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Great Personal Work or Less Interesting Commercial Work: Which Is Better?

Question: Should creative, non-client work be showcased over paid work that is less creative?

When an illustrator first gets out of school, he or she has a portfolio full of personal work that’s geared toward the markets he or she wants to work in. It’s exciting to get that first published piece, and it’s even more exciting to see a job lead to another job and so on.

I’ve talked with a few illustrators and have found that it’s not uncommon to take on paid work that veers a little bit from what you typically show in your portfolio. Here are four things to think about in terms of showing personal work vs. published work.

The Creative Lab  personal work  illustrator Daniel Fishel resized 600

© Daniel Fishel

Do you want to show the artwork in your portfolio because it’s a great piece of art, or because it’s a huge client name?

Working with a client is a collaboration. The client contacted you because he or she saw something that connected with the project he or she is stringing together. Most of the time, these connections make sense, the project runs smoothly without a hitch and everyone is happy. But once in a while, you’ll be assigned something that is a challenge. You take on the assignment and the artwork doesn’t turn out exactly the way you would have wanted, but it solves the client’s problem. You might want to share the piece with everyone if it’s for a big-name client, but it might personally feel like a disappointment if the piece isn’t something you’re happy with. Don’t share work that you don’t feel 100% satisfied with.

Are you approaching your client work differently than your personal work?

Sometimes, you get psyched out when you get a client call from a bigger-name client. You start thinking about how they would want to see the finished art, as opposed to how you would solve it on your own. But when someone hires you, they are hiring you because they saw what you do for yourself and they want you to do the same thing for their visual problem. So stop second guessing yourself and put “yourself” into the presented brief.

Are you taking on client work that you would be satisfied working on?

If you’re accepting client work that fits what you do best, you’ll feel good working on it. If you enjoy taking dry concepts and turning them into beautiful images, then do it. If you’re someone who loves to draw worlds that look and feel like you could live in them today, then do it. But accepting work that you feel hurts you creatively does you a disservice – and the client won’t get your best effort.

Only show your best work.

You have to ask yourself: would you rather share just your personal work, just your commercial work or a mixture of both? There is no right answer. I personally show a mixture of both client work and personal work because it’s important for me to show a parallel between what I do personally and how I approach work for a client. Angie Wang (, who is an illustrator based out of California, almost exclusively shows personal work on her website, but is a regular contributor to heavy-hitter clients. Every illustrator wants to prove his or her credibility by showing work done for any number of clients. In the end, if the work is good, client work will follow.

About Daniel

Daniel Fishel is an illustrator and hand letterer who originally hails from the Keystone state but resides in Queens, NY. Daniel’s has worked with a range of clients such as The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Nylon Guys Magazine, Arizona Iced Tea, Lands End, No Sleep Records and many others. His work has been recognized by American Illustration, the Society of illustrators and 3×3 Magazine. Daniel Fishel Illustration + Design

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2. Between Jobs, Hone your Craft – and Illustration Business

3. Creativity is Your Best Marketing Weapon

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