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How to Become 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.


  1. What do illustrators actually do?
  2. What are the hours like?
  3. Opportunities
  4. What kind of salary am I likely to earn?
  5. What skills will I need?
  6. Choosing to study for a degree qualification
  7. Stand out from the crowd
  8. Illustration within the creative industries
  9. The creative economy
  10. Check out our handy infographic...

What do illustrators 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

What are the hours like?

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.

What kind of salary am I likely to earn?

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 skills will I need?

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


Software skills

Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and FreeHand (part of the Adobe Creative Cloud) are a few programmes you should become familiar with. If you are to become a professional illustrator you will need to get used to working with design softwares such as these: there are many great sites and video tutorials you can follow to improve your skills. The softwares aren’t particularly difficult to pick up, it’s just a case of using them as much as you can and learning as you go. Practise makes perfect!

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.

Choosing to study for a degree qualification

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.


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.


Find out more about our BA (Hons) Illustration course.

Stand out from the crowd

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.

Setting up a website or blog and contributing to other blog posts are great ways to showcase your style. You should contemplate watermarking images you share to protect them from copyright infringement.

Illustration within the creative 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 subsection 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.

The creative 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.

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of jobs in the Creative Industries in the UK has risen by nearly 20 per cent, accounting for 1.9 million jobs. This has gone up by nearly triple the rate of the UK economy as a whole. 

In 2016, it was reported that creative industries contribute a staggering £84 billion a year (just under £10m an hour) to the UK economy (Source). The creative industries will generate significant numbers of jobs over the next decade and it is estimated that 1.2 million new workers will be needed in the creative industries by 2020 (Source).


What does this means for 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:
Creative Pool, The Association of Illustrators and Creative Choices.

Check out our handy infographic...