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Artist Resume: What It Is & What It Does

Andrew Johnson wrote a great article about resumes: what it is and what it does for an artist, what information is worth mentioning and what’s better to drop… look for the second part next week!

Artist Resumes: A Primer

Is a resume really all that important if you have a great portfolio? For artists, I think this is sometimes like asking, “is a birthday card really all that important if you’re giving a nice gift?” The two items are related in the abstract, but one clearly has dominant importance and therefore should be the focus of one’s efforts. This approach has also seemingly taken hold in some art schools that increasingly treat the resume/ CV as more and more of an afterthought.

While the answer might vary from one professional to another, I think that the lighter view of the resume as an optional (or otherwise lesser) document overshadowed by a great portfolio is a serious misstep. In fact, I will argue that a great portfolio without a well-written resume isn’t that great at all.

In this article, I’ll talk about why that might be – and provide some suggestions to common questions or problems I’ve seen over my past decade in reviewing hundreds of portfolios of both students and seasoned professionals from all over the world. Not every suggestion or argument may be relevant (or correct) for every particular situation, but I hope that the broad strokes of this article might help provide at least a starting point for artists reviewing their professional documentation.

What’s in a resume?

What a resume IS… and what a resume DOES: these are two slightly different but important concepts to consider when considering your own work history.

What it IS

In broad terms, a resume (or CV) is an objective, formal document summarizing your employment and education history. When designing a resume, I recommend the following flow of thought:

  1. Who I am
  2. How you can reach me
  3. What I’ve done
  4. What I can do for you
  5. Where I learned it

Let’s unpack this a little.

Who I am & How you can reach me.  It’s obviously important for a prospective employer to know who you are, identify you with your portfolio, and have contact information so that they can reach you. It is also wise to include in at least one version of your resume (we’ll get to versions in another article) a home or mailing address. This is often left off of resumes for what I would suppose are privacy reasons. While that’s understandable on some level, consider that your address might also have practical and financial significance to a client, especially if employment might mean moving you out of a city, state, province, or country.

What I’ve done. “Ah!” someone will interject, “THIS should actually be the spot where you place “OBJECTIVE.” To that person, I kindly suggest: “hold your horses.” We’ll get to “objectives” in another article… but for now, just go with me. This is normally the spot where you should put your work history. To be clear, this is NOT the work you’ve done for fun, for your family, schoolwork, or traumatic life events that you worked through (such as a divorce or caring for an ill parent), but work where you’ve exchanged time and behavior for money. That kind of work.

This section should include headings for businesses with whom you’ve collaborated, start and end dates, and a list of duties at that position that can be objectively verified if necessary. Is being a “self-starter,” or “creative ninja” a job duty that should be listed? No, because that is subjective editorializing, and therefore inadmissible as evidence of your duties (not to mention, a bit corny?).

What I can do for you. I used to call this section “how I did it,” in reference to the previous work history section – but these are sometimes at odds. If your last job was McDonald’s, your skill set for that job may not be the same as the skill set you’re bringing to a studio. Regardless, this section is about the skill set that you can bring to your prospective client, not to your past clients. This too should be objective, and typically should include skills that you’ve demonstrated in your portfolio.

For artists, I recommend breaking this section into two parts. One section should be a list of general art fundamentals skills, such as “character design,” “concept art,” “animation,” “color theory,” “print layout,” and the like.

Another section should be called “Technical Skills,” and should include software with which you are at least fairly proficient – Photoshop, Illustrator, 3D Studio Max, Maya, Substance, Unreal, Unity, Subversion, Microsoft Office Suite and many other software programs may all appeal to potential clients. Maybe don’t list “that one day that you ‘touched’ Houdini” as a proficiency though.

Where I learned it. This is obviously about education. It’s a public secret in the art world – but a formal college education is usually not necessary (though typically desirable for a number of reasons I won’t go into here) to get a foot in the door. What’s important is giving employers some sense of where you’re coming from. If you went to Cal Arts, awesome! If you watched and practiced from Gnomon tutorials or even Ctrl+ Paint that’s fine! Unless you are looking to teach at a school, (degrees, in that case, are typically necessary), the important thing is usually whether you can do the job.

Regardless, do list where you learned your skills, your degree (if applicable), and any academic accolades you might have received. Your portfolio is typically more important than where you learned your trade, but most employers expect to see this section (especially if you are an emerging artist), so it is wise to list education – the least important aspect of your resume – at the end.

What it DOES

Having now considered what a resume IS, let’s talk about what a resume DOES. For an artist, a resume provides in the text all the information that a portfolio CAN’T – and maybe never could. A portfolio cannot give contact information, give a history of responsibility, list technical information, or level of education. Further – and perhaps most importantly – a portfolio does not speak across the spectrum of experience and career paths the way a resume can.

When clients, human resources representatives, or even recruiters see art, they may only see work that falls into two categories: “possible” and “no.” Some reviewers may be savvy enough to know the exact art skill sets and background that might be required, but it’s also possible they won’t.

If you are looking for new employment, you’ll likely have no idea who may be looking over your portfolio. You, therefore, should not assume that your art – striking though it may be – will be enough to impress non-artists who may not understand your process or knowledge base and who are screening the massive amount of work applicants present every day. However, a good resume will compliment a strong portfolio and help get everyone on the same page by clarifying experience and skills sets for all parties involved in the hiring process.

THIS is why a great portfolio includes a well-written resume – because the portfolio catalog and resume are part of a larger whole. It’s not a “birthday gift and a card” – as analogies go, it’s more like video with audio!

My argument is that portfolio is part of a larger product. It’s a product meant to entice a prospective employer to hire you – but If your portfolio does not include supporting documentation to speak directly to the people and points that your art can’t – then is the product you’ve constructed even complete?

Artists tend not to discuss CVs, probably because they are not super exciting… or art? But they are pretty important professional documentation. As an artist writing for artists, here’s part 1 (of 2) of my thoughts on the subject! Focusing on art in your portfolio catalog is a time-intensive activity. It’s much faster to change some writing than start an art project from scratch – so yes! Your art should always take priority if you are updating career materials. When it comes down to it, your work will likely be the thing that lands you an interview. However, two things can be true at the same time: your portfolio might get you the job, and your resume might mean consideration in the first place. It’s not worth neglecting either.

Andrew Johnson


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