Portfolios and Presentation Folders


(Excerpted from Living the Artist’s Life) 

As the digital age and websites evolve, portfolios aren’t as critical as they once were.  But no matter how sophisticated a site might be, it could never take the place of a well laid-out portfolio in the hands of a client or gallery owner, as you’re sitting across from her, discussing your work. 

If you’re like most artists, you’d rather be creating new work than assembling a portfolio.  Yes they’re a pain to deal with; I’ve never yet met an artist who enjoys assembling them.  I don’t enjoy assembling them.  But they’re essential.  If you look on the portfolio as a work of art itself, utilizing a direct presentation that is visually stunning, it won’t seem such a bore.  Spend the necessary money on it, and on the photography, to make it look good.  The money will be returned by means of sales.

For those of you who have no interest in selling your work, create the portfolio in whatever fashion you wish.  Make it sleek, make it ragged, make it out of duct tape if you like, so long as the finished product adequately represents your work, passion and ideas.  If the notion of making money from your art doesn’t jive with the way you create, then let the portfolio suggest, or even shout, this as well.  

Regarding portfolios, I recommend the following: 
1)  Portfolio Size: 17 x 20 
2)  Size of Photos:  8  x 10s or 5 x 7s (no smaller)
3)  Other elements: Resume or Bio, an Artist’s Statement, and Press Clippings.

Lay out the photos two-to-a-page, or four-to-a-page, depending on the size you choose.  My personal preference is two 8 x 10s per page, because they give the viewer the best visual impression of your work, and that first impression is the most important one you’ll make.  Repeat: THE FIRST VISUAL IMPRESSION YOU MAKE ON A GALLERY DIRECTOR, OR  COLLECTOR, IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE YOU WILL MAKE.  Please never forget this.

After you’ve laid out the photos, put the resume and artist’s statement at the end.  I never put these items at the beginning of a portfolio, because I want the viewer to be impressed with the work itself first.  Once that impression has been made, then they’ll be willing to read about the artist.  Needless to say, when I lay out a portfolio for an artist, I always place the most stunning images on the first pages, with the weaker ones following, then finishing again with the stronger works.  If it’s all strong, so much the better.

Just as importantly, anytime you show your portfolio, try to have a small original with you, since the work itself will always read better than a photograph, no matter how well the latter is shot.  If a gallery director, or collector, is already looking at photographs, and liking what they’re seeing, you can reinforce this by casually showing them the small jewel that you happen to have at hand.  Note use of the word “casual.”  Contrary to general misconceptions, the art business does not function at its best in a mode of pretension and pressure.  Rather it is always at its best when everyone is relaxed: the artist, the dealer, and especially the collector.  Relaxation leads to trust, trust leads to sales.

Finally, after you’ve shown your portfolio, be prepared to leave behind a well laid-out presentation folder.  You can find these in any office supply store.  They’re the size of a notebook, utilizing either pockets or transparent sleeves, and can make a very impressive visual statement.  Make sure a disc of your work is in the folder, along with photos, a business card, postcards, your resume, and other essentials.  If you’re still using slides rather than discs, fine, but be prepared to ultimately make the change to discs.  The visual world is heading in that direction, and I doubt if it will head back.

You’ll also need to include any press clippings you might have garnered over the years, and a select list of clients.  What?  You don’t have those things yet?  Don’t worry.  I’ll go over the getting of press, as well as how to acquire that coveted list of clients, in later chapters.  

11 thoughts on “Portfolios and Presentation Folders

  1. My pleasure. Boring subject, I know. Unfortunately all careers, no matter how glamorous they might seem, involve tedious chores that no one wants to do. But doing those well let’s us do the thing where the passion lies. Done poorly, and only the passion moves forward–normally unlauded and unrecognized.

  2. What about publishing your portfolio through something like Apple’s Iphoto? costs about $20 and looks like your work was published. This is the route I am taking for now. seems to leave quite an impression. Only problem is that everyone wants a copy when they see it. -dp

  3. Sounds like a great option, though not one I’ve yet tried. Will look into it. Of course a drawback may be just the one you mentioned, whereas leaving a presentation folder behind with a disc and printed material normally costs about $4 per. So, maybe just leave the Iphoto gig with the clients who will help you make your first mil.

  4. Paul,

    What do you think is the magic number of pieces that should go into your portfolio? I want to avoid putting in too few or too many. Thanks for your hot tips!


  5. David: If by “pieces” you mean photos, anywhere from 8-12. If you mean total items, 20-25. What you really want is a concise presentation that is visually powerful, and makes a favorable impression from the first page. You want to entice, not unlike a movie trailer. Done well, and the gallery director will ask to see the originals–assuming they’re a fit. Try to make sure your work would be a fit before bothering with the presentation.

  6. Dear Paul,

    I just wanted to drop a note of thanks to you for all of the great insights you are sharing with the artist’s community at large. This kind of stuff is super helpful and important in furthering the dreams we all share in this endeavor. Your efforts are very, very much appreciated.


  7. Timo: Thanks. I appreciate the appreciation. It does take time to put all stuff out, but as long as people are benefiting from it, I’ll continue doing it. I know this sort of thing really isn’t taught very well in art school–at least not yet.

  8. Hi Paul,

    Many thanks for all your wonderful help and advice.

    About the disc with images that you leave with galleries; should it have high res. images or low? It would seem risky to leave discs with images that could be used to make prints. I’ve found out the hard way that not all galleries are ethical.

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