How to start an Illustration Portfolio – Part 1

For the last few weeks I’ve started sending proposals for freelance illustration work. Yes, sites like and are the bottom of the barrel when it comes to finding freelance illustration (or insert any other field here) work. But after not scoring any work, they’ve also highlighted the importance of having a great Illustration Portfolio.

You can’t use Instagram as an Illustration Portfolio

I’ve been posting my art on Instagram for a few years now. And I feel my stuff is pretty good. But just linking to Instagram isn’t good enough. At least not in the form mine is in.

Illustration Portfolios need to be organised. They need to be consistent. And they also need to have themes. Most people’s feeds however, contain a mix of art, styles and techniques. With no unifying story. And my Instagram is exactly this kind of mixed bag of art, techniques, practice and personal stuff.

The fact is, the industry standard is to have a beautiful, clean, organised page of illustrations. And it’s to be on its own website. Instagram is just no substitute for a portfolio. (Of course, people get visibility and leads on Instagram all the time. But that will direct people to personal portfolio sites.)

That doesn’t mean at all that I’ll stop posting my mixed bag on Instagram. No way. That’s a choice I’m happy with for my Insta. I just need to build up my illustration portfolio. That’s the only way I’m going to start getting work.

But where to start? Well, I’m figuring that out myself.

An Illustration Portfolio needs to be Planned

This is the big take-away. An Illustration Portfolio can’t just be thrown together out of thin air, or a sampling of greatest hits. Unless you’ve already got published story illustrations, you’re going to want to figure out several things. And I’m going to answer these questions myself too.

  • What do I like to draw?
  • What themes do I like in my art?
  • What audience do I like to draw for?

Finding What to Draw

I think people struggle coming up with the what, because there are so many voices telling us what we should create. The truth is though, it’s easy to see what we want to make. Just look at the past!

Looking over my art (ironically on Instagram), I see a lot of human figures from my figure drawing days, animals from my Inktober challenges and landscapes and still-life from my watercolour classes.

I can immediately strike out some stuff. They are fine art pieces rather than illustrations, which won’t serve any illustration portfolio well. But here’s some other thoughts on my Insta posts when I look back.

When I think about actually making the still-lifes, they’re probably one of my least enjoyable to make. When I’m at home trying to find something to draw or paint, I don’t reach for still-life. The jars, shoes and flowers are studies. I create them with other course participants in my watercolour class. And they serve a purpose in practicing techniques and learning how to see. So of course the still-lifes won’t be making my portfolio.

My watercolour landscapes also kind of fall into this category. Ironically, I started watercolour because I needed help with drawing backgrounds. But painting watercolour has helped with so much more than that. I really do enjoy making and practising landscapes. The lessons from painting them are invaluable. But I won’t be including pure landscapes in my illustration portfolio. So they’re out too.

Finally, figure drawing was also fun, but won’t be helpful in my portfolio. I took those lessons to study the human body and anatomy. And while they were incredibly fun to create, they’re also not illustrations.

So now I get to the interesting stuff.

Inktober. That’s when I’m allowed to really unleash my creativity. We’re given a prompt a day, and I drew a bunch of anthro animals, people and funny situations. These are the kinds of drawings and illustrations that I should be filling my portfolio with. And they were of course fun to create!

So I know for my portfolio, this is the kind of work I want to display. Anthro animals, people and funny or quirky situations that tell a story. It’s almost like I’ve already been primed for children’s book illustration 🙂

Next Steps

I can’t just put in my Inktober images one for one. Inktober is of course, an ink challenge. And so I haven’t had the chance to really explore other mediums with those kinds of illustrations. In fact, I haven’t explored many mediums apart from watercolour, pencil and ink.

As part of exploring more mediums, I created a digital illustration of two characters that I’d thought of years ago. A scarecrow and crow duo in a dark world. Check it out!

Scarecrow and Crow stumble upon the Necronomicon. What dark secrets does it contain?

And these are the kinds of illustrations I’ll be exploring more of in the next few months. These kinds of story-based images in my own style.

I’ll be practicing creating more completed pieces. And that’s the difference between Instagram and your own Portfolio. When you know you have to create finished work, you’ll start treating your art with more care. More planning, more care and a greater focus on the end goal – getting illustration work.

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