Ask an agent: How to create an attention-grabbing illustration portfolio

Starting out as an illustrator can be seriously daunting. You figure out how to draw hands and manage all the Procreate layers – that should be the hard part, shouldn’t it? Nope – the true hard part is making this passion a business (but it is totally possible, by the way).

There are many ways to make money as an illustrator, whether that be by illustrating beautiful books, by opening an indie online art shop, making commissions, or licensing illustrations for greeting cards, toys or other products. For many, the first step towards making this dream a viable career path is finding an agent.

Agents aren’t as scary as they sometimes appear in films and books. Their job is to look after you, your contracts and invoices, help develop your style so it is always on trend and current, and consequently land you work with dream clients. They maintain ongoing relationships with your client so you don’t have to: your job can be solely focussed on illustrating. Agents are wonderful. The tricky part is finding one, and that’s when your portfolio comes into the picture.

What is a portfolio?

A portfolio is a selection of your very best work. This is what you use when seeking an agent and what agents will then use to present you to new clients. Your portfolio is your moneymaker, so make it count!

And now, the question I get most asked on my TikTok account

What should I include in my portfolio?

The quick answer to this is: anything you want, really. There is no hard rule. There are, however, some strategic elements you can include to showcase your work at its fullest.

  1. Full-spread scenes:

In publishing, these are often called doubles, double-spreads (because in books they traditionally consist of two facing pages), full spreads or full-bleed spreads. These are usually considered the real showstoppers of your portfolio and they should show how much detail and depth you can convey in one piece.

An important thing to keep in mind when working on full-spread scenes is composition. Make sure it feels harmonious and easy to absorb. A great trick I discovered via the amazing Tim Budgen’s Twitter is using triangles. Chris Schweizer on the other hand has written extensively about tangents. Both these elements help you process an image more easily.

  1. Vignettes

Vignettes are also called ‘spot illustrations’. You will have seen many vignettes in children’s books for slightly older readers – think of them as small scenes that pull out details of what is going on in a story. You can obviously be creative and make them colour or black and white!

  1. Character studies

Character studies do what they say on the tin: they show you a character in different situations, usually ‘wearing’ different emotions. You can explore a character going through all the feelings – joy, sadness, excitement, frustration, anger, worry… it’s up to you! And make sure you are showing a fully developed character: it will give editors and art directors an idea of how deep you can dig into their soul with a wide range of facial expressions and body poses

  1. Book cover samples

I’ve not seen that many of these, but if you want to be a fiction illustrator you should consider adding some cover samples to your portfolio. Something you will really need to keep in mind when doing cover samples is the market – go into a book store, see what’s on tables, see what works and then do it better.

If you include a bit of all of these things, you have ticked your first box of varying your portfolio.

  1. Seasonal pieces

In book publishing, there are key selling opportunities, usually based  around celebrations and events. Think Christmas, Easter, change of season, New Year, Halloween. If you can create pieces around some key events in the year, that will give you a better chance of getting commissioned for books that will inevitably get published. Editors and designers will be on the hunt for samples in that space.  

Now, what should I illustrate if I want to be a children’s illustrator?

There are some forever-trending characters, objects and concepts you could include which in publishing we call high interest elements. Some of these are:

  • Dinosaurs
  • Unicorns
  • Dragons
  • Airplanes
  • Sharks
  • Smells, poos, wees (these might not be for everyone but are hugely a hit with children!)
  • Family members (mums, dads, grandparents)

And remember, the world is beautiful and varied, so make sure you are representing it! Representation and inclusion matters – children from every background need to see themselves reflected in the world.

My parting words of advice are to only include work you are truly proud of and things you’d actually enjoy illustrating. Don’t include a unicorn just because it’s trending – if you get a whole book full of unicorns to illustrate, then you will be miserable! If you want to illustrate picture books, do a sample picture book cover; if you want to work on fiction, pick a sample middle-grade book instead. Do what you would love to be paid for.

Once you’ve compiled a portfolio that represents the best of your art, across a range of styles suited to your potential clients, you’ll be in a great position to get an agent and build a strong career as an illustrator. And of course continue to update your portfolio as you develop and create new pieces, even once you are working with an agent!

Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions, but for now, let’s illustrate!

Chris Modafferi is an Italian-American with over seven years of experience in publishing. She has worked at Toppsta, Penguin Random House, Bloomsbury and Scholastic. Chris is currently senior art agent at Advocate Art, specialist art licensing & children‘s book illustration agency. Chris also manages a TikTok account (@chrisisagenting) which counts over 11,000 followers and is a resource for artists looking for information.