A Beginner's Guide to Illustration

What Is an Illustrator?

An illustrator is an artist who specializes in creating visual images through a combination of design, art, and creative skills.

Illustrator drawing

From ancient civilizations until today, societies have used illustrations to communicate important ideas. With the ability to transcend beyond the barriers of language, illustration is a powerful tool that allows stories to be told through visual engagement. Given that images are particularly eye-catching when they echo a brand’s visual style, illustration has become an essential tool in today’s digital world.

If you’re someone who loves to draw, it makes sense that you might be drawn towards a career in illustration. Not only does working in illustration offer a wealth of commercial potential, but it’s also a highly rewarding occupation for those looking to connect with people through the power of intentional imagery.

To successfully launch a career in illustration, it’s important to understand just what an illustrator does, the definition of a good illustration, and what steps need to be taken to gain a foothold in the illustration field. Here, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide on launching an illustration career.

What Is an Illustrator?

An illustrator is an artist who creates original, visual images to explain an idea, story, or concept. This is usually achieved through a combination of design, art, and creative skills. 

Illustration can be found in countless types of published media we encounter in our everyday lives — such as books, movies, posters, magazines, video games, comic books, films, educational materials, and much more. Materials such as our favorite children’s books, cartoons, animated films, magazine images, and comics have all been brought to life at the hands of talented illustrators.

Each illustrator usually develops their style and aims to specialize in a particular genre. Nowadays, most illustrators create images through digital mediums — though some artists also use traditional art methods such as pencils, pens, markers, or paint to produce their work.

What Does an Illustrator Do?

Illustrators create two-dimensional pieces (such as drawings, paintings, and diagrams) for various industries and brands — such as magazines, children’s books, websites, technical designs, fashion design, medical materials, advertisements, and much more. Illustrations can help simplify complex ideas, complement a set of words to make them more believable or even convey a particular meaning on their own.

While some illustrators work in full-time traditional roles, most illustrators work on a freelance basis. Freelance illustrators expand their client base as they take on each project, all while leveraging their online portfolio and staying on top of the latest trends and technologies.

Illustration is a highly competitive field, which means that illustrators should be passionate about the latest technologies and develop the ability to draw in a variety of styles or mediums. 

Some of the most common types of illustrators include:

  • Editorial illustrators

  • Children’s book illustrators

  • Medical illustrators 

  • Scientific illustrators

  • Comic book illustrators

  • Fashion illustrators

illustrator plant drawings



What Makes a Good Illustration?

A good illustration isn’t just a drawing or a creative concept. It should serve as an inspiring piece of artwork that effectively attracts and engages its target audience. 

Examples of a good illustration may include a funny editorial graphic that roped you into reading an otherwise boring news article, or images from a childhood storybook that will always remain fresh in your mind. These are visuals that speak to an audience because they:

a) Successfully convey the right message to accompany a set of text; and

b) Present said message engagingly and interestingly.

As a rule of thumb, the approach to a good illustration should be to ensure it is clear and intentional. This means that an illustrator’s job should be to find the most direct way to make their audience understand what they want them to understand and feel when they are engaged with their imagery. 

Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean a good illustration needs to be simple or undetailed — what’s most important is that it is functional and that it successfully evokes the right level of focus and emotional response from its viewer.

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Should You Work in Graphic Design or Illustration?

Given that both graphic design and illustration are closely related art forms, it’s not uncommon for people to confuse the two professions or categorize them under the same umbrella. However, graphic design and illustration are two separate artistic fields, both with different end goals. If you’re a budding digital artist, you might be wondering which field might be more suitable for you.

Graphic design is an art form that relies more on a set of elements (such as images, color schemes, typography, etc.) and that caters more towards a commercial purpose. To engage their target audience and evoke their desired response, graphic artists communicate information and emotion through a visual concept. Their art will combine animation, text, and other design elements to give a product or campaign a particular feel. Common projects for graphic designers include print advertising, product packaging, website design, and more.

Illustrators, on the other hand, focus more on using their art to tell a story. Since an illustration project usually involves reinforcing the message of a particular book, article, website, or show, their focus will be more on creating specific images and then using said images to accompany any supporting words or concepts.

It’s also important to note that illustrators and graphic designers usually deliver their work through different processes. Graphic designers are often required to spend more time liaising with clients, executives, directors, and other designers to give input on marketing campaigns or team projects. Illustrators may also work in similar arrangements, but they are traditionally hired by magazines, publishers, newspapers, or digital companies requiring graphics for software or websites.

If you’re wondering whether you should pursue a path in either illustration or graphic design, this mostly depends on your skills, interests, and desired workflow. Those who enjoy team-oriented work, who prefer creating more comprehensive designs, or who like the idea of conveying a message across a wide range of mediums may find they are better suited for graphic design. If you have a talent for drawing, sketching, and enjoy the idea of your work accompanying stories or articles, illustration might be a better fit for you.

Are Illustrators in Demand?

Reports from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that while fine artists are currently seeing slower-than-average job growth, illustrators who are skilled with digital illustration software are more highly in demand.

Illustrators are also highly sought-after in the advertising and marketing industries — as when it comes to attracting a target audience, images are usually far more eye-catching than text. Visual images can also be perceived much more quickly than words or videos can, making them essential for conveying messages clearly and simply.

In the wake of COVID-19, illustration has also become an effective alternative for photography. As photographers have experienced mounting difficulties with getting close to their subject matters, editorial illustration has provided brands and outlets with a safer way for them to keep their campaigns visually stimulating.

Illustrator sketching in notebook

Do Illustrators Make Good Money?

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for an illustrator in the US is $49,120 per year. 

Current outlooks project that overall employment of “craft and fine artists” (including illustrators) will “show little or no change” between the years 2019 and 2029. The growth rate of jobs in this category is mostly dependent on economic growth and people’s willingness to spend money on art.

Many illustrators are self-employed or work as independent artists, giving them the freedom to generate earnings on a per-project basis. However, illustrators in more in-demand professions are more likely to see higher annual wages. For example, illustrators working for book publishers are reported to bring in an average of $65,620 per year, while independent artists might see a slightly smaller average (at $57,110 per year). 

Of course, as the case is in most creative fields, illustrators who gain experience and build a great online portfolio can see up to $80,000 in later stages of their careers.

How Do You Become an Illustrator?

Choosing a career in illustration can be highly rewarding for anyone who has a penchant for drawing or a passion for visual storytelling. However, to become a successful illustrator, you’ll need to rely on more than just your creative talent alone. When launching an illustration career, these two things are key:

Gaining the Right Education

To be successful in the illustration field, you’ll need to learn how to think and express yourself creatively, learn the right drawing skills and techniques for both digital and traditional mediums, gain the right knowledge of current trends, and learn how to work with clients. 

While many clients or agencies favor illustrators with a formal education in illustration or graphic design, many other illustrators are self-taught. Regardless of which path works for you, it's essential to gain the right practical and foundational knowledge.

Creating a Solid Portfolio

Launching a successful illustration career and building a strong portfolio is like bread and butter — one cannot go without the other! Having a solid portfolio to showcase your work is essential when it comes to leveraging a career in the illustration field and building a client base.

You're most likely to get hired for the type of work you feature in your portfolio, which means you should always ensure your portfolio is up-to-date and showcasing your best work. We recommend curating a maximum of 10 of your best pieces and choosing work that is best aligned with the type of gigs you’re seeking.

When you’re an illustrator, your online portfolio should also offer a clean viewing experience, allowing your work to serve as the main focal point of your page. To ensure your viewers have the most engaging experience, you should build your portfolio using a template that supports large image sizes, an intuitive design, and an interface that’s easy to navigate.

Create Your Portfolio Today

After reading this beginner’s guide, we hope you’ve learned more about how to kickstart a career in illustration. 

Want to experience the full benefits of an online portfolio that will wow your clients? Format offers beautiful portfolio templates that are geared towards helping illustrators showcase their very best work. To get a sense of how you can build a winning platform, start your free trial today!

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