Thursday, December 7, 2017

The One Thing I Look For in Portfolio Reviews

I review a lot of portfolios in a year. Between conventions and seminars and events and emails and classes I teach, I've guesstimated it at about 400-500 portfolio reviews per year. More if you count repeat viewings of the same artist. And after 10 years at Orbit (and a few years as an Art Director at Doubleday before that), I can say with all likelihood I've reviewed over 5,000 portfolios.

That's a lot.

I've seen great artists and terrible artists and artists who were very new, and artists who are legends. And after all those portfolios, there is one factor that tells me whether you'll have a successful career. After years of reviewing artists then watching what comes of their career, there is one quality that will predict who will make it and who won't. One thing that is a key quality that unlocks the rest.

Spoiler: It has nothing to do with your art technique.

Technique and skill comes with practice. It's not magic. As Greg Manchess often says, there's no such thing as talent. There's a formula, and it's practice + time = skill.

...I have to judge how much truth this person is ready to hear.

When someone sits down to show me their portfolio, I check them out as a person before I look at their work. I look at their body language, and I can read in a second whether they're nervous or confident. After that I have a few seconds to chat with them, hear a little bit about who they are, and in those moments I have to judge how much truth this person is ready to hear. Not whether or not I am honest with them—I am honest with everyone who sits in front of me—but how deep they are ready to go. How much are they really willing to hear? It's exhausting giving a really in-depth review, and just for the sake of self-preservation, I've learned to save those reviews for the people that really want them.

There's a few classes of people that approach an Art Director for a review:

  • The person who expects to be hired on the spot.
  • The person who wants you to confirm their belief that they are the best artist.
  • The person who wants you to confirm their belief that they are not the worst artist.
  • The person that knows they aren't ready to work for that AD yet, but wants some simple feedback to point them in the right direction.
  • The person who knows their work is not right for that AD but is hoping for referrals of who their work would be a good fit for.
  • The person who cannot judge their own work—and that work is way worse than they think.
  • The person who cannot judge their own work—and that work is way better than they think.
  • The person who wants an in-depth, turn-them-inside-out breakdown of their work.

I have a few moments of conversation to figure out which of the above personalities a portfolio reviewee is, and adjust my feedback to fit. Very rarely are people really looking for a true in-depth review. I can tell by their facial reactions and body language pretty clearly early on if they do or don't. Most of the time an artist doesn't want an in-depth review, they want a simpler step – a basic improvement they can make to their work. And that is perfectly fine. Sometimes you are just looking for the next step you need to take, and you're not ready for the whole road atlas.

Regardless of how in-depth you want your feedback to be, how much time you do or do not spend in front of me, I know whether you are going to be successful or not. It really all boils down to one thing: Do you trust in the process? Are you willing to risk work trying something without the guarantee of a payoff? Or, are you only interested in putting the work in if you know it will turn out the way you expect?

I can tell which camp each reviewee is in by the first few minutes of a portfolio review. Are you actively listening and taking notes (mental notes or physical notes)? Or are you filtering out everything I am saying and only hoping to hear the praise or commission you want? When I suggest something to you to help push your portfolio forward, are you reluctant to do it unless there is a concrete guaranteed return on your investment? How willing to experiment are you? Is my feedback falling on fertile ground? I can tell by how interested and open you are to what I am saying.

I've been trying to put my finger on a good name for this magical quality, and one hasn't really come to mind yet (feel free to suggest some in the comments). "Risk" gives the wrong impression. Maybe it's "Willingness". It might be "Trust"— but a very specific kind of trust.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, talks about "Fierce Trust", which she defines as putting your effort out into the world regardless of the outcome. You trust that you may not get what you want, exactly the way you are picturing it, but if you keep working, you trust in the end it will be worth it. Our first instinct is to say "Why should I put all this work into something if the outcome might be nothing?" But we have to realize the process is the point. You should be saying to yourself "I should put all this work into something because the process is the point, and the outcome is a bonus." She says the right question to ask is not "What would you do if you knew you could not fail" but much more importantly "What would you do if you knew you would fail?" In other words, what would you do because you loved it, even if you knew you would never be a success at it?

...what would you do because you loved it, even if you knew you would never be a success at it?

The people who have this "Fierce Trust" — if that's what you want to call it — are the ones who are the successes. They don't get discouraged by how far away the end of their quest is, because it's not the outcome that's the point, it's the journey that's the payoff. That's very zen, I know, but it creates people who are not daunted by setbacks. People who will figure out how to get over an obstacle even if they have to try 3 different approaches before one works. Or five. Or ten. It feels completely counterintuitive that the people who are most successful are the ones who care more about the process than the goal, but it's been proven to me again and again and again. Right now I am reading Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and that is the point of the whole book — that the process is what keeps creatives creating, and that's what makes people happy, not the final destination.

It's this quality— this grit, this determination, this trust in the process — that makes an AD sit up and pay attention, and note to themselves that the artist sitting in front of them is someone to watch more closely, because we know they're going to be one of the success stories.

Illustrations by Diego Schtutman on Shutterstock


  1. And here you go, asking for the easiest thing in the world there :P ;)

  2. Getting up, brushing yourself off and getting back to work starts to be fun after a while. Though sometimes it feels like you are in pitch black room searching for the light switch.

  3. Fantastic post Lauren. I came to the first Spectrum Live and you were definitely my favorite portfolio review.

  4. I've got to throw some words in here because as I read on I found myself being more passionate about the subject.
    I hear what you're saying. You've done this for a very long time and at this point are very good at determining things about the work you see and the people you interact with. It's a skill set that's grown over time and as a decision maker you need to be confident in that ability. In a way, you're handling a lot of people's money based off the artists that you're choosing so you need a tried-and-true approach to success.
    I wish it weren't like that. Artists are notoriously terrible at showing confidence, as I'm sure you know. Breaking into the illustration industry takes a level of determination and drive that is foreign to a lot of professions and usually by the time someone's done it long enough they develop a hard shell and confidence about their work that they probably deserve.
    But I think that gets to the root of a problem. Every artist deserves an in-depth review, even if it's exhausting. You mention Manchess and I consider his outstandingly lengthy reviews. I can't help but wonder if the approach of "I know what this person needs and wants based off a few minutes" isn't the same as thousands of family doctors misdiagnosing cases because they've seen over 5000 people this year with a cold, so of course it's a cold again. Or teachers who see the same student type over and over again so their passion and drive falter on an individual basis. Repetition breeds learned responses, but people aren't just one thing.
    A scientist can only be good at one thing and that comes down to asking questions and being so completely unsure of what they actually know. That opens up discovery in the same way artists have to. Being confident, in my opinion, has very little to do with how good you are at what you do.
    Vermeer and Rembrandt were both people who had very little confidence in their lives and suffered greatly for it at times when gate keepers controlled who was being commissioned in art. Rembrandt in particular was a very meticulous and fast worker who died in poverty much in part to his own self doubt.
    In that same vein, I know and see so many artists without confidence or the learned ability to show their true selves in a nerve-wracking situation. More than that— you can't know what's happened or has happened in their lives to make them predisposed to a particular first impression. Some very good friends and peers go unnoticed despite what I see as an outstanding work ethic.
    We always talk about why art directors can't afford to take chances, and that doesn't need to be covered again. I'm glad that with Kickstarter and Patreon and social media artists don't need to rely on those impressions for success anymore.
    I hope this doesn't come off as insulting. I deeply respect what you do and how giving you are with your time as an art director. I know this article comes from a place of good will towards burgeoning artists. We should all strive to be more true to ourselves and others. I would hope, though, that as a community we can afford to nurture that end-goal rather than make decisions based off the lack of it.

    1. Respectfully, as someone who's been on both sides (reviewed as an art student and young illustrator, now reviewing mostly high school portfolios for an art school but occasionally younger artists seeking my opinion), I think you're conflating two points Lauren's making (confidence and the kind of reviews people get), and would like to counter instead of them all deserving a bone-deep in-depth review, that all artists deserve a good, solid review.

      When I was getting my first Illuxcon reviews at 18, I got those good solid reviews, sometimes as long as 20-30mins, pushing me to improve and pointing out my weaknesses, but the kind of 'in-depth' Lauren's talking about here would have destroyed me. I know this for a fact because when I got that first bone-deep, what-is-your-soul-about review at 22, I was shaken to my core and could only through deep self-study synthesize it into something to work from.

      Confidence was not the deciding factor here. I don't think confidence is not the deciding factor in Lauren's post. Confidence was something I've developed over years of feedback and learning and growing to understand my art, but I didn't have it at 22 when I got that review - in fact, I was in the grip of "knowing" I was mediocre after some time spent with an emotionally abusive teacher.

      As a reviewer, I'm not looking for confidence when gauging how I'm going to talk about a student's work. If they're shy or nervous, but hungrily listening to the advice and notes I'm giving, I'm going to give them more and go deeper. If they're confident and only really paying attention when I praise them, they're going to get a surface review of how to improve on technique or sequence their pieces or whatever. There's obviously a whole spectrum in between, but even though I don't have nearly the experience Lauren does, I can tell what type of review I'll be giving within the first few minutes of conversation.

    2. You get to the heart of my point, though, which is that a reviewer isn't having to make split second decisions on a person's character within minutes. Whatever opinions you craft about a person's place in that time is sure to be mistaken on some level. Surface level or bone deep reviews don't come into it. Give the best review you can every time.
      Does it matter what the deciding factor here is? As a reviewer who's being honest the only deciding factor is your ability to help a person.
      At it's heart you are making decisions about someone's work in a short time and putting that into words.
      In the moment as a reviewer your decisions on what you say should come with great weight because they "will" have that lasting effect. "Don't make decisions about people based on first impressions no matter how much experience you have" is probably a good rule.

    3. I would also like to add that a person's ability to know whether they're good at reading people is totally subjective. How do you get numbers back on that? I'd love to see a chart that defines positive progression in the skill of reading people's facial expressions and responses over time. Those numbers probably don't exist because it's based off your own experiences.
      I'm not trying to attack anyone, here, but the claim of being able to read people and base decisions off of that in moments is just flawed.

    4. I get what you're saying, Allenmorrisart, but I don't think Lauren is claiming to know a person's life story based on a glance. She's just saying she can sense their attitude towards the portfolio review and tries to respond accordingly. Tailoring each review to what the artist seems to need/want is part of giving the best review you can.

    5. I hear what you’re saying, and also not taking offense to it. A few things: First, you’re assuming a “good review” is a long review, and that is absolutely not always the case. A good review is one that helps an artist define a clear path forward. Some artists are not ready for 10 steps,they’re struggling with 1 or 2. As the anonymous poster said - an overly in-depth review can be soul-crushing, and I’m only going to do that to people who I think are ready for that. Second, there are a lot of people who come into a review with an entitled and/or combatitive attitude, and the feedback im going to give them is going to be wasted. In a world where there are so many artists who beg for reviews and only so many hours in a day, I do choose to prioritize the people who are appreciative. If that makes me a bad AD, then so be it. But let’s all remember that every AD who does portfolio reviews is doing charity work. It’s not technically part of our job, and most ADs dont bother. The ones that do do it to build community and help artists. Too many people think this is a service owed them.

    6. Allenmorrisart,

      Are first impressions important? Are they fair? Are they even accurate? You can make very valid arguments for yes and no answers for each question. But the fact is, as human animals, it is how we function. We are always judging, we are always evaluating. We do so based solely on our experience in life. We learn, we adapt and we grow, or sometimes revert.

      But making opinions based on first appearance and encounter, are never going away. But that doesn't mean you are stuck with them.

      Lauren and I have known each other for years, friends first, before I started working for her. And my first encounter with Lauren at a dinner with other artists. Where I put my foot in my mouth saying something that literally killed the conversation, and yes, someone dropped a fork. And someone even said, So much for you ever working for Lauren.

      I recovered, we talked, and everything worked out. I had overcome my first impression, and it became a joke between us. And that goes to Laurens credit, where she understands that a first impression isn't the ONLY thing about the person.

      But when you sit down with someone for the very first time, and have at best, 15-20 minutes. What else are to you go on to start your review with that person? For Lauren, meeting and artists isn't just about the quality of their work. It's also about the nature of the person. When you first start working with a new Art/Creative director, you need to sell yourself as someone that they can rely on.

      No matter how unfair it seems, like I said, first impressions aren't going anywhere. If a person can accept that, then in time hopefully they will learn how to use them to their advantage. Even if it's just as simple as showering before, and looking clean and tidy.

      Another thing I've learned is this. Young people say they want honesty, and they do. However, they also haven't developed the tools and skills to handle honesty that doesn't reflect what they think. In short, they aren't as prepared to hear honesty when it's painful.

      Learning to deal with painful honesty takes experience and openness to the negative aspects of what you are trying to do. And that just comes with taking the risk to put yourself out there.

      When Lauren makes a judgement call about the person who is sitting in front of her, it's done so to help the person. She needs to be able to give them the right amount of constructive criticism that will allow them to take it, reflect and then move forward.

      To be honest. Trying to adjust her approach to each person that sits down with her, is far more fair and honest, then a one size review fits all. She is using all her knowledge, experiences, perception and intuition to gather as much information to give that person, a unique one of a kind, tailored review of their work.

      I've been on those, one size fits all reviews. Where the person clearly has a personal agenda, looking for something specific, and I ain't it. So I get a terrible, waste of my time review.

      No system is perfect. But to know that there are A/C Directors out there that are putting this level of thought and consideration into their reviews, is encouraging. More so when they share their process. If anything helps an artist prepare for a review, it's knowing how that AD works.

    7. Thanks; for those thoughtful replies Lauren, Tim, Kelley! I see where you're coming from and feel like I could rethink my own impressions here. I'm glad we're on a forum where we can have as eloquent responses as you've given. Hopefully it will be as insightful for others as they come across it.

  5. At times it may be the hardest thing about the position that art directors are put into within our community and industry, that the most honest and helpful feedback for a particular artist (but also the most easily misinterpreted or taken the wrong way) would be to say: keep working on your technique, but consider getting some therapy.

    Artists who had amazing work ethic and skills but died in penury can be found in droves throughout history. It occurs to me that we often focus so much on one aspect of our lives (the vast mountain peak that is artistic achievement) when it is perhaps the other aspects of our lives, the other experiences and ways we make ourselves healthful and capable humans that may have the larger effect on our progress up that particular mountain. The importance of support structures, health both mental and physical, and business capabilities can’t be overstated. Perhaps there are venues or ways to communicate that to would-be professional artists that would be more appropriate than during a portfolio review—one importance of our community—but it’s surely the largely unacknowledged specter hanging over many a portfolio review.

    Anyway, thanks for the insight on your process, Lauren!

    1. Bruce I could hug you. Thanks for saying that. Technically a portfolio review isfor an AD to see if the portfolio is worth hiring. Any feedback is actually bonus. The level of life questions that often come up in reviews WOULD be best advised on by a professional therapist, but I also know thats out of many artists’ reaches

  6. Very interesting perspective! I never thought of it this way.

  7. Very interesting perspective, thanks for the insight, but there is a thing that came to mind:

    If the process and the prospect of being so experimental is so important, how comes that those creative people are the ones that are least useful to be hired for a company because they are most likely not able to repeat a success?

    1. I don't think it necessarily follows that experimental means hard to replicate. There are many artists that have a unique voice and style that no one else has, so companies must hire them for that voice, because there is no one else. But that artist can and does continue to work in that style and builds a body of work in it.

    2. For some artists this might work but this means settlement with a compromise instead of the best possible work. As Milton Glaser put that once; Freelance business means to repeat a success and it drums out the genius that could evolve. For example; the best works I produced are those that were scrapped by 60-80% stages and started partially-or-completely over. Or they were personalized versions of commissions that - after approval from the client and paycheck - I have put another 20 hours into to make them fit into my vision of a representative portfolio.

      What I found is that most times the AD's in charge would eventually not approve of theses changes because they had to lose face towards their managing directors. And being in charge AND control over things is much more pleasing than to stand up and come up with exiting new concepts that may not be so 100% predictable. I guess you know that ;)

      On public platforms these personalized version got much attention and helped my career, but I have given up on convincing people to trust in my process or "gut feelings" long ago and put more effort in my own work to make a living.

      When you know how the publishing world works, you know you can't turn the managers head even if your name is Jeff Bezos ( OK, maybe then).

      So, to get back to your initial comment about that one quality that you look for and never find; it is because of the established control-freak mentality of "uncreative managers" that have to run a company by the numbers.

      As a self-employed fantasy artist, I am managing director, art director, sales representative, retailer and curator in one person, my business is safe when all 5 pillars communicate correctly and learn from each others and constantly improve.

      That is easy for one person but hard for a large company. And a capitalistic environment at its final stage will hardly change that anytime soon.

  8. Once upon a time, we were all like that - process-invested, or playful. Then we grew up and met The World.

    1. And that's the hardest balance - enjoying the process (= play) yet surviving in a world that cares only about the product. It's a constant struggle.

  9. The very first time I talked to Jean Scrocco, I asked for a portfolio review and sne was looking at my book and going :" Nice.... Nice" in a non-commital way. After a few pages, I said no. She looked at me and I said:"If it really WAS nice, you'd be giving me work, but you aren't, so give it to me like it is."
    So she started over and really told me what she thought. It didn't take very long. She didn't search my soul. But she told me exactly what SHE wanted out of a portfolio and how my book was falling short ( and what she thought was successful.)
    I think the whole process took less than 15 minutes plus a bit of chit chat.
    So as a reviewee, you have to be conscious that the reviewer might not know what kind of feedback you want. It's also your job to tell them, because a useless review affects you,not them.

    1. That is an amazing point to call out, Chantal. It is an absolute gift when a review walks in and says who they are (name) where they are (student, new professional, trying to break into X field) and what they want (pointers on a specific thing, a full critique, to talk about possible referral connections)

  10. Hey Lauren,

    Great article here and thanks so much for your input! Have you noticed a difference between the attitudes of say younger vs older artists who ask for reviews? Or is it all a mixed bag? I ask this because you mentioned that some artists have the "come at me bro" attitude when doing a portfolio review (which quite honestly baffles me that they would do that do you).

    1. Nope it's a mixed bag, age really doesn't seem to have anything to do with it. I know, it seems crazy to come into a portfolio review with a bad attitude, but ADs get it frequently. I'd say about 20-25% of reviews I get are people who have zero interest in hearing what I have to say, and just want to hear that I have a job waiting for them on the spot. All ADs have stories of really aggressive folks who argue back (and I'm not talking about questions and debate and discussion, I'm talking about heated arguing) and really insulting people. I've also have people be really inappropriate and hit on me mid review. You'd think people would walk into a review wanting to be...reviewed, but that's often not the case.

  11. Allen calls is being "all in" and I love this article Lauren. Thank you, thank you, thank you. He just said this to me. "When no one is paying you to do your work, then do the kind of work no one *can* pay you to do."
    All the while he would still be doing the work that paid, sometimes a little, but always putting "all in" to his own work.

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  13. I think this is not just for portfolio reviews. Just think about giving a gift to something you care about: you really hope she/he will consider it the best gift ever. The same for showing a portfolio to something whose opinion is important for you, because he or she is an artist you admire or an AD for a company you'd like to work for. In other words, i think the problem is that when we submit something we made with love and effort to the judgement of somebody we respect/care about, we are exposing ourselves, our intentions, our thoughts, our feelings. More or less, a portfolio review creates the same anxiety of asking a date to your crush: a "yes" makes you the king of the world, a "no" collapses your inner world. Besides this, portfolio is a key to open jobs and there's a lot in them, more than just artworks: spleepless nights, fears, financial problems, dreams, etc etc. An AD must be a very good psychologist to avoid hurting people, but artists must be hard skinned and think that the ADs are not judging them as person, but just the images they have been presented. Even if i never submitted my works for a portfolio review, i often posts things around the web, with few little successes and tons of unsuccesses. It took me a lot of time to realize that if i had no success, it was not just because of unluck or the fate against me or people that don't recognize my genius (just kidding of course) : the problem was me. Or better, not me, my judgement and my drawings. The moment my brain shifted from "oh, life sucks, nobody appreciates my works, let's give up" to "oh, my judgement sucks and my drawings perhaps too, let's work harder then!" i begun feeling more confident and ready to fight. I still suck, it still hurts, but now i realized that the more i'll work, the better i'll get, it just depend on my effort. :)


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