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How to become an Illustrator

What’s so attractive about becoming an illustrator?

If you are highly creative with the ability to draw from your own imagination, as well as from life, to communicate a story, message or idea; if you are good at promoting yourself and confident enough in your own abilities to handle criticism, you might find yourself consider a career in illustration.

Illustration is a fantastic career path for people who love telling stories through pictures. Their work can help to clarify written text in books, magazines and online platforms and their creations can come to characterise how people visualise stories. Illustrators spend a lot of time developing a unique style that sets them apart from the rest and makes their work more attractive to clients who look to commission illustrations of a certain type. If you believe you have the talent and a career in illustration is an exciting prospect you should be aware of the facts to help you make an informed decision.

What does an illustrator actually do?

Illustrators tend to work on commission for clients from a wide range of industries. These include publishing, advertising, fashion, merchandising, corporate and medical. In publishing, illustrators will usually provide accompaniments to an author’s text in books, magazines, graphic novels, comics and online; in fashion they will provide illustrations for garment designs; in merchandising they create designs for greeting cards, t-shirts, mugs, etc.; in corporate they provide illustrations that meet the wide ranging needs of a company, for example, a pictorial display of fire evacuation procedures and in medical illustration, illustrators provide accurate illustrations of anatomy, equipment and experiments. These are just some of the opportunities for illustrators and at the start of your career you might be surprised by the variety of jobs you will have to do.

Although it is difficult to provide a definitive job description, typically the work of an illustrator would include:

  • Self-promotion – making contact with potential clients to ‘sell’ your skills
  • Setting up with an agency to help you promote your talent and protect your interests
  • Interpreting a brief
  • Working out costs
  • Negotiating a budget
  • Using your imagination to produce new ideas
  • Undertaking visual research and developing ‘rough’ ideas by sketching, drawing, Painting or working with computer aided design (CAD) illustration software
  • Meeting with clients, either face-to-face or online to present ideas and discuss the progress of a project
  • Updating and refreshing your portfolio in order to continually promote your work
  • Creating original examples of your work for self-promotion
  • Managing your own business if self- employed
  • Following a schedule and often to strict deadlines

How long would my working day be and what can I expect to earn?

Most illustrators work on a freelance basis so a typical day’s work will vary between individuals. The majority work from home or a small studio and spend their day looking for work or working on existing projects. The workload will fluctuate depending on the demands of the project. Illustrators work to strict deadlines and will often find themselves working long hours and weekends when deadlines are approaching. Travel to meet agents and clients is also common.


Illustrators will normally join an agency that will represent their interests. A representative will source work and match it to the illustrators they have on their books. This comes at a price and the average charge for representation is 20-30% of the payment for your work. Depending on their style, some illustrators quickly find a strong market for their work and receive many commissions whereas others may find it more difficult to become established.

A few examples of agencies are:

Professional illustrators will confirm that there are many more job opportunities if you are versatile and ready to take on any creative challenge.

And my salary?

It is very difficult to suggest an average salary as income depends on how prolific the illustrator is and how in demand they are, however, a hard-working illustrator will tend to start on £14, 000 to £19, 000p/a, a more established illustrator from £20, 000 – £30, 000p/a and senior illustrator around £40, 000p/a.

Illustrators are often responsible for calculating the cost of the work they provide and this can be tricky. Artist information company, a-n, has a useful tool to help illustrators calculate what they should charge for their work.
Planning your finances carefully is a must as the nature of freelance work means you could wait for up to 4 months for payment for a project.

What training do I need, how do I get it and where should I look?

In order to become a successful illustrator you will need the following skills and attributes:

  • Drawing skills, traditional or digital
  • An understanding of the creative process
  • Knowledge of colour, pattern and visual texture
  • The ability to identify interesting sources of inspiration
  • The ability to express creative ideas
  • The ability to interpret a brief and respond to client needs
  • The ability to work to deadlines
  • The ability to work on multiple projects at the same time
  • Good communication skills
  • Familiarity with current styles and trends in illustration and design

How about software skills?

Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and FreeHand are a few programmes you should become familiar with. The learning curve is steep at first but if you are to become a professional illustrator you will need to get used to working with computer aided design programmes (CADs) such as these. You should invest in an interactive pen and digital drawing tablet to improve your touch when working with the software mentioned above. A popular supplier of these is Wacom.

Do I need any qualifications?

Taking illustration classes to refresh your creativity and develop your techniques can be useful, but if you’re really serious about making this your career then you should consider enrolling on an illustration course that leads to an accredited qualification. There is no doubt that agencies and clients expect illustrators to have relevant qualifications; this gives them confidence in your ability. Most professional illustrators will have an HND, foundation degree or honours degree in illustration or another art and design-related discipline. Studying towards a recognised qualification has the added advantage of enabling you to build an individual and professional portfolio of creative work that helps showcase your design skills.

Contact us today to find out more about the BA (Hons) Illustration course…

Choosing a course

Take care to choose the type of course and mode of study most appropriate to your needs. Full time study at an attendance based college or university is the norm, but this usually involves relocating, and if you have work or family commitments this may not suit you. You may prefer a flexible, affordable alternative such as an online course which can be studied on a part time basis. You need to be confident that the course you take really does prepare you for the profession, so don’t be afraid to ask questions of the provider.

Research your course options

The internet is your best source of information about the huge variety of courses available to prospective graphic designers. There is a lot of information out there so you should take time to search thoroughly and contact the institution directly should you require advice, guidance or information; their response often provides a good indication of how student friendly and efficient the organization will be.

Stuff to make you stand out

Illustration is a very popular career and there is tough competition for work. You should research current trends in the industry and develop your own unique style that sets your work apart from the rest. Building an impressive portfolio is vital and if you join an agency it will be your portfolio that they use to show potential clients. Get your work noticed by using the internet to promote yourself. Consider setting up a website or blog and contribute to other blog posts to showcase your style. You should contemplate watermarking images you share to protect them from copyright infringement.

The big picture; where does illustration fit into the creative and cultural industries?

The creative and cultural industry is a broad based term used to describe a wide range of economic activities associated with the Arts and the generation of knowledge and information. This “creative economy” includes disciplines such as architecture, the visual arts, advertising, craft, cultural heritage, literature and publishing, the performing arts, film music, and the television and radio media.
The design industry is also contained within this grouping and encompasses a sub section of design related disciplines such as communications, product and industrial design, interior design, exhibition and event design, digital design and illustration.
Design is ubiquitous; it forms an integral part of contemporary life and culture combining functionality, practicality, creativity and aesthetics, to provide solutions that make living simpler and conducting business more effective.

What is the relevance of these industries; how do they contribute to the economy?

Global economies are driven by a combination of competition and market forces and these in turn are determined by the countries, cities, companies and individuals who develop a competitive edge. Even in times of recession, intelligent companies will invest in the creative and innovative solutions that the creative industries can provide; advertising, branding and establishing media presence being prime examples.
You may be surprised to learn that the creative industries generate as many jobs globally as the financial services: 4% of the total work force. While there has been a 13% growth in employment in all industries over the last 30 years, there has been a staggering 37% growth in the creative industries alone.

What does this mean in terms of jobs?

The latest figures from the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport show that the creative and cultural industries grew by almost 10% in 2012 making it the country’s fastest growing sector. The design industry contributed to this growth and is worth $2.5 billion a year. This rise was reflected in the number of jobs with employment in design rising by 16% to 116, 000 people.
Prospects in illustration will benefit from this growth but you should still keep in mind that specialising in a particular field can greatly increase your job prospects. For example, in medical illustration there are fewer than 2,000 trained practitioners worldwide and the demand is above this providing good opportunity for work.

You will find the following links essential when searching for jobs and information about trends within the industry.

And finally

Some inspirational words of advice from Emma Block, successful freelance illustrator:

There is no standard career path to becoming an illustrator. To be honest, it’s a bit of a weird career. I wake up every morning hugely grateful that drawing is my job; it’s almost too good to be real…
What I’ve learned so far: have a good online presence, be nice to people, know your industry, don’t just do what’s expected of you – work harder and do more, learned to accept rejection, value your work, be patient and love what you do.

IDI is the leading provider of Illustration Degrees online in the UK – Enrol Today and Start your Journey towards an illustration career.

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