An illustrator uses creative skills in art and design to communicate a story, message or idea. Illustrators work to commercial briefs to inform, persuade or entertain a client's intended audience, adjusting the mood and style of images accordingly.
They usually specialise in a particular design medium, such as drawing, photography or digital illustration.
Types of illustration
Work is predominantly freelance, and possible markets include:
- editorial - magazines, newspapers and comics;
- advertising - posters, storyboards, press;
- fashion - forecasting;
- merchandising - greetings cards, calendars, t-shirts, ceramics, etc;
- corporate work - brochures, catalogues;
- multimedia - TV, film, computer games, websites, apps, animation.
Specialist areas include scientific, technical and medical illustration. In these fields, illustrators create illustrations for text and reference books that may show new products, processes or techniques. See medical illustrator.
Work activities typically involve:
- liaising with clients, editors and authors in order to understand and interpret their business needs;
- gaining knowledge of appropriate styles;
- negotiating pricing and deadlines;
- analysing a brief's specification and the text to be illustrated as well as researching sources;
- thinking creatively and using imagination to produce new ideas;
- creating images and designs by using the traditional hand skills of drawing and painting, alongside other techniques, to meet design briefs;
- using computer-aided design (CAD) packages to scan images and change size, colours and other elements;
- providing roughs for approval;
- redefining a brief through further consultation with the client to include new ideas or text as appropriate;
- running the business, when working freelance;
- speculatively approaching potential commissioners to seek new sources of work;
- working within a set timescale, often to tight deadlines;
- creating original pieces for self-promotion;
- researching appropriate galleries to find suitable venues to exhibit work.
Most illustrators work on a freelance basis, so salary figures are hard to estimate. Prices vary greatly depending on the client.
Rates for magazines, newspapers, book covers and PR material can be found at NUJ Freelance Fees Guide. An interactive artist's toolkit, which helps artists calculate how to price their work in order to generate a reasonable income, is provided by a-n: The Artists Information Company. A pricing survey and 24/7 online pricing enquiry form can be accessed by members of the Association of Illustrators (AOI).
- Starting salaries for illustrators are in the range of £14,000 to £19,000 a year.
- An experienced illustrator with several years of experience may earn £20,000 to £30,000 a year.
- Well-established illustrators may earn up to £40,000 or more a year.
Freelance work, usually paid per illustration, tends to be more lucrative than working for an employer, but agents may take up to 40% commission. Some illustrators also sell work through stock houses who take a substantial commission.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Keeping to deadlines is imperative to maintain a good reputation, and this may sometimes result in working long hours, during weekends or evenings to deliver a brief.
What to expect
- Design studios occasionally employ illustrators on a permanent basis, but the majority of illustrators are freelance, working from home or a small studio and negotiating sales via an agent or directly with clients.
- Luck plays a part. Some illustrators soon discover a market for their talents and so receive many commissions; others may have many rejections before securing work. Workloads may fluctuate, from none to too much.
- Pay may be low and irregular, according to the state of the market. Earnings during the first years may be patchy and many illustrators take part-time jobs.
- Jobs are available in most areas but proximity to a city is an advantage, especially for illustrators without an agent.
- There will sometimes be travel within a working day to meet clients, but absence from home at night and overseas work or travel are uncommon.
Although this area of work is open to all graduates and diplomates, the following subjects may increase your chances:
- graphic design and illustration;
- fine art;
- visual art;
Entry without a degree, HND or foundation degree is possible.
A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not needed, but a diploma or MA in graphic design or illustration may be advantageous, especially for illustrators who are interested in teaching as well. Search for postgraduate courses in illustration.
Qualifications and subject of study are far less important than a talent for illustration, promotional skills and the ideas contained in your portfolio.
Prospective illustrators who do not have published work should create a portfolio that demonstrates they can work to a brief. This might include designs for a book cover, a set of illustrations for a well-known book, a series of greetings cards, CD covers or illustrations for a car manual.
In order to embark on a career as an illustrator you need:
- the ability to market your skills;
- knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD) techniques and printing processes, including computer graphics;
- research skills.
The ability to produce work in multimedia format is important.
In order to secure commissions, you'll need to promote your work to art directors, publishing editors and design studio managers. Organise an appointment to show your (targeted) portfolio or picture library to clients you think would be likely to use your type of work and leave a business card or send samples of your work in advance.
Identify potential clients using the:
- Directory of Publishing: United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland
- The Directory of UK and Irish Book Publishers
- Marketing Nation
- Willings Press Guide
- Writers' and Artists' Yearbook
Many illustrators use agents to secure commissions. They will look at portfolios, advise clients and try to secure work for you, although this will be at a cost (up to 40% of your fee).
Lists of agents are available from the Association of Illustrators (AOI).
Investigate and take advantage of business start-up schemes to set up a studio and establish sound working practices. Join the AOI or a local group. Ensure you have sound business and management skills.
In an increasingly global market, a web presence is becoming an essential tool for illustrators. A number of sites host searchable databases (the AOI online database is popular) providing links to websites for potential commissioners to search, although you should research the management/marketing of each site carefully before registering for these services.
It may also be possible to advertise your work directly via directories such as the Creative Review Directory.
Most illustrators work as self-employed freelance artists, although trend forecasting (fashion) and computer games companies do provide a limited number of opportunities for full-time employment.
Illustrators need to market their work to potential employers. The market base will depend on the type of work an illustrator does, and illustrators may be employed in a number of different areas. Freelancers increasingly use agents to generate and market their work.
Advertising agencies and design consultancies can provide very lucrative work. In the past, it was common for them to only commission well-established illustrators, but there is now an increasing trend towards finding fresh, new ideas amongst new graduates.
Corporate communications remains a viable market for illustration, although it is a competitive area and there is a slight trend (reflecting the current economic environment) towards firms using in-house design solutions to keep costs low, rather than turning to freelancers.
Another significant market is the children's book industry, which can be especially lucrative and satisfying for those with a talent for writing as well as illustrating. For exclusive interviews with industry professionals worldwide anyone interested in this area of work should check childrensillustrators.com.
Other markets include:
- film posters;
- greetings cards;
- fine art posters;
- animated commercials, animated television shows and short films;
- government information services (including health and education).
Look for jobs at:
- a-n: The Artists Information Company
- Creative Opportunities
- Creative Review
- Writers' and Artists' Yearbook
- Local and national press.
Specialist recruitment agencies are good sources of illustrator jobs and include:
Students with a good honours degree may continue to postgraduate degree level before starting full-time work. Courses last from one to three years and may be followed part time while you are developing freelance work.
Most postgraduate degrees include a series of studio-based modules, self-directed learning and individual research, as well as professional practice.
Studying at postgraduate level may offer the opportunity to specialise in areas such as:
- children's book illustration;
- sequential design and illustration;
- medical illustration.
Evening classes, competitions and workshops, such as those offered by D&AD, are a great way of keeping portfolios up to date and varied; they can also generate extra exposure for applicants.
A two-day professional practice course, The Illustrators Guide to Business, which provides practical advice and information on survival skills for new illustrators is offered by the Association of Illustrators (AOI). One-to-one portfolio advice is available for a small fee to AOI members. This can be invaluable in identifying potential clients and targeting portfolios effectively.
It is useful to consider part-time training to update skills in using computer-aided design (CAD) packages, such as Illustrator, QuarkXPress, InDesign, Freehand and Adobe Photoshop. This may help generate more work. A good knowledge of digital media and web marketing skills will be helpful.
Business skills are as important as creative skills. Short self-employment courses offered at local careers services and enterprise agencies can be useful for understanding all aspects of business and marketing.
On average, it takes illustrators around five or six years to build a reputation and become established in the industry.
Setting up as a freelance illustrator is risky and many people decide to build up contacts and clients gradually, while doing other paid work.
Career progression is relatively limited. The majority of illustrators will remain as freelance illustrators and may enjoy a highly successful career. Some will successfully combine illustration with teaching. Others may progress from freelance illustrator to art director with a firm of publishers, and a small number may work as agents for other illustrators.
Staffed by practising illustrators and providing invaluable help and advice to its members, including advice on career development issues, is the Association of Illustrators (AOI). Other membership benefits include a regular newsletter, the opportunity to attend seminars on useful issues, help with portfolios and advice on invoicing and pricing.
A directory of members is published with examples of their work, together with an excellent online discussion board covering all areas of practice.