Probably the most important thing I learned while filling in as an art director:
Seeing how desperate you are as an art director, when you put your trust in an illustrator - has really changed my whole perspective. And also I realized that being on time and doing professional work is 98% of what [being an illustrator] is all about.
And every once in a while you do this one great piece where the stars align and maybe it gets into American Illustration or Society of Illustration or CAA but that’s not what makes your career. I was always trying to shoot for these fantastic super-quirky weird concepts and I didn’t realize that so much of it is being professional - about being somebody that an art director can put their trust in.
I suppose I should amend my last. I stand by the quote by Brenda Chapman that “when you submit an overly broad portfolio, studios see that as a sign of indecisiveness,” (and everyone should read her whole blog post), but I also think it is possible for your portfolio to be too specific. You can’t draw too small a box around your work, you need to be diverse enough that the studios know you can handle a range of work. If you read Chapman’s entire post, you’ll find her response is more nuanced than that singular quote. It’s still good advice, and sister advice to it would be, don’t put anything in your portfolio that you don’t actually want to do in your career, but I think remaining relevant and hire-able also depends on your ability to learn new skills and diversify when needed. You have to have skills that the studios need. Do your homework, find out what the studios are hiring for in both content and style, and craft a portfolio that fits that. My physical portfolio changes depending on who I’m submitting to. A friend told me recently that what the studios are looking for in portfolios can be super specific. They want to see their style in your work… it’s daunting and kind of insane, but you almost have to create portfolios specific to specific studios, containing work specially aimed at hitting that studio’s style. But it’s all about balance. I have another friend who was hired for his style, so there is no hard and fast rule.
Here is an excellent article about breaking in and staying relevant to the animation industry. It underscores the need to keep abreast of the changing trends and politics of the studios.
I think the bottom line is this: do your best work, keep learning, keep your eyes open, and keep applying. I have found that this industry, more than anything, is about perseverance. You will hear “no” a thousand times before you hear “yes” - the trick is not getting discouraged and giving up.