Web portfolio tips for visual artists

March 16, 2017

I’ve created this website and my various portfolio websites with WordPress. The following tips are oriented around that environment, but even if you go elsewhere, you may find some helpful suggestions here.

First, even if you know web design, I strongly recommend that you utilize a theme designed by somebody else. If you’re like me, you’re never truly satisfied with your work and you’ll be inclined to tinker at your portfolio’s design long after you should have left it alone. A few years ago, I spent at least 6 months working on an all-compassing web site for my visual work, my writing, and my various dumb opinions, and soon after it went live, I decided that I hated the whole thing. I then bought a great theme for $40 and was done a few days later. Had I just bought the theme upfront (or used a free theme) I would have saved hundreds of hours of aggravation.

You may also find that somebody has already solved the issues that you’re going to encounter as you design your own site. No designer re-invents the wheel (nor should they), so why not piggyback onto the work that somebody has already done. There’s no shame in collaborating with an anonymous web designer who is making his/her work available for you to use. A good portfolio theme will emphasize your original content anyway.

With pre-existing templates you may find that the designer utilized specific dimensions for its thumbnails. Resist the temptation to overrule that decision. Yes, the theme may crop your art in ways that you didn’t expect when you were creating your art, but there are plug-ins that will help you fine tune those decisions. Don’t be so precious with your art that you’ll only allow the full image to be shown. Cropped thumbnails often make for a more compelling design, and overruling the choices made by your web designer defeats the purpose of using the design in the first place.  

In dealing with thumbnails (aka Featured Images), I use the following plugins:

Manual Image Crop (link) – allows you to make changes to the automatic cropping that may happen with your theme. The alternative is to manually crop the images offline and upload them through your host server — a lot of extra steps that you don’t need to take. I know this firsthand.

A extra note on cropping: this plugin allows you to select the quality of the cropped image. I recommend that you use the default 80% level. File size impacts the speed of your website, which impacts the SEO of your website. Bumping up the level to 100% means bigger files, which is an unnecessary burden. Likewise, putting the highest quality of images on your website just makes it easier for your work to be stolen. Nobody is going to your portfolio expecting to find 5000px images.

Quick Featured Images (link) – adds greater automation to the creation of thumbnails, most of which is not helpful for artists, who would have no use for automating their visuals. However, one of the extra benefits of this plugin is that it creates of a column in the main “All Posts” screen showing the various thumbnails of the posts. When you’re organizing your portfolio, this visual information is extremely helpful.

Hide Featured Image (link) – helps you counteract how your theme utilizes thumbnails. Some portfolio themes rely on thumbnails in a gallery layout, but when you click on the individual image, you’re taken to a single page that shows the same cropped image, instead of the original art. Embedding the original art in the post just means that you now have 2 versions of the art on the page. By using this plugin, you override the use of the thumbnail on the single page without having to recode the template.

SEO Friendly Images (link) – is one of many various plugins that facilitates the addition of titles and ALT text when you upload your images. Both of these attributes help the SEO of your site, especially if you’re a fine artist who doesn’t title your work with a description of the content. In other words, if you’re painting a bowl of fruit and calling it “Wanton Destruction of the Indigenous People,” then Google image search won’t help people find your work. Google can detect the color and form of your images, but it can’t accurately determine what the color and form represents without reading the adjacent text.

With that in mind, there are a few things you can do to help search engines properly identify your work. First, you can title your file properly. Better to name your image Mona-Lisa.jpg than IMG_04325.jpg. Even better, name your file oil-painting-of-Italian-woman-with-demure-smile.jpg.

I also make it a practice to file my work in appropriately named categories and subcategories. Therefore, the URL of my art isn’t DaVinci.com/Mona-Lisa.jpg, it’s DaVinci.com/portfolio/oil-paintings/Mona-Lisa.jpg. This and other SEO tips can be a little dubious since Google is tight-lipped about how their algorithms actually work. But it’s widely accepted in the SEO world that descriptive URL’s are helpful, so be sure to set your permalinks to a custom structure. Specifically you should type /%category%/%postname% in the appropriate blank. This will also add the word “category” to your URL (DaVinci.com/category/portfolio/Mona-Lisa) but there are plugins that will hide that from viewers, if you’re so inclined.

Be sure to set your permalink structure immediately upon setting up your website. If you delay until after other people have started linking to your work, changing the permalinks will ruin those links. Similarly, you should be sure to add the ALT text in the beginning. You can always modify titles and ALT text later, but if you’ve already embedded those images into WordPress posts, the text won’t be updated automatically. Multiply that times 100 photos or drawings, and you’ve got a lot of editing to do.

In general, it’s a good idea to utilize ALT fields as they were intended — to describe what the image is. Google SEO practices might be secret, but it’s clear that they trend towards rewarding authenticity and penalizing spam. For our Mona Lisa example, it’s much better for the ALT text to say “an oil painting portrait of Lisa Gherardini the wife of Francesco del Giocondo” than to say “photo of Kim Kardashian’s boobs.” You might get a few extra views to your website by using fake descriptions, but you are unlikely to gain any new fans for your work, unless you happen to stumble upon that one internet unicorn who went looking for nude celebrities, and was satisfied to discover your still life paintings. Likewise, extra unrelated keywords are likely to hurt, not help your SEO. Don’t think you can add the top 50 most popular search terms to your post and think you’ll strike gold.

One last thing on ALT text, it is likely that only 16 words of your ALT text will appear in search engine results. If you’re inclined to add more keywords than that, or to add greater context, I would recommend adding that text in the body of your post. You can either make it a legitimate artist’s statement that you intend your patrons to read, or you could set up a CSS class that would hide the text from view. Regardless, keep in mind that your descriptions should be legitimate, for both Google and viewers, rather than give the impression that your cruising for cheap page views.