for this specific purpose leads right back into that nasty feedback loop of seeking the sure-fire answer to what They are looking for. Which leads back to the question about how you can pursue your own unique voice if you're always trying to figure out what the amorphous They want. The very act of worrying about it really stifles any chance for that quiet little inner voice to be heard; there are so many other factors that tend to drown it out at the best of times, let alone when you're putting your fragile little dreams on display for hundreds of critical eyes. Dance like nobody's watching, as they say. Easier said than done.
Let's just be up front and admit that entering that show is totally intimidating and makes some of us (well, me anyway) seriously decide just about every day for weeks before we commit to it that we're going to just forget it, we're never going to get anywhere with it, we don't need the stress. And actually, that's what Debbie wanted to do last year about this time. And look what happened there- she went ahead and entered, never expected to get any attention, much less win 2 of the awards and get a wonderful boost to the new illustration side of her career. :)

The SCBWI Juried Showcase was a big win for her in many ways, but let me also say that the awards just in and of themselves wouldn't be enough to send an artist skyrocketing into wild success. Debbie is highly motivated, talented, friendly and approachable, very appreciative of mentorship; she's ready and more than willing to work her butt off to maximize any opportunities that come along. Fortune favors the prepared is a cliche, sure, but the bald fact is that Debbie worked very hard ahead of time to prepare for any opportunities that might come her way during the conference, and she also followed through and made very good use of the opportunities that the SCBWI Showcase presented to her.
Debbie with her portfolio at last year's SCBWI.
So, back in my own little hovel, I've been very discouraged about entering, I admit it. I go through this each year I enter, so it's not new. It's hard to be in my own little studio space with nobody but myself to look through all of my work. My tendency is to lose confidence and second guess everything until I'm tied up in knots. So this time around, after thinking about it all and wondering what the heck to do about it, if I even wanted to enter at all (for the umpteenth time), I've decided to just let go of any wishes and expectations from it all. I'll go ahead and enter anyway, but this year I'm not going to worry or try to second guess what anyone wants. Putting together a portfolio can a valuable exercise in letting you look over your own work with fresh eyes and re-evaluate what you've been up to; it's never wasted effort, even if it can be hard on one's self confidence (and one's will to live, but I may be alone in that one).

So, in my attempts to sort through my muddle about this, I've been going through my work and I've discovered that I just don't feel very connected with my illustration work. Some of my illustration styles just take too long to create, some I've outgrown, and let's get real: I haven't had enough time to create a whole new body of work of awesome childrens' book illustrations. My life is just too crazy-busy these days. I love drawing and I'm not going to be giving that up certainly, but then nobody's trying to take that away from me.

So why enter at all? In an attempt to remove my own stubborn blinders, I reexamined all of the images I've been creating for everything I do. And I discovered that I have a whole body of work that surprised me: my photographs. I've been creating a ton of  images in the course of just living life the past few years and some are manipulated photo illustrations and others are straight photos. But overall, the ones I really like seem to have a certain feel and a sort of consistent look. Maybe I've finally found my own voice, I'm not sure. I like them, though, they feel like me in some indefinable way. So those are what I'm going to go with for this particular portfolio. I don't care that there never seem to be any photographic portfolios in this show; there doesn't seem to be a specific prohibition against it. What do I have to lose? It may not fit what various people are looking for, it is very unlikely to get me new work, but that's okay. I can put out a simple portfolio of images that speak for me, and feel like I'm adding my voice to the chorus of talent singing out at this show. I feel at peace about it all for the first time in a long time.



  1. I am so proud of you, and proud to be your sister.

    Go you!

  2. I'm proud of you too, Beckett! And I can't WAIT to see you!!!

    Many hugs.

  3. There's a bunch of us talking about this very thing on Twitter right now, Beckett. This post reflects how we all get a little bewildered, stressed, hopeful, despondant over the possibilities of the Showcase.
    We artists tend to live in our own heads a little too much, I think. I think more of us need to go with our guts more often-especially those of us who have been working at this for a while and know what is expected. The work that would come out of that would definitely ring truer. Way to go with you decision. Can't wait to see the photos in person!

  4. You're so right. The same follows for music, writing - any creative endeavor. We all can get vapor locked trying to meet other people's expectations. I think it's fantastic you've decided go with your own vision - you've won before your work has even judged.

  5. Great reading - and although I am not an illustrator, I also have a 'thing' for my own photographs of life. I love the stories they capture and communicate - even if they're not technically perfect. Go for it! I look forward to seeing 'you' in your portfolio next month :)

  6. Thanks so much, all of you. It's giving me courage to keep going in this direction. It's turning out to be a bit scarier than I thought!

  7. I'm so glad that I found your post! I'm relieved to know that I'm not alone in feeling a bit bewildered and stressed about the showcase. I can't wait to see your photos this weekend! Thank you for sharing your thoughts :)