It’s official, I’ve started a blog!

Posted: May 11, 2010 in Uncategorized

Be afraid, be very afraid. This will be my random thoughts about working inside the game industry as an art director, concept artist, illustrator, and graphic designer. That said, I’d like to cover something I’m kind of a stickler about and that’s portfolio presentation by way of graphic design.

Every artist needs a portfolio to get work. Every artist has artwork to put into their portfolio, so what should you put in your portfolio, and how should it be presented?

First things first, your portfolio should have only your strongest work. Now what does that mean? If I were to describe it best it would be the pieces that appeal the most to art directors. Why do I say this? Ultimately we’re all striving towards landing that dream gig. You can say, “Mike, I don’t care about landing my dream gig, I just want to create!”. Unfortunately that attitude presents a couple of challenges that you are probably not already thrilled with. The first is that you have a part time or full time job working somewhere you’re probably not excited about going into everyday. All the while you struggle to “Break In” as a full fledged professional and curse said day job. Hell, I’m currently working at Best Buy part time to provide extra income while I work towards seeing my work provide me a full time income.

Digressing, we should all be our own worst critics as artists however, the pieces we decide to include in a portfolio may not be our strongest. This could be for any number of reasons. The primary reason is that we have some attachment to it that mainly exists via the meaning we’ve given to it. It could be something as simple as, “This is the first piece I did for game company x and I’m really proud of it!”. The second you get attached to any illustration you’ve done, you’re committing what I would consider one of the cardinal sins of illustration. This also ties into the kind of work you do that you get defensive about, whether you realize it or not. We can feign being receptive to feedback talking to a particular group of people (art directors, fellow artists we admire, etc.) but the whole time we’re cringing while they tear a piece apart that we have fallen in love with. I’ve been guilty of this in the past however, that exists in the past. The past for me is about 2 years ago when I realized that my work is always going to be hit or miss on some level and that if I take anything personally it’s going to hurt me more than help me. Ultimately, I just love hearing other artists takes on the work I’m doing and figuring out how I can incorporate their experience in my own work.

On the flip side, if we hold ourselves to a standard that makes it difficult to continually produce work then we’re not going to inspire ourselves or ultimately the viewer whose acceptance we continually crave. Let’s face it, we’re all artists because we have visions that inspire us and ultimately it’s something we need to get out of our system and the side benefit is that it tends to inspire others. It’s a great feeling when someone says, “I really love this piece, it made me think of x and here’s what I see.” Living a life that inspires others is not a bad way to live. The fact that you’ve chosen a career that focusses on that is insanely inspiring unto itself. πŸ™‚

So how do you find out what pieces art directors like? YOU CONTACT THEM! I know, it seems like I’m stating the obvious but you’d be surprised how many people invest an insane amount of time into putting together an online portfolio and website and forgo getting any feedback. The easiest (not necessarily financially) way to get that feedback is by taking your portfolio to a convention and weeding out the weakest links.

There is one thing I strongly caution against and that’s getting feedback from friends and family that aren’t artists. They tend to be the most supportive however, they may not necessarily know what works and doesn’t work. If all my drawings of crabs and sea life stuff as a kid that was adored by relatives was the advice I listened to there’d be no way I’d be doing what I do now, nor would I be as thrilled being Wyland pt. deux.

So, now you have all that sweet work picked out and you’re ready to build a portfolio, what should and shouldn’t you do building a site? Don’t throw together a site overnight for a specific job and job title and leave that online. You may ask, “Mike, didn’t you do that?” Yes, yes I did. I still get people looking at my art direction portfolio saying that they love my work when my actual art only comprises 20% of my portfolio since my online portfolio is specifically geared towards art directing RPG’s. There are a ton of skilled professionals that I’ve worked with whose work is in my art direction portfolio. This is something I will be fixing over the next several months.

What else should you not do? Don’t over complicate the layout. Clearly define the different areas of work that you specialize in. i.e. Art Direction (Work I’ve Art Directed by other artists), Concept Art (Characters, Creatures, Mecha), Illustration (characters, creatures, mecha all in scenes together), Graphic Design (Logos, page layout, print advertisement, etc.). That would be how I create the main headers. If I wanted to, I could break each section into various elements i.e. Concepts (Creatures, Characters, Weapons, Vehicles, Environments, etc.) Ultimately I wouldn’t put a section for anything I’m not passionate about. So I’d probably focus mainly on tech and creatures because I have the most fun doing those when it comes to concepts. There’s nothing worse than getting approached to do work that doesn’t thrill you. Likewise for graphic design I’d focus on logos, page layout, t-shirt and other promotional design work. Illustration would be sci-fi since it’s a genre I am passionate about. I do like fantasy, I just found my career leaning towards sci-fi. I’m also a bit of a tech junkie so it works out well.

So you’ve figured out your pieces, how you’re organizing them, and have your url purchased. Now what? Now you dive into adobe illustrator and photoshop and design a solid looking site and create a cohesive presentation for your portfolio. I essentially knocked off design influences in my portfolio from Ashley Wood and Metal Heart. It was quick and dirty and an overnight job but it created a cohesive look that makes it presentable and not just a bunch of random pieces of art of varying dimensions. If I were to redesign it, which I plan to, it would be allot different. I’d put some serious time and effort into branding all my skills and not focussing on one particular skill set. Granted, there’s a little of everything in there, the one lesson I’ve learned is that my art direction portfolio has confused some people as to what is my artwork and what isn’t. The portfolio was primarily designed for print purposes and as leave behinds. It costs $10 for a spiral bound copy of my portfolio with a frosted front and back cover doing a 30 minute print job at kinkos. That’s the portfolio that generated interest for me to do illustration on the collectors edition of Halo Reach and led to my art test which ultimately landed me the job via unanimous decision.

So all that said, the last things you should have with your portfolio is a business card or leave behind if you do get the interview or you happen to run into someone that can help you get a job. This is where having some experience and putting some time and effort into graphic design comes in handy. It’s not hard to find inspiration for business cards either. There’s a series of books called “Best of Business Card Design” by rockport press that will provide you plenty of inspiration. Go into your large chain book retailer store and you’ll find those books in the graphic design section. Grab the most up to date copy, I promise it’ll help.

In closing, your portfolio should be something you put some serious time and effort into if you want to brand yourself effectively. A poorly put together portfolio with amazing art is weaker than a well put together portfolio with solid art. If you show an art director that you put some thought and effort into how you present yourself it will go a long way.


  1. Mark Molnar says:

    Welcome in the blogosphere Mike!
    Great first post and all I can do is absolutely agree with all what you said.
    Looking forward your next post!

  2. Rick Hershey says:

    Great first blog post, Mike. Very informative and insightful, a hard feat to accomplish. I’ll be adding this to my read list. Look forward to more.

  3. Lou Holsten says:

    That’s some solid advice. I can’t stress how important it is to have your work looked at by other artists and not just your friends and family.

    Looking forward to your future posts!

  4. Uh oh! It’ll get into your blood if you aren’t careful. Good advice Mike!

  5. As long as it doesn’t interfere with work right? Thanks for the compliment Jon! I told Rick that the last thing I want is to step on your toes in any way. Then again, my little blog has a long way to go before it could ever match up to Art Order!

  6. Lu Vazquez says:

    Glad to see you blogging Mike! I’m still working on the extensive advice you gave me via email and will be revising my website based on your suggestions there and now from your blog. Best believe I’ll be following this one πŸ™‚

  7. Wyatt says:

    Great first post Mike. I don’t follow many artist’s blogs because frankly I don’t know that many artists who’s work I’ve become sort of intimately acquainted with (Cthulhutech’s something I’ve gotten really close to!). From reading your responses on forums and such, I think you have a lot to say that could be both useful and entertaining. You make a pretty natural blogger, from what I can see.

    Don’t feel like you have to write a lot either. The average blog post is like 500 words.

    One thing that engaged me about your post is what you said about not holding yourself up to a standard where you can’t produce. Artists, both of the graphic and writing persuasions, can be their own worst enemies sometimes. I know there’s been a lot of times where I’ve been unable to write anything at all, even under crunch working for someone, because I become too perfectionist. Ultimately we all have to find a balance where we can do our best work, but still actually be able to work!

  8. Pat Bollin says:

    Lots of great info here. I’ll agree with one of the previous comments, though, that you might want to keep each post around or under 500 words. You could break up a long post like this into a 3 to 4 part series, and use them for several days. It will make it easier to keep up with a “daily” blog, too. Just my 2 cents.

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