Working as an illustrator is a fulfilling way of using your creative art and design skills to communicate through pictures and images across a range of mediums
Illustrators are commissioned to create still drawings and images to communicate a story, message or idea, which are then used in advertisements, books, magazines, packaging, greeting cards and newspapers.
You'll work to commercial briefs to inform, persuade or entertain a client's intended audience, adjusting the mood and style of images accordingly.
You'll typically specialise in a particular design medium, such as drawing, photography or digital illustration.
Types of illustrator
Work is predominantly freelance, with most illustrators being self-employed. Areas of work include:
- advertising - advertising posters, storyboards, press
- publishing- books
- corporate work - brochures, catalogues
- editorial - magazines, newspapers and comics
- fashion - forecasting
- merchandising - greetings cards, calendars, t-shirts, ceramics, etc
- multimedia - TV, film, computer games, websites, apps, animation.
Specialist areas include scientific, technical and medical illustration. In these fields, illustrations showing new products, processes or techniques are created for text and reference books. For more information on these types of roles 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 imaginatively and creatively 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.
You can find rates for magazines, newspapers, book covers and PR material 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.
If you're a member of the Association of Illustrators (AOI), you can access a pricing survey and 24/7 online pricing enquiry form.
- Starting salaries for illustrators are in the region of £18,000 to £20,000. In London, starting salaries are higher - around £23,000.
- As an experienced illustrator with several years' experience, you may earn £20,000 to £30,000 a year.
- Well-established illustrators may earn up to £40,000 or more.
Freelance work, usually paid per illustration, tends to be more lucrative than working for an employer. Illustration agencies take between 25-35% commission, while literary agents take 15%. Some illustrators also sell work through stock houses, which take a substantial commission.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
To establish and maintain your reputation, it's imperative to keep to deadlines. This may sometimes result in working long hours, weekends and/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.
- Some illustrators soon discover a market for their talents and so receive many commissions, while others may have many rejections before securing work. Your workload could fluctuate, from no commissions to too many.
- 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 on additional 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:
- fine art
- graphic design and illustration
- visual art.
Entry without a degree, HND or foundation degree is possible.
While you don't need a pre-entry postgraduate qualification, a diploma or MA in graphic design or illustration may be advantageous - especially if you're interested in teaching. 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.
If you don't have any published work yet, you should create a portfolio demonstrating your ability to 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 also 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 who are likely to use your 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
- Writers' and Artists' Yearbook
Many illustrators use agents to secure commissions. They will look at your portfolio, 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 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, your web presence is an essential tool. 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 offer a limited number of opportunities for full-time employment.
You need to market your work to potential employers. The market base will depend on the type of work you do, so you could be employed in a number of different areas. If you freelance, you can use agents to generate and market your work. Find out more about self-employment.
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 ideas among new graduates.
Corporate communications remains a viable market for illustration, although it's 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 if you have a talent for writing as well as illustrating. For exclusive interviews with industry professionals see childrensillustrators.com.
Other markets include:
- animated commercials, animated television shows and short films
- film posters
- fine art posters
- government information services (including health and education)
- greetings cards
Look for jobs at:
- a-n - The Artists Information Company
- Creative Opportunities
- Creative Review
- Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.
Specialist recruitment agencies are good sources of illustration jobs. These include:
If you gain a good honours degree, you may choose to undertake further study at postgraduate level before starting full-time work. Courses last from one to three years and may be followed part time while you're 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
- medical illustration
- sequential design and illustration.
Evening classes, competitions and workshops, such as those offered by D&AD, are a great way of keeping your portfolio up to date and varied; as well as potentially generating extra exposure.
The AOI offers a two-day professional practice course, The Illustrators Guide to Business, which provides practical advice and information on survival skills for new illustrators. AOI members can also get one-to-one portfolio advice for a small fee. This can be invaluable in identifying potential clients and targeting your portfolio effectively.
It's useful to consider part-time training to update your 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.
Your business skills are as important as your 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 so you may decide to build up contacts and clients gradually, while doing other paid work.
Career progression is relatively limited. The majority of illustrators 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.
The AOI is staffed by practising illustrators and provides invaluable help and advice to its members, including advice on career development issues.
As a member, you'll receive a regular newsletter, the opportunity to attend seminars on useful issues, help with your portfolio, and advice on invoicing and pricing. There is also an online discussion board covering all areas of practice. You'll also be included in their directory of members, alongside examples of your work, which can be a good source of future commissions.