How to build the perfect freelance illustrator portfolio

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July 28, 2021
5 minute read

For illustrators and other creative freelancers, portfolios are like a visual resume. They’re key to finding (and getting found by) new clients and landing freelance work.

While a critical asset for freelance graphic designers and illustrators, building a portfolio that works for you doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. With the tips and resources below, you can build the perfect portfolio in less than a day—then get back to doing the work you love and your clients pay for.

What’s an illustration portfolio?

As Falmouth University puts it, “Your portfolio is a visual resume, showing prospective employers a body of your best work, giving them an insight into who you are as an artist, and providing you with an opportunity to make an outstanding first impression.”

In other words, your portfolio serves as a collection of your past illustration work. It helps you attract and close new freelance clients, while helping clients get a sense of the kind of work you do and how you may approach their project.

What’s the difference between a website and a portfolio?

Practically speaking, a portfolio can look like a lot of different things:

  • A full website
  • A collection of work on a site like Behance or Dribbble
  • An Instagram or Pinterest profile dedicated to your work
  • A PDF or slide deck of work you share

You name it.

Now, your portfolio can be a website, but it doesn’t have to be.

Some freelancers opt to build an entire website dedicated to their work, with the portfolio being a part of that. Often, this is done using one of the hosting platforms or website builders we’ll share later on.

But a website isn’t the only way to showcase your work.

The bottom line is: Your portfolio is a way for you to share samples of your work with potential clients—the medium is secondary.

Why do I need a portfolio?

In fields like illustration—and freelancing more broadly—clients care a lot more about what you can do, rather than which arbitrary degree you have. That means you need a way to show potential clients the kind of work you can do.

How do you do that? Your portfolio.

Beyond offering a way to show potential clients your work, a well-made portfolio helps you:

  • Get found by more potential clients by becoming searchable and accessible, showing up in search results on Google and creative freelancer websites.
  • Define your niche, showcase the kind of work you want to do more of, and attract the kind of clients you want to work with.
  • Let potential clients self-filter, deciding whether you’re a good fit for their project and minimizing discussions with poor-fit clients and projects.

Creating your own portfolio also helps you take ownership over your freelance career—making you less reliant on freelancing marketplaces and job boards. Those websites tend to be a race to the pricing bottom and usually take a hefty commission percentage out of your earnings, so moving away from them as your career progresses is a good idea.

What should an illustration portfolio include?

If you’re sold on building an illustrator portfolio but worried it has to be a big, complex process, don’t be. There are only a few elements your portfolio really needs—and they’re easy to build using the resources we’ll share later on.

For now, let’s look at the 3 things your portfolio must include:

  • A quick, simple description of what you do: Explain what you do for clients in one or two sentences. Since you only have a brief window to grab people’s attention, make your description prominent, clear, and easy to read.
  • Samples of your illustration work: Select the work you’re most proud of—work that reflects the kind of projects you want to do more of (we’ll talk more about how to choose this work later.)
  • A way to contact you: Your portfolio exists to help connect you with potential clients, so it’s important to make it easy for clients to contact you about working together. Include calls-to-action and a quick, easy mechanism for getting in touch with you (i.e. a contact form).

If your portfolio can check those boxes, you’re on your way! Beyond that, there are a few great-to-have elements that can help you better represent yourself as an illustrator and more effectively convert new clients.

First: your personality. Remember that part about only having a few seconds to draw viewers in? It’s true—and adding more of your personality to your portfolio can help it stand out from the crowd. So don’t be afraid to let your creativity shine through, get a little whimsical, and really make your portfolio your own.

Second: social proof and results. Social proof is one of the most effective ways to turn a portfolio into a tool that consistently generates and helps convert new leads. Once you’ve worked on a few client projects, we recommend asking them for testimonials and key results your work has helped produce—then adding those details to your portfolio.

Third: a shop to purchase your work. One way for freelance illustrators to earn extra money is to sell products featuring your work or license digital versions of your illustrations. If you opt for this route, you can add a shop right onto your portfolio.

Where to build your portfolio

Now that you know what to include in your portfolio, let’s talk about where to build it. As we mentioned before, your portfolio doesn’t have to be a website. You can build it using a website builder or opt for another option—like a portfolio curation site, freelance marketplace, or social media platform. Here are a few resources that illustrators use to build and share their portfolios.

Popular places for freelancers to show off their portfolio

If you’re looking for a simple, quick way to pull samples of your work together for clients to look through, there are several popular places for freelancers to curate projects and show off work.

  • Behance, owned by Adobe, lets you create a simple portfolio. Upload the projects you want to showcase, add some basic info about yourself and how you can be contacted, and you’re done!
  • With Dribbble, simply upload your work, organize into projects, and add details about yourself and your skills.
  • 99designs lets you upload past work, then add your bio, experience, skills, and even reviews of your work. Plus, you can list out specific services and pricing information.
  • To build a portfolio on Pinterest, just create a profile, then add Pins featuring your work and a few details about each project.
  • To use Instagram as your portfolio, we recommend creating a separate account for your freelance business. From there, add your details and start posting your work.

Hosting platforms that specialize in illustrator portfolios

If you’re looking for something more akin to a portfolio website, with a little more flexibility, there are a handful of hosting platforms that specialize in illustrator and other creative professional portfolios:

Build a website with your work

To build a portfolio website that’s completely customized and your own, you can use a more generalized website builder. Each of the options below include portfolio templates you can use to get started quickly:

Tips for building the perfect illustrator portfolio

Building the perfect portfolio that helps launch and grow your freelance career doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Simply follow the tips below to turn your collection of work into a portfolio that works for you.

Choose your best work

While it may seem obvious, it’s important to showcase only your best work in your portfolio. Adding sub-par samples or too much work can reflect poorly on your skills and risk overwhelming potential clients.

The tough part is deciding which work to include. When you consider adding a project, ask yourself, does this work:

  • Reflect the kind of projects I want to do in the future?
  • Demonstrate the breadth of my skills and experience?
  • Build my authority by featuring a prominent client in my niche?
  • Make me particularly proud?
  • Represent a personal passion that will help potential clients get to know me?

Let your work speak for itself

It’s easy to be tempted to include all kinds of information and context on your portfolio. But, while project context can be helpful, it’s often best to let your work speak for itself. Clients want to see what you can do—so let them focus on your illustrations and save the details for another page.

Diversify the work you’re showing off

If you work on different kinds of projects, make sure your portfolio reflects that. For example, if you work on branding designs, character illustrations, and logos, include at least one sample for each type of service.

Organize your work by category

Speaking of, potential clients will have different projects in mind when they land on your portfolio. Make it easy for them to find samples of the kind of work they’re looking for by organizing your portfolio by category.

Show off your style

While a portfolio should be professional, that doesn’t mean it should be boring or lifeless. Showing off your style helps your portfolio stand out among the crowd, and it helps potential clients get to know you better.

Here are a few dos and don’ts for adding personality to your portfolio:

  • DON’T just copy another illustrator’s portfolio.
  • DON’T choose a blanket template without customizing it to reflect your style.
  • DO showcase your creativity. Let your portfolio show off your style and skill. Never be afraid to get creative, and don’t take yourself (or your portfolio) too seriously.
  • DO include a photo of yourself. Adding a photo of yourself humanizes your portfolio and helps potential clients put a face to the artist behind the work they see.
  • DO add passion projects. Particularly if you’re new to freelance illustration and don’t have much client work to show, passion projects help fill out your portfolio and show potential clients who you are and what you love to do.
  • DO add a bio. Clients want to know who they’re hiring, so it’s a good idea to include a way for them to learn more about you and your background.

Update your samples regularly

As your career progresses, your illustration style may change, you might offer different services, and your skills will likely grow. That’s why your portfolio isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing. You should make a point, on a regular basis, to update the work samples featured.

Examples of great illustrator portfolios

With those tips in mind, let’s take a look at some illustrators who’ve built awesome portfolios.

Jaroslaw Danilenko

Built on Behance, Jaroslaw’s portfolio clearly showcases his style of illustration. Plus, it’s updated regularly, with the latest “Selected Works vol. 3” added just a few weeks before we wrote this guide.

Andrea Mongia

We love Andrea Mongia’s portfolio website because it does a great job of showcasing his illustration style and it’s impeccably organized by project type, with a page for editorial work, book covers, and promotional illustrations.

Tyler Anthony

Hosted on Dribbble, Tyler Anthony’s portfolio still feels customized thanks to the banner image, logo, and photo. Plus, we love how he’s used the ‘Projects’ feature to show off the breadth of different illustrations within each client project.

Paul Pateman

Paul Pateman does both illustration and animation, so his portfolio website organizes his work samples into each category. Beyond that, Paul lets the work speak largely for itself, adding minimal text to contextualize the work and name-drop clients.

Brian Cronin

Brian Cronin’s website is a great example of how illustrators can add a shop to their portfolio.

Nathalie Lété

We love this website by Nathalie Lété because it perfectly showcases how adding your own flare can help your portfolio stand out and capture attention. Nathalie used her own illustrations and willingness to do things a little differently to build a completely one-of-a-kind website.

Illustrators who use social media to show off their portfolios

As we said before, your portfolio doesn’t have to be or even look like a website. You can show off your portfolio of work right on popular social media platforms and get a ton of eyes on your work.

Let’s look at how a couple illustrators have done just that, on the 2 most popular visual-focused social media: Instagram and Pinterest.

Daniel Triendl

Daniel Triendl’s Instagram is a masterclass in branding and showcasing your best work. Daniel showcases various different kinds of projects and uses Highlights to organize his work by client and type of project.

Little Olive Press

Michelle of Little Olive Press combines her work with educational content to turn Pinterest into her portfolio and a demonstration of how well she knows the illustration space.

Build your perfect illustrator portfolio

Your portfolio is a powerful tool in helping you find and win new freelance clients—a tool worth its weight in gold and more than worth the time and effort it takes to build.

With the tips above, you’re ready to put together a portfolio that showcases who you are, how great your work is, and why clients will soon be banging down your (virtual) door.