A powerful portfolio can make a huge impact on your career as an artist. An elegant, clear, concise and consistent portfolio can get your work exhibited, enhance your reputation, expand your market and increase your income. A weak portfolio can literally stall your career. Presentation is important.
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ in art portfolio presentation because each of us is an individual artist with our own special and unique traits, however there are certain things we all must do in order to get noticed. This information is geared to the fine artist who desires to exhibit their work in galleries and other venues. Commercial artists have different needs; unlike the fine artist the commercial artist seeks ‘jobs,’ assignments or commissions whereas the fine artist is usually seeking exhibition venues (usually an art gallery or alternative art space.)
A serious artist needs the following things in one form or another:
· A website
· A physical portfolio in a book or box
· A digital portfolio or DPK (digital press kit)
· Printed ‘leave behinds’
· A positive attitude
· A touch of good luck
The internet has (thankfully) eliminated the need for large, heavy, expensively shipped portfolios. Today our websites are our portfolios. And a website is available 24/7. A website is a super-convenient way to see a body of an artists’ work. And it’s no longer necessary to learn html or hire someone who does to create a website because there are plenty of user-friendly template-based web-hosting services available. Many of these were developed for photographers but they work equally well for any kind of visual artist. For my own website I use Photoshelter. I keep my site pretty basic with portfolios of different styles of work, information about me, a contact page linked to my email address and a link to my blog. If I wanted, Photoshelter offers services to make my website fully e-commerce enabled (to sell art online, direct from my website). I don’t use this feature because my work is available through other online galleries and the simpler website is less expensive (mine is $30.00 per month).
Here’s an abbreviated list of template-based website services:
This is a very brief list, do a Google search to find many more.
You will need these three basic things on your website at the very minimum:
· Portfolio(s) of similar-styled images.
· Information about you, the artist – artist statement, biography or CV.
· Contact information with email and telephone.
You can add other things to your website such as new works, a link to your blog, an upcoming events page, or you can make your site fully e-commerce enabled. I recommend starting with a simple portfolio and adding to it as the need or desire arises. Just be sure to update your website periodically so it doesn’t become a stagnant ‘ghost ship.’ As you go you’ll need to learn about SEO (search engine optimization) and linking your site to others. Your website can become as big and complex as you’d like but, at the bare minimum, you must have an online presence. When you build your website you’ll need to apply your art and design skills to create a good-looking website. Remember, your website is competing against literally millions of other websites!
You’ll also need an actual, physical portfolio when you get the opportunity to actually meet a gallerist in person. This is a collection of images in a book or box. The portfolio book/box is a package that houses the samples of your art product and you’re going to want the nicest portfolio container possible. If your portfolio book/box is cheap-looking, or beat-up, or unwieldly, that’s a negative reflection on you and your work. A beat-up or cheesy portfolio box sends a message that you don’t take your artwork seriously. An elegant, nice book/box says the artworks inside are important and you care and take art seriously. This is simply the psychology of nonverbal communication and we’re all influenced by it!
The artworks inside that book or box are the most important thing you’re going to show and they must be perfect. In today’s art-world you’re going to want to show prints. If you’re a painter or a 3-D artist that means your artworks will need to be photographed. High-quality inkjet prints on good quality paper are fine. Often gallery offices are cramped for space so I recommend print sizes between 8x10 inches and 11x14 inches, anything larger is cumbersome. I print an image size of about 5x7 inches on 8 ½ x11 inch paper. It is important that each print includes your name. When a gallerist goes through your ‘book’ the repetition of your name on each and every print will help them to remember you. (For best results just assume anyone who looks at your portfolio is cramped for space and has a short attention-span.)
Your portfolio should include at least ten, and not more than about twenty artworks. It’s best to leave them wanting more. Be utterly ruthless when editing your works. You don’t want anything in your ‘book’ that requires explaining, or worse, apologizing or making excuses for. Each image must be ‘a killer.’ Do not show anything you don’t want to do or exhibit. For example, say you’ve done one really great painting of an orange, it’s really great so you want to put it in your portfolio however you’d rather paint pictures of bananas. I guarantee if you’re offered an exhibition it’ll be for a show of paintings of oranges and you’re going to hate it! Despite its incredible quality remove that orange print from your portfolio! Only show what you want to exhibit.
Look at all your portfolio prints as a group. You want to ‘pace’ your presentation and try to have one image ‘flow’ into the next. Start and end your portfolio with your absolute best works. If an artwork is really good, but not great, put it in the middle of the portfolio. You want to start with a high-impact image and end the same so you’ll be remembered.
Do not mix a variety of styles or techniques in the same portfolio! This cannot be emphasized enough. If you work in a variety of styles (like, for example, surrealism, realism and abstract-expressionism) create a separate portfolio for each one. Again, this cannot be emphasized enough! If you mix styles or techniques in the same portfolio you will not be remembered for anything. You want the gallerist to remember you as a ‘surrealist’ or ‘abstract painter.’ If you mix styles or techniques you’ll only be remembered as that person who does a lot of different stuff. You don’t want that! You want your name associated with a particular style of art. I cannot emphasize this enough.
You may want a digital version of your portfolio or a DPK, digital press kit to leave behind. For my DPK I bought DVD cases from the office supply store and created my own artwork for the case with my inkjet printer. Then I burned low-resolution images (screen quality, nothing that would hold up to printing large to protect my copyright from theft) on a CD along with text files of my artist statement, biography and resume. Inside the case is a printed table of contents with thumbnails of the images, a page with my contact information and what I’m seeking (exhibition, publication and licensing opportunities) along with my business card. Today CDs and DVDs have fallen out of favor and USB thumb-drives are preferred. You can put the same things on a thumb-drive, minus the need for a DVD case and artwork, and use that instead of a disk for your DPK. When I deliver or leave-behind USB thumb-drives I present them in a gift box that includes my business card. Thumb-drives are small and can easily be lost, that’s why I put them in a box. I also use personalized thumb-drives imprinted with my name and website address.
You’ll also want a ‘leave behind’ in printed form that doesn’t require a computer to view. This is something with a picture and your contact information on it that the gallerist can keep on file. I’ve used direct mail for years as self-promotion so I use those postcards as leave-behinds. I also have a lot of extra gallery exhibition invitations from previous shows and I leave them behind after a portfolio showing as well. The gallery invitation leave-behind also adds credibility, it cues the gallerist that you’ve had prior exhibitions and are experienced. Also remember galleries are usually risk-adverse, they’re more likely to take a risk on giving you an exhibition in their gallery if another gallery has taken the risk first.
If you have Photoshop or Illustrator skills you can design your own leave-behind postcard or flyer. If you’re not comfortable doing it yourself postcard design is an easy job for a Graphic Designer. You can create postcards, flyers or brochures in any size you’d like. Make sure your design includes one really great picture and all of your contact information, including your website (where you want to direct the gallerist to see more of your work). Two quality, low cost – high volume printers I like are:
There are many more of these printers online. Do a Google search and compare prices and products.
Once you’ve got your website online and a collection of samples in print from in an elegant book or box, along with at least one printed sample to leave-behind (and a business card) you’re ready to brave a new world of rejection and start showing your work to galleries in hopes of getting a show. This is where the last two bullet-points on the presentation list come into play:
· A positive attitude
· A touch of luck
A positive attitude is very important because you will be confronted with rejection when you start presenting your portfolio. Most gallerists are passive-aggressive when it comes to rejection – they don’t say it! You’ll know it when they like your work enough to consider exhibiting it but rejection often comes in the form of a blow-off. That means after your portfolio showing you’ll never hear from them again. Sadly, this is normal. To let you down easy sometimes they’ll tell you:
· Not at this time.
· Not the right gallery for you.
· We already have a (fill in the blank, surrealist, abstract painter, etc. etc.)
· No thanks.
All of this is normal so be cool and don’t ‘cop an attitude’ if you’re rejected. Vent your anger and frustration in private.
If a gallerist asks you to come back at a later time with new work by all means do that! This is a test I’ve seen far too many artists fail. It means they saw something in your work, a beginning or a spark of something and they want to find out if you’re committed to your vision. Tell them (but not in a Terminator voice) “I’ll be back.” Then go to your studio and create new works! In six months’ time, go back to the gallery and show (the same person who told you to come back) one or two pieces you showed previously (to re-familiarize them with your art) and then show your new works. Hopefully they’ll respond positively and also see you now have enough works for an exhibition and things will go well for you.
Finally, the last point, luck. ‘Luck’ is an unreliable partner but you can make your own good luck. Sometimes, if a gallerist really does like your work but it really doesn’t fit their gallery, they’ll tell you something like: “This really isn’t a fit for this gallery but you should see so-and-so at such-and-such gallery.” If you hear that, do that! Ask them to make an introduction for you, or at the least, ask if you can drop their name when you go to that other gallery. Anytime someone can ‘open a door’ for you or make an introduction or in any way advocate for you take advantage of it. An introduction is always better than a ‘cold call.’
One last thing about some galleries; they really don’t like dealing with artists. Sorry, but it’s true. And to avoid meeting artists and the inevitable un-comfortability of an in-person rejection they will have an online submission system through their website. Don’t submit to galleries online. Period. It’s like sending your sample works to firstname.lastname@example.org, you’re never going to hear back from them. You’ve been pre-rejected. Don’t waste your time.
Keep in mind that a gallery without art is an empty room but an artist without a gallery is still an artist. The artist can exist without the gallery but the gallery cannot exist without the artist. There has always been more art created than places to show it and the sad reality is art exhibition and sale is a competitive business. If you understand that it’s a business, or more accurately, a game, then you will eventually succeed. But you’ve got to ‘compete’ at the highest level, so prepare your presentation professionally, keep a positive attitude and hope for a little good luck. With a good presentation you will find ‘your people’ and be on your way to an exhibition of your incredible artwork.