Portfolios and Positioning

Fine-Tuning Your Online Portfolio and Establishing Your Positioning as a Serious Photo Artist

— Putting together a great online portfolio of artwork takes some serious effort. And it should, if you’re going to do it right.

You probably already know it’s going to be hard. Yet in this essay I’m going to show you a number of (less-than-obvious) ways to make it even HARDER. And here’s why: Because the payoff is worth it. Because in the end, it’s not enough to just have an online portfolio. You want a portfolio you can be damn proud of. All the more so if you want to establish yourself as a working artist, where the impression your portfolio makes on visitors can have a huge impact on what you can hope to achieve.

So let’s look at five primary considerations you’re going to want to explore and build into your plans as you put your artwork online for the world to see.

Very little of this is going to be easy. Most of it is going to take some time to get right.

If you’re OK with that, let’s get busy . . .

1.) Where Will Your Portfolio Reside and How Should It Look?

There are so many options for where and how you can build your online portfolio it can feel daunting trying to decide which way to go.

With our advanced AWAKE group, we have a simple solution getting more and more awesome by the day: www.ArtBoja.com This is the official home of the AWAKE artist portfolios, being marketed to tens of thousands of readers every month by our magazine at http://ThePhotoArtisticLife.com For AWAKE students it’s completely free. And with the design team at Artisan Colour working continually to improve the experience for both artist and visitor, I can only see this turning into something truly extraordinary over the years ahead.

But there are other options: everything from building your own custom HTML or WordPress site, hosting it, and customizing it in every particular … to any of several high quality portfolio site hosting companies, my favorites being Adobe’s https://www.myportfolio.com (replacing ProSite.com from Behance) and the ever-popular http://squarespace.com

Creating and hosting your own HTML or WordPress site gives you the greatest creative control, but it’s also going to take the most work. Especially if you also want to be able to sell prints and canvases.

Honestly, I suggest only going that route if staying up late at night designing and maintaining the site is itself a passion for you. Otherwise, it’s just way, WAY easier using one of the top services mentioned above to handle all the hard stuff.

Even with a site like MyPortfolio.com or Squarespace.com you can choose to pay a little more to have a custom URL that essentially cloaks the fact that you are using their service for your site. Or with any online portfolio, you can always buy a custom domain (check Bluehost.com) and have them set the URL to re-direct to your portfolio page, wherever it might actually be sitting. This can be a great way to have a really cool website name while not having to worry about actually building and hosting and maintaining the actual site.

Whichever way you go, however, I think it’s important to take some time to think about WHY you want to have an online portfolio in the first place.

Is it just for the fun of having one and being able to share your work with friends and family? (That’s perfectly cool.)

Or is it so you can present your work to the world in hope of selling prints or landing clients or securing commercial gigs? (Also perfectly cool.)

Whatever your reasons, though, take some time to think it through. And not just your reasons TODAY, but where you can see yourself being a year from now.

Ultimately, if you want a serious online portfolio, you should probably make most of your decisions from the very start with regard to one all-important question:

How is it you wish to be POSITIONED as a photographer or as a photo artist?

This is critical if you want to sell your work or land clients, because in those cases SO much comes down to your positioning.

If you look like an amateur, if your site looks like the neighbor kid made it for you, if the stuff on your website looks completely dated … then all of this is immediately going to undermine your efforts to sell your work or secure clients.

Your worth as an artist, and the value of your artwork, in a very real way comes down to how you are perceived by visitors to your page. You can either stack the odds in your favor or you can roll the dice.

With this in mind, I’m going to suggest that whatever route you take to setting up the actual portfolio itself, keep your design and layout minimal, elegant, sophisticated. (Unless you have a strong artistic reason for it being otherwise — although in which case, it better be impressive.)

The main thing is to let the site do its thing in the background while allowing your WORK to stand out. The only purpose of the web design is to make the experience of viewing your art feel cool and keep it easy on the visitor navigating the page.

In the interests of minimalism in design, I’d suggest sticking to no more than two fonts and two font sizes, just one or two colors, and a simple white or black background (unless you have something much better in mind) with simple navigation and functionality. That’s it.

If you’re brilliant in design and layout and your artwork calls for something more innovative, then go ahead and try something different. But otherwise: keep it simple, keep it cool.

No visitor counters, no animated GIFs, no emojis, no unnecessary page links or wonky roll-over buttons, no bizarre color choices, no comment boxes. Stuff like this only sets you up to look dated and less than significant. Clean up your pages. If any element fails to elicit the reaction “That looks awesome,” then it has to go.

Finally, make sure it’s easy for visitors to contact you and easy for them to buy from you. In fact, as much as possible, make it enjoyable for them to do so.

2.) The Images

The most important part of your online portfolio is of course the artwork itself. Everything else enhances (or detracts from) the visitor’s experience of your work. But it’s the WORK itself that matters most.

For this reason, you should only ever showcase your BEST work. It’s far better to have a portfolio consisting of only 15, 20, maybe 25 great pieces you’re immensely proud of than it is to heap everything you’ve ever done in there, diluting your best work with a bunch of stuff that isn’t quite as good.

If you’re torn between including or not including a particular piece, one helpful way to cut through the decision making is to ask yourself the simple question: Is this the kind of artwork I see myself still wanting to create a year from now? If it’s not, then scrub it.

Realistically, if you’re honest with yourself, you can probably narrow your best work down to fewer than 25 pieces. And you can always rotate in different, newer work (indeed, you should) to keep everything fresh.

Just be sure to take some time to really organize it well and with some real thought and care, keeping certain kinds of art more or less together (e.g., grouping all your black and white work in one section, or keeping your abstract stuff separate from your more realistic work), periodically removing anything that just doesn’t “fit” for you anymore.

Another important thing to consider when you are choosing work for your online portfolio: If you plan to SELL your work, ONLY present printable compositions in your portfolio. Meaning if you employed any content not originally your own, you need to be sure you have whatever rights are required for you to be selling the piece. If on any given piece you just aren’t quite sure, remove it. Copyright drama is not the kind of drama you want in your life.

On this same theme (only posting images you know you can sell), it also helps to take some time with each decision to ask yourself the rather important question: WILL this actually sell?

This isn’t always easy to know, but you need to be sure you aren’t letting your own feelings about a piece cloud your judgement here. For instance, you might have a deep fondness for a piece featuring your two children … But would someone else want to actually hang an image of your kids on their wall? Maybe — IF it’s a particularly artistic piece and the kids aren’t entirely identifiable. But if you’re not sure, ask a few other people whose opinions you trust: “Can you see someone wanting to hang this on their wall? Be totally honest.” And be prepared to take in whatever they tell you.

Truth is, a lot of great art just isn’t likely to make a realistic fit for a print or canvas.

But depending on your intentions as an artist — that might not matter.

Because your portfolio isn’t necessarily just about selling prints and canvases. It can ALSO be used to land private commissions, to secure commercial clients, etc. And with that being the case, you can get away with posting all sorts of stuff in your portfolio even if no one would buy it as a print to hang in their house.

There’s a lot of incredible art by our AWAKE artists published each month in our magazine that wouldn’t necessarily sell as a print or canvas but WOULD sell as artwork for a book cover, or as CD art, or maybe incorporated in poster, or used to accompany a magazine article, or employed in a slick website or the design work on some product packaging.

Seems kinda funny, but some artwork (like the vast majority of the best photography out there) might not ever sell as a canvas, but could easily end up going into a killer collection of artwork printed in book format.

The important thing to keep in mind here as you assemble your online portfolio is a sense of what the ultimate PURPOSE is behind the work you’re presenting. This will then play into the further decisions you make regarding how you promote your portfolio and how you work to enhance your positioning to support your real intentions.

If it’s prints and canvases you want to sell, then you might need to rethink your subjects and your approach. Some things FIT in that category. Some things just don’t.

On the other hand, if you want to land private commissions or commercial clients (if your work lends itself more to that than to the realm of artistic home decor), that’s perfectly fine. Just go into it with that awareness and craft your portfolio of work accordingly.

3.) Embellishing Your Portfolio

A few simple touches can make a big difference in the overall appearance of your portfolio. Take some time on these. The payoff in enhancing your positioning can be substantial.

First, if your portfolio page employs any kind of profile image or avatar, make sure it’s really, really exceptional. In fact, come up with at least five ideas and bounce them off of at least five other artists before picking the one you’re going to lead off with. It doesn’t need to be a photo of you; it can be anything. Just make sure it’s cool and looks great on the page.

Second, if you’re going after commercial clients, you’re going to want to have a damn good logo. (Conversely, if you aren’t going after commercial clients, having a logo is unnecessary and even detrimental. See the next point.) When it comes to your logo, I suggest you not mess around trying to design it yourself. Instead, consider hiring someone on UpWork.com or on 99Designs.com to make it for you. Because here’s the thing: Just because you’re a great artist doesn’t necessarily make you a great graphic designer. And that’s OK. It’s a different skill set. And by giving a talented graphic designer a clear idea of who you are and what kind of work you do and who you want to attract as clients, they’ll be able to come up with ideas you never would have thought up yourself. What’s more, they can probably design it as a .eps vector graphic, allowing you to resize it at will and drop it in over anything. That can be quite handy. Main thing is, if you’re going to have a logo, it’s gotta look awesome.

Third, if on the other hand you’re going for the pure artist approach, then I think a logo is the last thing you need. A wedding photographer might want a logo for his wedding photography business, but a photo artist should want to look like … an ARTIST. And the reasoning here is pretty obvious if you imagine yourself in a potential buyer’s position. Someone looking to hire a great wedding photographer wants someone well established, someone professional, someone solid and trustworthy and capable: in other words, a business, with a logo. But someone looking to hire a creative artist to craft a series of beautiful prints to adorn his restaurant (and his website, and his mailers, and his menus — and maybe even a beautiful print for his home as well) will almost certainly want someone who looks and feels like a real ARTIST. And someone looking for an artist isn’t wanting someone with a logo (they don’t want to hire the local guy who does graduation photos on the weekends). What they’re looking for is an artist, and artists have SIGNATURES, not logos. Signatures or “chops” (a small artsy symbol that might or might not accompany their name). So if you’re going to position yourself as a serious artist, then take the time to make sure you look like one: take some time to come up with a really, really cool signature to accompany your work.

Fourth, by way of further establishing your positioning as a professional, I think it makes a great impression to also feature some images on your site OF your images on display. In other words: photos of your work on display in cool locations. Just need to make sure the photos themselves are really well done (maybe consider some slick extreme close-ups at interesting angles and with great lighting), and if possible make a point of getting your work displayed in cool places (or unexpected places) so as to make the images all the more forceful and impressive. Get creative. What you’re trying to convey to potential buyers here is a combination of social proof (“Look, my work is on display in this gorgeous hotel!” or “Look at my work on this gallery wall!”) and pure awesomeness (“That’s right, my stunning 48” canvas print is hanging from a tree in this gorgeous scene beside a mountain brook with the sun streaming through the leaves above it …” or “Yep, I actually DID take three of my best aluminum prints and position them displayed in the doorway of a train boxcar outside an abandoned factory.”) Just depends on your aesthetic. But if you can come up with some really cool photos of your work displayed in cool ways and in cool locations, these can make a great embellishment to your portfolio of work. Remember: the cooler you can make your artwork look when it’s printed out, the cooler YOU look as an artist … and the cooler YOU look, the more you are going to be able to command for your work.

Fifth, speaking of how cool you look … if you actually DO look great, then by all means, include an artist photo. And make sure it’s great. Excellent, in fact. Pay special attention to what you decide to wear, how you decide to pose, whether or not you want to smile, whether or not you even want to be looking at the camera. Get creative if you want. But keep it classy. Keep it really, really cool. And if you don’t think you look cool … go artsy instead. There’s no rule that says you have to include a photo of yourself. It can be anything you want to represent you. Or it could be something deliberately obscure and artistic. As long as it’s cool. In the end, it’s always better to seem mysterious than come off as humdrum.

4.) The Words

The words you write to accompany your portfolio can be your secret weapon, immediately distancing you from everyone else. They can set you apart. They can evoke an impression of you and your work that the images alone might not quite pull off on their own. Ultimately, they can AMPLIFY whatever it is about your work you most want to convey.

But if you’re going to write something, it better be good.

Which is why, whatever you write, take the time to write it well, edit it at least two or three times through, and even then have someone else proofread it at the end.

Be sure to spend plenty of time on your profile. Share anything about you and your story or your inspiration as an artist that might impress or interest a reader. Being interesting is paramount. Being boring is the one unforgivable sin.

You don’t want to come off pretentious, but you do want to come off important. Might take a few drafts to get this right, and then a few edits to make sure it’s all written the best you can write it.

And adding something near the end that personalizes it and makes you a bit more approachable and COOL is always a good touch.

You might also want to spend some time writing up supplementary content for individual pieces in your portfolio. I definitely suggest giving some serious thought to any titles you assign your works (and being mysterious or evocative here is perfectly fine — indeed, might be best!).

You may even consider writing up lengthier pieces — a couple of sentences or a few paragraphs, either on the portfolio site itself or over on a blog you’ve set up — explaining a bit of the process and inspiration behind a particular piece … while never sharing your source material (!) or exactly how you executed it (which would be like a magician sharing his secrets: once you know how a trick is done, it’s no longer exciting), but perhaps showing some impressive images of you conducting the original photo shoot or of the work itself well along in the process.

But one caution here: only elect to start a blog if you really, really want to blog. If it’s not something that excites you, and something you sincerely intend to maintain regularly with new posts, then skip blogging until you’re ready.

Usually a few sentences accompanying an image is all you need. And you don’t really even need that. But if you can build in a bit of the STORY behind your work, and if you can tell it well, those words can certainly help distinguish you from other artists, giving your buyers cool stories THEY can then relate when they are bragging about the prints they’ve purchased from you or the work they’ve enlisted you to create for them.

5.) Amplifying Your Positioning

The first impression a visitor has is usually derived from the website (how cool does the page look?) and the artwork itself (how strong is your work?)

Beyond that, certain embellishments and the words you include to accompany your work go a long way to enhancing your positioning.

Remember, the whole time someone is looking at your portfolio they are weighing its worth and looking for a reason to either be impressed … or an excuse to dismiss you and your work and leave.

But once they take in the professionalism of the page layout, the quality of the work you’ve chosen to display there, the sophistication of the embellishments and the clarity and power of the words you’ve chosen — what else can you do to make sure they’re impressed?

Well, one thing that immediately comes to mind is your pricing. It’s funny, but it’s SO natural for us to judge the worth of something based on its price tag. Something priced low can’t possibly be worth much. It’s gotta be cheap. While something priced high MUST be valuable, or else why would it be priced that high?

This isn’t of course meant to imply that you should price your work at some ridiculous amount WAY above what anyone would ever likely pay for it. (Although, that said, I’ve seen plenty of god-awful modern art crap sell for insane amounts of money. Most of that kind of thing involves a complex system of scamming the ignorant rich out of their money though. It’s intellectual fraud. So I’ll leave that out of our discussion here.)

As a working figure, I suggest pricing your work at double or triple the hard cost of the print itself. That’s usually a fine starting point. In other words, if making the print (or the print and the framing, if it’s to be framed) will cost $300, then price the work at between $600 and $900.

If your work is especially awesome, and if you’re able to get in with the right affluent clientele, maybe go to four or even five times the cost of the hard print. But you’re going to need to be really good and have some solid positioning behind you to justify that kind of pricing in the eyes of potential buyers.

I mentioned earlier that you want to make it easy for your potential buyers to contact you and buy from you. Taking that further: if you can, come up with ways to even make them feel particularly special for having chosen one of your works (or for having chosen you, as the artist, to fulfill a commission or take on an artistic assignment). Something as simple as a small elegant card with a hand-written note inside (perhaps suggesting one or two other pieces that would compliment their first purchase perfectly) could end up turning one sale into several, could result in landing a private commission, or could lead to them referring you to their friends or family. Get creative and make an impression.

And be sure everywhere you appear online you make an impression. Everything needs to align and harmonize. If you have an Instagram account or a Facebook page, make sure it all FITS the impression you wish to convey about yourself as an artist.

You want to make it easy to share your work across the various social media platforms, but just be sure that anyone finding you gets the impression of you that you want them to get, and always give them an easy way of following you and of making it over to your portfolio page, where they can see your work the way you want it seen.

Also, look for ways to get your work OFF the internet and out in the real world. As in actual prints, out where people can see them in all their glory.

Ideally you’ll want to choose a few of your pieces to go out only as signed and numbered prints — which in itself elevates the positioning of your work and increases its perceived value in the eyes of buyers.

As I mentioned earlier, always be on the lookout for opportunities to present your work in cool places. Get some GREAT photos of it on display. Heck, stage some awesome shoots just to get cool photos of your work displayed in cool places.

I also suggest putting in the time to and effort to get your images published, so you can list those publications in your profile (possibly even including photos of your work in those magazines if it looks especially cool there).

Perhaps offer your work to some writers or bloggers online you admire greatly (ideally those who get the of the kind of traffic you’re after), in exchange for a link back to your portfolio site. The more impressive and well regarded these sites, the better.

Get your work exhibited, and build up your resume of where your work has been presented and use that to jazz up your bio.

Or if you work with cool clients, put in the legwork to build that list so you can establish some social proof of your professionalism.

And as soon as possible I encourage you to start taking on serious projects — for magazines, for businesses, for galleries, for charities — that will add up to a substantial body of work (and potential exhibitions). And wherever possible, look to put together projects with MEANING behind them. And of course above all, make sure to turn out your best work when you take these on. Because it’s here (with larger artistic projects) that real careers are most often made.

All of these ideas fall under the heading of building up your positioning as an artist, enhancing the perceived value of you and your work.

Again: the more important YOU appear in a buyer’s eyes, the more excited someone would be to talk about you and your work after they purchase it, the easier you make it for a husband or wife to justify the purchase to their spouse — the more you are going to be able to command in the marketplace.

Positioning, positioning, positioning.

If you look back, this whole essay was about ways to increase the perception others will have of you and the value they will assign to your work.

Take control of this, SHAPE it, and even as you continue to acquire ever greater mastery of your craft, you will soon find yourself enjoying a life more exciting than any you’ve experienced up till now.

Are you ready for it?

I already told you it’s going to take time and a lot of work.

But really, that’s not so hard. You’ve just gotta want it badly enough.

Then it’s actually a lot of fun.

– Sebastian



The image accompanying this post is a screenshot from the online portfolio page of AWAKE artist Athol Murray Phillips of South Africa. You can visit his ArtBoja portfolio by clicking here … But also take a moment to visit his website, which compliments his portfolio beautifully. You can see his website by clicking here instead … Showcasing yourself and your work in multiple places is a great strategy, as long as the overall feel remains the same and they all amplify one another. Athol has done a brilliant job of this.