Breaking into the Biz

For my first post for Once Upon a Sketch a couple months ago, I wrote about tips on how to build a solid portfolio (Here’s the link). With the relaunch of the site, I figured now would be a good time to continue that theme and so today’s topic will be “Breaking into the Biz”; what to do once you have that portfolio. Although, I think having a strong portfolio is still the most vital part in landing work, having the best portfolio won’t help you one bit, if your work never gets in the hands of the people who need to see it! So here is a list of ways to get your work out there and get your foot in the door:

Digitally – Your portfolio in digital format:

  • Website – In today’s world, it’s practically a requirement to have a website of some kind where you can showcase your work. Not only does a website serve as a digital representation of your physical portfolio, it’s also the most efficient way to reach the masses. Here are a few general ideas to keep in mind when designing your website:
  1. Remember your website is merely a means of highlighting your art, so like your physical portfolio, the art is what’s important! So your site must be clean and simple to navigate. It’s okay to have a few bells and whistles to spruce it up, but keep in mind that people generally have very short attention spans (for instance, mine is about 3 seconds), so if your site takes forever to load because of a fancy animation, it’s not doing you any favors. Also, a good rule of thumb is to make sure your artwork is accessible by no more than two clicks of a mouse.
  2. One of the benefits of having your own website is that you are not limited to 12-16 images. So you can be more liberal about what you want to include in your site. But keep in mind that you’ll want to make sure your best work gets seen, so make sure they are placed where people will see it first.
  3. The style of the site matters too. Meaning the overall look of your site should share a similar style to your art. Not only does it make for a more single, cohesive and harmonious package, you won’t confuse your viewers.
  4. Your work should be categorized appropriately. It seems pretty obvious, but you should definitely arrange your work in a logical and orderly fashion…I can definitely spend all day talking in detail with suggestions about grouping and organizing your artwork, but that could be a whole post in and of itself.


  • Blog – A blog is a good way to interact and connect with people of similar interests. A blog can be your digital journal, where you can write about anything relevant to your craft. However, a blog can also serve as a good addition, or possibly in place of your website altogether. If you happen to be someone who doesn’t have the knowledge or access to creating a website of your own, then you can simply fashion your blog like one. Not only are they easy to design, by creating “posts” that can act as the categories in a website (i.e. portfolio, bio, books, etc.), it can still achieve in getting your work seen.


  • Directories – There are a number of websites out there that specifically advertise to Art Directors and other interested parties. Picture-Book and Childrensillustrators are two that come to mind that cater to the children’s market. For a fee, you can have your portfolio be included. Some of these websites also provide printed material but I will discuss that below in the print category. I personally have mixed feelings about sites like these and their effectiveness. Because of the nature of how these sites work, you are put in a sea of hundreds of other illustrators without much control as to who sees your work. I’m sure if you ask around, you will also find testimonials of illustrators finding work this way as well, so it does happen. I suggest you weigh the cost versus the benefit.


  • Social media – Whether it’s Facebook, or Twitter, or Pinterest, it’s all about getting your name and work out there in cyberspace…cause you never know who’s watching. Facebook for example, has a myriad of groups you can join that cater more specifically to others that share your interests. These can be a great networking tool and a way to direct traffic to your site and ultimately your work. The best part is that they don’t require a lot of work, time or cost on your part.


  • Forums – A forum is an extension of social media, you are again networking, making a name for yourself and getting your work out there with people that share your interest. If nothing else, sometimes it’s just nice to have a place to talk shop, share stories, or get feedback from others that can relate.


Physically – With your bound portfolio in hand:

  • Conferences – For those looking to get into children’s publishing, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is probably the first name that comes to mind. Not only do they hold two big conferences each year, the regional chapters also hold many events in your area. At these functions, you will be able to meet with art directors, agents, other illustrators and other key players in the field. Some of these conferences will even give you an opportunity to sit down face to face with one of these people and have them view your portfolio. Definitely a rare thing in this day and age…which leads me to the next item on the list.


  • Face to face – If you happen to be fortunate enough to be in the position to meet with an Art Director in person definitely make the most of it. Treat it like a job interview, because for us, this will be the closest thing to it . So be prepared, courteous, and most of all, PROFESSIONAL! Back when I was fresh out of college, this was more of the norm; to track down the phone numbers and email addresses of Art Directors you want to work with and try to set up a meeting. I suppose these still can and do happen today, but due to an ever increasing fast-paced world, I would guess most would rather you send them work electronically or through the mail. However, be on your toes! I once had an impromptu meeting with a publisher at a dragon boat race, so you never know when lightning will strike.



Print-based – Snail mail:

  • Postcards/promos – I’m personally a fan of postcards. When it comes to deciding on the art, It should certainly be a stronger, if not the strongest piece in your portfolio. Obviously, your postcard is meant to be a tiny sampling of your collective work and skill set. Choosing a piece that best represents this is critical. Here are some other common questions when it comes to postcards;
  1. Does size matter? Yes and no. Honestly, I think it really comes down to personal preference. And not just the preference of the sender, but also the recipient. I have heard some Art Directors in favor of your traditional 4×6 postcards while others say something larger has more impact. For the sender, the additional cost of the printing as well as the postage is something to consider. Ultimately, regardless of whichever size you decide, it’s about the image you choose.
  2. How often should I send one? Again there’s no written rule here, the consensus seem to dictate somewhere between 1-4 times a year. Personally, I would base my answer on what image I have to use, as well as how updated my portfolio is at that particular time. Let me elaborate; to me, I liken a postcard to a teaser or a trailer to a movie. The goal of a trailer is to amp up your audience before seeing the movie and entice a viewer to then go watch the film. For us the goal is the same, the illustration we choose needs to WOW a viewer and get them to go check out more of our work. So to make it worthwhile, we need to be very selective, otherwise, your card will just get tossed in with the pile of others. Furthermore, you should also consider the state of your portfolio, for instance, if someone sends out 4 postcards a year but fails to update or add more pieces to their portfolio, then you are ultimately selling the same product over and over again. To use my movie analogy, it’s kind of like showing trailer after trailer to someone who has already seen the movie. So you definitely need to ask yourself; is your “movie” worth seeing multiple times. If not, I would make sure you have something new to show.


  • Directories – Similar to their digital counterpart, the premise is the same. You pay for a spot and they include you in their book. Some companies, like Picture-Book, host both a website and an annual printed directory. These directories are sent to all the publishing houses. One trend I have noticed is that with the decline of the economy these past couple of years, the amount of pages these directories hold has also declined. This may or may not be a good thing because now you have less competition, but this may also mean that they might be falling out of favor to some. Again I would weigh cost versus benefit.


So here are my suggestions on how to get your work out there. Of course, these are not to ONLY ways to go about it, I’m sure we have all heard of stories about talent being discovered in the oddest of places. My advice to everyone is to do as much as you can within your budget. But regardless of what you choose, the one thing that holds true about everything I’ve mentioned is that all of it takes a proactive attitude. And once you find some success, this attitude doesn’t change because just like your talent, you have to continue to work and nurture it and continue to get better at it. The reality of it is, there are no secret handshakes and it’s not even about who you know, the formula is simple; create a strong portfolio and then go out there and get it in front of the right people. Good luck out there!


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