Creating A Portfolio Website 101

Your illustration portfolio website will likely be the main tool in your marketing arsenal so it’s important to get it right.

Through personal and professional experience (as web designers for 5+ years), extensive research and having posed the question to a number of Art Directors, in this article we’ll be covering everything you need to include in your portfolio site and the best online tools to use to build it.

Why Have A Portfolio Website?

Long gone are the days where you’re able to make appointments with Art Directors to show them your physical portfolio, and in this age of the internet, having a portfolio website online is non-negotiable if you’re serious about getting work.

Getting face-to-face time with an Art Director is no longer a viable option so you need to provide a way for them to check out more of your work and portfolio without the cost or lengthy delay of sending them actual printed promotional pieces.

Enter, the portfolio website…

What Are Art Directors Looking For?

A typical scenario goes a bit like this…

Your postcard mailer arrives on an Art Directors desk and they like the look of your work, they head over to your website and are impressed.

They decide to hire you but…wait a minute!

…There are no contact details on your site or postcard so they have no idea how to get in touch and do not have enough time to search for you on Google or elsewhere to figure out how to contact you.

Sounds unbelievable right? But it happens, we’ve heard Art Directors relay this exact same scenario on more than one occasion.

The job of your portfolio website is to make it as easy as possible for Art Directors and/or Publishers to hire you.

Website Checklist

Based upon conversations with art directors and the advice they themselves post on their own blogs and websites, here’s a checklist of what they’re looking for on your site:

  1. Website Navigation – clear navigation which makes it easy to find what they’re looking for.
  2. Image Gallery – the portfolio gallery should ideally be on the home page of the site so it’s easy to find and one of the first things a visitor sees.
  3. Images – quick loading, web optimised images. Tip: Use a free application like PicMonkey to optimise your images.
  4. Thumbnails – easy-to-see, clickable thumbnails that show the entire illustration or at least enough to be able to distinguish what is on the image.
  5. Image URLs – a separate, individual URL for each image in your portfolio. Give each image it’s own URL so that an Art Director can bookmark it for reference or to share easily with a colleague.
  6. Samples – work samples which show the kind of work you’d like to be hired for (and make sure it’s your best work too) and which are relevant to the Art Director you are contacting.
  7. Style – a clear and consistent style of work throughout your portfolio.
  8. About you – a compelling about page with a photograph of you will show you’re a real person and could make you more memorable to an Art Director who sees too many names & faces to remember each week.
  9. Contact – your contact details should ideally be on every page or at least clearly listed in your navigation options.
  10. Testimonials – a list of clients you have worked for previously and/or any relevant industry competitions you have won demonstrate any existing credentials and professional experience you have.

And perhaps just as importantly, here’s a checklist of what shouldn’t be on your portfolio website:

  1. Landing page – or splash page, however nice, is often redundant and forces a visitor to make yet another click just to enter your site.
  2. Flash animation – that are slow to load and leave a visitor waiting for ages for your site or each page to load. Obviously if you’re demonstrating flash skills or animation skills, these may be necessary but if you’re not, then leave them off.
  3. Music – especially the kind which starts automatically as soon as your website loads.Research proven that this is annoying to almost all web visitors so the last thing you want to do before an Art Director has even browsed through your work is to p*ss them off with unnecessary music!
  4. Unidentifiable Thumbnails – using small, hard to identify thumbnails to represent each piece in your portfolio is a no-no for 2 reasons; firstly because it won’t showcase your work and entice visitors to click on the thumbnail to see more (if they’re not sure what they’re going to see, most visitors will simply click away rather than click where you want them out of curiosity) and secondly because if an Art Director wants to revisit a piece he’d seen earlier, an irrelevant, hard-to-identify thumbnail won’t help him find it.

The Platforms To Build Your Website

If you’re new to web development, there are a number of different options available to build your portfolio website with.

The most popular options for illustrators and artists include:

  • HTML
  • Blogger
  • Premium, hosted portfolio websites such as SquareSpace
  • WordPress

Here’s a brief summary of each option:


One of the benefits of building a site in html is that you have complete control over how it looks and the layout of it, without having to compromise what you want, based on the limitations of a platform.

In order to build a site in HTML, you’ll need to have the right software – the most popular program is Dreamweaver.

It’s relatively simple to use if you’ve got a basic knowledge of HTML but if you’re completely new, then it will be a steep learning curve. You’ll also need some experience with web design – especially when it comes to layout and structure – since this essentially gives you a blank canvas from which to start.

This option is good if you have a very clear idea of how you want your site to look and it’s a more unconventional structure and layout, plus you have the budget to hire a professional to build the site for you, if you’re a complete beginner.

Premium-hosted portfolio website

This is a more professional option since you often have more control about the layout, look and feel of your site. It’s a good option if you have more cash to invest but don’t want to have to think about controlling or managing any of the back-end technical aspects – nor having to design a custom website to house your portfolio.

One of the main drawbacks however is cost – and putting all your eggs in one basket. When you use one of these sites as your primary online portfolio, you’re held hostage to any price increases, any downtime of their services and you don’t have 100% control of your content. If that suits you, then this option is a good solution for you.


This is a popular choice for many illustrators but it’s not the best. Blogger is a hosted blogging platform from Google and the reason it’s so popular is that it’s super simple to set up and get started. However, from a professional point of view, it’s the least professional option.

Unless you have HTML, PHP and CSS knowledge, you will also be limited to the default layout and theme options which don’t give you much choice when it comes to personal branding.

However, as it’s a blogging platform, you get a blog right from the start which is useful if blogging is one of you’re preferred methods of marketing yourself.

This option is good if you’re brand new, want to play around without having to pay anything and get a feel for having an online portfolio with an integrated blogging function.


WordPress is fast becoming the standard choice for illustration professionals.

It’s very cost effective (WordPress itself is free, you’ll just need to pay for hosting), relatively simple to install and infinitely customisable.

It comes with integrated blogging functionality and if you’re looking to maintain 100% control over your content, structure, layout and design, it gives you all of that too.

It helps however if you have some basic HTML and CSS knowledge, especially if you’re looking to customise the site layout and design – although there are hundreds of free themes available so you may find one which suits your needs.

This option is good if you want the flexibility to grow and the overall control of your content without having to pay a premium to another company.

The Structure & Content Of Your Portfolio Website

You’ve already seen the top tips from Art Directors, but from a website design perspective, here are a few tips to help you design and build an easy-to-use, compelling website which delivers everything you need for your illustration business:

Your site should have the following pages, at the very least:

  • Home– which houses your portfolio gallery
    • Individual page for each piece in your gallery – be sure to include your best pieces and those which are the most representative of the kind of work you want to be hired for.
  • About – with a photo of you and some compelling information which gives Art Directors a “get to know you” pitch and helps you stand out from the crowd. Often overlooked, this is actually the 2nd most important page of most websites, according to website visitor statistics.
  • Clients & Testimonials – having a showcase of previous work you’ve completed, alongside testimonials from satisfied clients is a great way to show other Art Directors that you’re good to work with and that others have said this about you.
  • Contact – you read the above scenario, right? Make sure it’s easy to contact you from your site so this means having your email, a phone number and sometimes a mailing address available and easy-to-find. You might also like to include links to your social media profiles, but only do this if you’re comfortable that you’re social media use is suitable for professional clients to read.

Other pages you might consider including are:

  • A Blog – many illustrators choose to have a blog these days but you need to be very clear about what your blog is for and what purpose it’s serving on your site.Plus for a blog to be a truly effective tool for your business, you need to able to commit to keeping it updated – sporadic posts on a neglected, poorly-maintained blog will add very little to your site, so think seriously about what purpose your blog will serve and whether you have the time to commit to blogging, before you decide to add one.
  • FAQs or How This Works – this is really useful if new clients have never worked with a professional illustrator before.Simply outlining the process and key stages in the process helps give them an idea of what to expect and even the time frames you may work to – clients might not realise that there’s an initial concept stage before you work on the final piece nor will they know you prefer a deposit in advance unless you tell them.This is an opportunity to describe your process and answer any questions they may have without actually having to get on the phone with someone who isn’t yet a serious prospect.
  • Terms & Conditions – again, this is useful if you tend to work with clients who aren’t used to hiring professional illustrators.Having a page on your site (which doesn’t have to be on the navigation bar) which outlines your terms and conditions can help you build more efficient client management processes without having to reinvent the wheel for each new client.

Everything on your site should be easy to find and visitors shouldn’t get lost:

  • Don’t have lots and lots of pages/options on the navigation bar – try and keep it simple and use “child”/sub menus if necessary.
  • If you do use sub menus, keep these simple and don’t use more than 3 nested levels in total.
  • Don’t try to be clever and call your pages odd things – keep it simple so Art Directors can find their way around without having to guess what you’ve put on your cleverly-named pages.

You need to direct and guide a visitor whenever they reach an end point:

  • Have a Call-To-Action at the end of every page and every natural “end point” on your site. When a visitor gets to the end of a page or a section, they’ll often wonder where to go next.You can help point them in the direction you’d like them to go by including a Call To Action – this can be as simple as saying “Click here to view my blog” or “Come and say hi on Twitter”.
  • Use your Call To Action to encourage a visitor to interact with you or get to know you/your work better – one of the best things a visitor to your site can do is to take action to get in touch with you further; this is the holy grail of website design…compelling a visitor to actually take action rather than clicking off your site.Use a call to action at logical points throughout your site to encourage a visitor to contact you and get in touch.
  • When you’re planning and designing your site, try and take your visitors on a journey – and then use your calls to action to lead them on this journey throughout your site by providing sign posts along the way.This is what a professional web designer should help you do so if you don’t plan to hire one, make sure you do this yourself.

Extra Tips for An Art Licensing Portfolio Website

If you’re creating a portfolio website for art licensing, there are a few additional things you need to consider…

Firstly, you’ll need to set up an individual portfolio website for your art licensing work – separate from your standard illustration portfolio website.

This is because the work you need to show for art licensing clients is typically quite different from the work you need to display for other illustration commissions.

Ensure your art licensing portfolio website meets the following criteria:

  • Make it easy for art licensing clients (manufacturers) to find samples of your work on the site.
  • Don’t show everything you’ve got on your site – some manufacturers might not want images to be made public yet.
  • Encourage potential clients to sign up to see your whole collections so you’ve got their details to follow up with and it also keeps your collections private.
  • Show your designs mocked up on actual products (e.g. T-shirts, material etc.) – give manufacturers a visual example of how your work will look on one of their products.

Your Getting Started Action List

The above guide should provide you with some good basic ground rules to get a portfolio website up and running.

Here’s your 101 Action List so you know exactly what steps you need to take:

Step 1: Which platform?

Decide which platform you’re going to use for your portfolio site. See our summaries above for a run-down of te main benefits and disadvantages of each.

We recommend: Self-hosted WordPress site.

Step 2:Website Design

Design your website. This can include doing basic wireframing for the layout to figure out what elements you want on your pages and where they should sit, as well as the logo/branding and colour scheme you’re going to use.

Step 3: Domain Registration

If you’re going to use WordPress, you’ll need to choose and register a domain name (check first that the web hosting company you use doesn’t offer free registration with a hosting plan – the ones we recommend do).

We recommend: Mighty Domain Names for domain registration only (not hosting, see below for hosting)

Step 4: Web Hosting

Purchase web hosting – you don’t need anything fancy and you shouldn’t need to pay more than around $7 per month.

We recommend: Bluehost

Step 5: Install WordPress

Install WordPress from your web host control panel. In many control panels, this should be a simple 1-click installation process.

Step 6: Configure WordPress

Configure WordPress and upload your chosen theme. The theme you choose will depend upon your website design – you may like to check out the available themes first to see what already exists before you reinvent the wheel from scratch 🙂

We recommend: WooThemes or Headway Themes.

Step 7: Implement Your Design

Apply the design to your site by customising, tweaking and configuring your theme.

Step 8: Structure Your Site

Set up your page structure and add content, including your images/portfolio gallery. This is a vital part of constructing your site and making it usable, so ensure you pay close attention to this step.

Step 9: Test Your Site

Do your own “user testing” – check each link works on your site, check your images display correctly and quickly (make sure you’ve optimised them for the web so they load quickly) and go through our checklist above to ensure your site meets all the criteria that Art Directors are looking for.

Once you’ve done this, ask a friend to check out your site and give feedback – or watch as they click around it and see how they use it, where they click and how easy they find to navigate it.

This is an invaluable step – don’t skip it!

We recommend: User Testing

Congratulations! You should now have a Portfolio Website up and running which showcases your illustration and art beautifully.

6 Responses to Creating A Portfolio Website 101

  1. […] One solution is a WordPress-powered website – it is a powerful and easy-to-use system which is no longer restricted to just being a blogging platform. You can find out more about the other options in the guide to Creating A Portfolio Website. […]

  2. […] up an individual portfolio website for your art licensing work – separate from your standard illustration portfolio website. This is because the work you need to show for art licensing clients is typically quite different […]

  3. Really loved this post because I’m a recent convert to Headway for many of the reasons you mentioned. In fact, I had been using Thesis to design and code our clients’ websites but we’re going to be moving all our new clients to Headway because it’s just so easy to customize.

    Thanks for posting a treasure trove of information on how to properly develop a website. Well done.

    BTW, really love the design and font choices on your site. Very clean and easy on the eyes.

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