Yohann Schepacz is a concept artist and illustrator with over ten years experience who founded Oxan Studio, a visual development studio in Montreal. You may recognize some of his work in Horizon Zero Dawn, Magic The Gathering, Rise of the Tomb Raider and more.
He stresses the importance of presentation in a portfolio, which is why ArtStation Pro portfolio themes are a great quick and easy solution for doing the trick. In this interview, Yohann talks about important practices a lot of artists forget about and how to best build your portfolio to promote your work.
What is the best piece of art advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of great artists who directly or indirectly have given me so much advise so it’s hard to pin one in particular.
That being said, here is one that should resonate. Thanks to BEEPLE for that gem!
What is your approach when it comes to promoting your work?
The first time I went to New York, I remember being really stricken by the shop windows on 5th Avenue. Displayed in them every year is the best these brands have to offer. Not the work in progress, nor the half-finished work, nor the i-didn’t-have-time-to-finish-but-trust-me-in-my-head-it’s-amazing-work. Often the most expansive pieces have been deployed and every detail has been thought through a hundred times over. There is great engaging narrative at work, plus it’s clever and inventive. It’s amazing and you’re transported, you want more! But there is a catch, they usually leave the price out.
Those window displays are meant to show effortlessly (and so should your portfolio ideally) not only great technical craftsmanship but also often daring and inventive ideas and concepts. They try to transcend the medium, to make you forget about the thing they want to sell you and instead try to transport you into the fantasy the brand/artist is going for. You want to throw money at the store.
More often than not I have noticed that clients, art directors, producers make emotional decisions rather than rational ones. The first impression, the immediate emotional response is decisive.
Stories are a great way to create engagement, mystery, and ideally questions, you make people wonder and relate and fantasize. So simple yet so effective. Once I realized the effect it had on me, I tried to apply this to my own portfolio design.
I didn’t invent any of that. It’s just basic marketing strategies formulated ages ago really. If you think about it, if those big brands with their huge marketing team do it, there must be well-informed reasons behind it. Maybe there is something to learn from that? Your portfolio should be like a storefront because it is.
What makes a strong portfolio?
When it comes to portfolio design, presentation is everything. Aim for elegant emotionally inspiring art and presentation. From my experience, you can’t go wrong with that. From the artwork itself (obviously) to the title to the signature to the order in which your pieces are put together, the descriptions etc. Everything plays a part in the first impression.
There are several gates to get the “amazing portfolio” award :
First gate : Technical skills. Show you can create outstanding visual works but also match the employer’s project technical quality. Show you fit in and show you can make your employer’s product at least as good or better than other artists can. That way they know instantly they will make more money using you. Good design is good business.
Second gate: Creativity. Inventiveness is the name of the game. A good idea is magical, it shocks and opens hearts and brains really fast but of course it’s really hard to find.
Show that you can make your art stand out from the crowd even with a boring banal subject matter because your take on it is fresh. Hiring someone that can’t do that doesn’t really make much sense. That also often shows how much research and thought an artist is capable of putting into its work. Especially the boring stuff. If you can make a boring subject fresh and exciting, you instantly become very valuable to anyone.
Being able to do that also shows that you have great spirit and motivation, and that you are going to give your best shot at everything your employer is going to throw at you.
Third gate : Versatility.
It enables you to accept more job offers ( or assignments when you are in house so you become more valuable on the long term to any employers), so there are more chances you get more work on a regular basis and before you know it you are making a living out of it!
Working relationships take time and efforts to establish and maintain on both sides. Once an employer/client has had a successful and smooth collaboration with you there’s no reason why they shouldn’t give you more work right away or in the future if you made sure they know you can do more.
Bearing all that in mind, be bluntly honest with yourself and your work. Imagine yourself as the employer/client receiving this folio in your email. You may have to take out everything that doesn’t pass those 3 gates. And then work hard to create the works that will. There are no shortcuts or magic brushes to do that for you, they do make things a little faster but that’s it.
It took me about 6-7 years to create mine so that it would withstand those tests. Slowly people started to walk in my store, ask how much and accept my prices! Music from the heavens let me tell you!
I still work at it and try to refresh my portfolio all the time. You can never rest on your laurels. It must be constantly on your mind, especially early on. If you think about it, any brand or company tries to constantly stay relevant by continuously working and improving on its own formulas while following and adapting to the trends and the market. We’re in the business of making and selling our art so the same rules apply.
What kind of training/experience got you to the level you’re at today?
Nothing really out of the ordinary : 12 hrs a day / 6-7 days a week / 5-10 years minimum to become marketable and get into a decent job pond that pays regularly enough so you can make a living out of it.
The followings also helps : An inclination for masochism. An obsessive-compulsive nature. Taste for gruesome hard work, tons of sacrifices, diligence and conscientiousness are imperative and also relentlessness and so on.
After that I would also add: get your shit together as fast as possible. Work out what’s your ideal version of your future self as an pro artist and then work on your personal mental and physical weaknesses as soon as possible to get there. We all have them. Stare at that abyss and get to the bottom of it!
This introspective art thing will eat you alive and bury you if you don’t or at least will keep you from reaching that ideal. This stuff gets in the way of your ascension right from the start. So the sooner you lift those barriers up the better off you will be. That’s what I did anyway and trust me, I got rid of quite a few skeletons from my closet.
It’s gruesome and painful work to be honest, it’s very unpleasant. It takes forever but it’s worth it. It’ll make everything easier in the long run. Iron out everything that’s in the way of allowing you to be working happily and efficiently on a daily basis for the rest of your life. Make no mistake – this is Sparta, not the Club Med you signed up for!
Lastly, getting into any kind of regular physical activity for the rest of your life is crucial if you want to play the long game. Trust me, I didn’t and it sucks big time to catch up after your 30’s. Now I try to think about it this way: I would personally like to die of old age at around 90 or more with a pencil or a brush in hand sketching a beautiful female model or something. That seems like a great way to go for some reason. But not taking care of my health will definitely keep me from getting there. There are plenty of examples in the past to learn from in that regard. So that’s motivation right there. Find solace where you can right ?