Your Artist Portfolio: What's in the Bag?
Updated: Jun 1
How to populate your art portfolio, where to showcase your work and how to keep evolving?
Modern Times for Artists
Gone are the days when artists peddle for their art while carrying that big flat black portfolio bag and hopping from one gallery to another. Unless you live under a rock, we are in the Internet age, baby! Although, I did have to carry that damn A1 sized bag to one artist's studio in Dubai, who wanted to see my physical work. Indulging such request or requirement is not a bad thing if you end up getting a job offer anyway. Unfortunately I had to decline in the end for we were leaving the city soon.
What you need nowadays as an artist is an online presence. You just need to show up with what you have. That's it! That is the main takeaway from this post. But I won't stop here, of course. So read on and find out how to present yourself as an artist, where to present your work and how to keep on evolving.
What you need nowadays as an artist is an online presence.
Social Media is just a rental space
In light of recent horrific events in Russia, the government shut down Facebook and Instagram to prevent the real truth of their aggression to Ukraine reaching their citizens. A lot of Russian influencers, whose main venue are these social media platforms, cried in protest for losing their followers and income because of one autocratic government's mandate.
Also, what if your account gets hacked? Hacked Instagram and Facebook accounts is not an urban legend. If this unfortunate thing happens your only option is to start all over.
Although social media is such a powerful medium for any visual artist, it should not be the main stage for your portfolio. Obviously there are numerous reasons why you should be on Instagram or Facebook or TikTok and so on, but you are not in control of these platforms except for the images you post there. They say the algorithms dictate who gets the biggest viewer counts. Well, yes, but who makes these algorithms? People make it sound like these codes are some god-like powers that be controlling humankind. Behind those codes are the humans that run the companies whose backbone is to capitalize on excessive human consumption of information and entertainment for their own gain. They (including governments) could switch off that application anytime there is a change in trend or economic state of things or a much better business opportunity for them. And where does that leave you and your body of work perfectly laid out on your profile with a thousand plus followers? How will your followers find you now?
Your Website is Your Home
You need a base. A default space where your people and potential followers could find you. And that, my friends, is a website.
Yes! Get a website. I could not emphasize this enough. There are numerous options out there even free ones. Note that free sites have limitations in features but it is still a good start. If you have a little budget to spare, buy your own domain. You may only need to spare more or less USD20 a year. Having your own domain is like having your own landed property. It belongs to you—your unique you.
Think of your website as your home and your home is a representation of your character, tastes and everything that is important to you. Your online portfolio through your website has more or less the same status. This is where you house your best work—your most recent piece of art that you have labored with blood, sweat and tears that your visitors will have a pleasure of viewing. So isn’t it just appropriate to tidy up and make it welcoming to your guests?
Furthermore with the house analogy… let’s say you have guests for dinner. What do you do? You prepare a menu, possibly you think of a theme for the occasion, you send the invites, shop, cook and prepare your home just in time for the first guest to arrive. Obviously you don‘t have parties at home all year round but your website in this case is different. You don’t know when the guests will come. So you always have to be prepared by maintaining a presentable space.
Think of your website as your home and your home is a representation of your character, tastes and everything that is important to you.
KISS Your Portfolio
As I said, just like the house party example earlier, you need a plan for your online presence. What is the site about? Who is your audience? What is your design? And how to design?
As a visual artist, whether a pro, an aspiring artist or a student, you need a portfolio to present to specific audiences. If you are a professional artist, you need to attract potential clients and so a well tailored and easily accessible site is ideal. Remember to keep it simple, sweetie! You need to consider that clients such as art directors, publishers or art buyers have very little time to spare. They have hundreds of artists to check out in a work day maybe. Therefore they know what they want and they need to find it right away so they could move onto the next task. If you think about it, everybody is time poor! We scroll and pause if something catches our attention and then move on. My social media coach reminded me often that you only have 1-3 seconds window of opportunity to get a person to follow you. Maybe even less so now.
Remember to keep it simple, sweetie! You need to consider that clients such as art directors, publishers or art buyers have very little time to spare.
Therefore you need to make the most impact as soon as they enter your house door, your landing page. First you need to decide what kind of art you want to show your audience. When I worked on my first website design in 2018, I only had personal artworks. There was no structure even on the body of work that I was producing. That was sufficient in that stage of my art journey and also for you. You will grow your portfolio the more you make art. Once you have enough—hang on, what is enough, you ask? Choose the best 15-20 pieces that represent the kind of artist you are. Be your own curator. You might be tempted to place everything there because you are so proud of what you have accomplished and you have every right to be. Remember I told you I had to carry an A1 portfolio bag to see a potential employer in Dubai, right? Imagine your landing page as that bag that you would have to drag everywhere. You cannot pack in all the paintings you have made but just the best ones that would fit, right?
Curate, curate, curate
The above slideshow display the versions of my landing page from 2018 till present. Sometimes you only need one great landing page where the site visitor could see everything you have done so far. Everything else after that are extra toppings. If necessary and depending on the kind of art you make and the type of audience you want to reach, you can also categorize your pages according to the following:
Main gallery of your body of work preferably in grid layout (this is your landing page)
Other type of art genre (i.e. Graphic Designs, Paintings, Illustrations, etc.)
About and Contact
Extras (i.e. Sketches if a student, or Process just for fun!)
The only pages you really need is the main gallery as your landing page with your logo and your contact info so people could reach you. You noticed I have combined the About and Contact pages into one. You want your site visitor to stay as long as possible on one page and your website overall. You are also doing them a favor by not asking so much of their time. They want to see your artwork and want to know how to get in touch with you and maybe know a little about your background and your personality when they see your friendly portrait.
In the history of my website, I have had 3 major versions before this present one you are visiting right now. The first one was an edition of the Wix template but with a minimalist approach and a few animations that led you to a scrolling gallery page that further led you to the categories of my body of work. It was a rabbit hole! I later modified the landing page by replacing the tiger with one of my favorite artworks, "Village Guardians" as a personalized splash page but still utilizing the scrolling pages that is now annoying me!
After learning about curating my website through the Make Art That Sells Portfolio Review online course (highly recommend!), I finally reduced my pages and categories to a Gallery, About and Contact, Blog and Shop. I still have an artwork that I created especially for the landing page, which also featured my new logo. This made entering my website feel like you are setting foot into a whimsical world, where my artistic style was headed and a prelude to my children's book illustration aspiration. It stayed like that for quite a while until I ditched that landing page and went straight to the main gallery in a grid layout. It was refreshing and a lot easier to navigate!
It always helps to see what other artists are doing with their own websites. You learn a lot especially from the successful ones. What is something similar with those artist portfolio websites that works for them and at the same time what makes them unique? Will it also work for you?
Take a look at your favorite artists as well and identify what it is that attracted you to them other than their artistry. The more you inform yourself the better you will have a fine tuned direction of your own online portfolio.
I was fortunate to have my website singled out in a couple of sites as an example of an online art portfolio. Wix enlisted my site as one of the 20 Outstanding Art Portfolios of 2021 out of their numerous website hosting for artists. My website around that time was still on its 2nd version with the splash page described above. Here's what Wix had to say about my site:
Using your own artwork as a background on your website is a common practice when creating an art portfolio website. In Michelle’s case, a personalized splash page showcases an illustration of hers, giving visitors an exciting introduction to the artist’s expressive world. At the center of her homepage, Michelle’s intricate logo functions as a customized button, providing a gateway to the rest of the site. The image itself is a great representation of her art, and it's deftly re-used as a well-designed favicon to give her site a professional boost.
Meanwhile Skillshare included me in the 13 Inspiring Art Portfolio Examples That’ll Help You Create Your Own and highlighted on my whimsical approach to my presentation:
Michelle Carlos’ whimsical style is clearly displayed in her vibrant website, showing her range of illustration abilities.
Both unsolicited but very much welcomed reviews of my portfolio focused on how I personalized my website that really represented my style and abilities. So think about how you could make your site 100% YOU.
Website Hosting: Which one?
A lot of the website providers such as Wix, Squarespace, etc. have intuitive templates. You only need to feel in the blanks without coding. The less time you require in building the website the more art you could make, right? There are a lot more providers out there for the picking. So I ask you to do your research as well.
Once I have decided on which provider to use, I paid for a discounted premium package that would allow me enough freedom and flexibility to manage my website, bought my own domain and then began with the designing of my online portfolio. To make it easier, I chose a free template from Wix that I later on tweaked that it no longer resembled that original template I began with. The only thing I retained actually was that wiggly blue arrow at the bottom to help you navigate the site. I dedicated a full week to finish my site before I launched it in February 2018.
Wordpress in my opinion is more advanced but doable if you can code and have the patience and time. If you have an Adobe subscription then you might want to also check out their own website designing program, Adobe XD.
Techie Stuff: Analytics and SEO
I find it helpful to check my analytics every now and then to see how my website is growing in its reach especially after I launched a newsletter campaign. Basically, your site's analytics is a collection and systematic analysis of statistical data pertaining to your website's traffic. This likewise gives you insights about your site's performance that will help you determine what to do next. I don't know all the technical jargons there but I understand enough to know who are my market group, their geographical location, best and lowest time of visits, and which page or posts are the most and least popular. I don't sell anything on my site, so the business features are somewhat irrelevant to me. However I noticed that visitors come and return to tutorial blog posts and therefore I might create more similar content. For example I noticed that one Blog post of mine about my project Global Patterns is particularly popular in Google classrooms and in some school sites in the US. This could mean that posts like this benefit educational institutions in some way and that I am contributing to some people's education. All of those information are crucial for me to determine how I could improve my site activities further.
Moreover, take advantage of your site's SEO or search engine optimization tools to help you drive traffic to your website. Again you need not know all the technicalities but by simply inputting some more data at the backend of your site you could boost its visibility to search engines. Think of it as a ladder that takes you higher in the search rankings. You want to be seen.
Remember also that everything is interconnected. For example, I noticed an unusual positive activity on my site. By using the data in my site's analytics, I was able to track where the traffic is coming from. It turned out that those posts by Wix and Skillshare drove traffic to my site by the thousands. How was I able to track those posts? Since I took the time to fill in my SEO, if I type my name on Google, my website is the first hit and then all the relevant links also come up. Simply put, it is similar to hashtagging your website so Google could find you. It's free advertisement for me and a good sign that this site is being seen and is growing.
Put all your best work that represent your art on your homepage and then entice the visitor to see more in your other pages.
Your Website Must Evolve
Did you know that the colors and patterns of flowers are meant for insects? Bees and butterflies and even birds, for example, see colors beyond what normal humans see and so flowers evolved in such a way to optimally attract their potential pollinators. When viewed in ultraviolet light those colorations on flowers radiate and are so enticing and conspicuous in the eyes of bees that they have no choice but land on the flower, gather nectar and eventually pollens that they would carry around with them as they hop from one flower to another.
If you have a website already let it grow. Update your portfolio every now and then. Do a little housekeeping by weeding out the old pieces that may no longer represent your body of work. Be brutal. Do this every 6 months or longer. Add a new category if it's becoming cluttered but focus on quality. Remember that visitors prefer scrolling more than clicking. Put all your best work that represent your art on your homepage and then entice the visitor to see more in your other pages. If you specialize in children's books illustration then showcase your best kidlit art. If your focus is commercial work like packaging and advertising graphics then present those that fit the category. If you want to reach more clients and not just be pigeonholed to one genre, then have a general category like "Illustrations" for kidlit, and editorial pieces and one for "Designs" for home decor, surface patterns and typography similar to how I do it on my website. Let the potential client see your range and they will do their part in finding the best artist that fits the job. You will know that you have convinced them when they get in touch with you. In the end though you will decide on the kind of work you want to attract and do, so the least you could do is dress accordingly for the interview.
Once you have pimped your site, you are now confident enough to spread the word so include your website link to all your communications such as E-mails and social media profiles and posts. For example when you post on Facebook about your art, include your HTML just like leaving breadcrumbs so people who want to work with you would easily find you.
Last Note: Be Serious
Months ago, I have received an email from a student in a design school in UK who wanted to know how she could present her online portfolio. I replied I would be willing to help her if she answered a few questions while I have my lunch first. I did not hear from her again, which made me wonder how serious she was with her query or if I sounded like a jerk.
Look, if you are serious about your career and do not know how or where to start, give me a buzz, and I will be happy to help if you think these tips and tricks here are still lacking. It is always good to have someone objective and outside your circle take a look at your work. There is no reason to be scared. I am in no position to judge. Hey, I was also on your spot before. All the best!