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. In the most simplified terms, an illustrator is someone who draws or creates images for magazines, books, advertisements, posters, birthday or greeting cards, medical material, and much more. The simple meaning is — it is an artist who makes the illustrations.


They can also be referred to as a narrative artist, someone who enhances or compliments writing by adding a visual representation. Illustrators can be used to add humor to a piece of writing or they could be used as clarification to something that is difficult to explain via a text only format. An illustrator's role is to enhance whatever is being communicated or to simplify an idea. For example, illustrators are used for essentially all children's books and also play a vital role in the creation of the editorial cartoons in newspapers. Illustrators specialize in using their creative skills and ability to create both art and design to develop these creative images. If you have a deep passion for art and love drawing, an illustrator may be the perfect role for you. In this role, you are constantly creating art that can transcend the barriers of language.  

The basis of what it means to be an illustrator is to communicate ideas through the use of images. It is about engaging audiences through visuals, whether that is through drawings, paintings, or using different digital tools. The illustrations need to be on brand for the project that is being worked on, meaning it is important that the images need to match the style of what is being conveyed. For example, think of the stylistic differences that would be needed for illustrations of a hair product advertisement over a funny birthday card or a courtroom illustration on a high-profile case. The illustrations also need to be captivating and able to both hold someone’s attention and draw them in. Since an illustrator is an artist, they will also have their own style and should focus on projects that match that aesthetic — essentially their illustrative style becomes their area of specialty.

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.

The ability to communicate and amplify the meaning behind a set of text with drawings and paintings is the basis of what an illustrator does. An illustrator is a storyteller who creates images for magazines, books, advertisements, and much much more. If you’re interested in getting started in the profession of an illustrator we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on what that means, as well as the types of illustrations you can choose to specialize in. We’ll also draw out some incredible illustrator online portfolios designed using Format, and give a framework on how to get started as an illustrator, as well as how to price your illustrations.

Let’s get started in all things about the field of illustration and if you want more, check out our beginner's guide to illustration.

What Is an Illustrator?

The definition of an illustrator is that they are the artist who is creating the illustrations that tell a story in conjunction with text. These illustrations are used to explain a story or concept, providing necessary clarity. They create two-dimensional images across many industries and are not limited to children’s books, courtrooms, editorials, newspapers, medicine, etc. The images that illustrators create need to be both clear and intentional. The artwork itself that is created needs to be easy to understand, especially with the purpose of the illustrations being to add value to a set of text. 

The two main pillars of illustration are to successfully convey the message that accompanies the text, whether that is clarifying it or amplifying it, and also to do so in a way that is engaging or interesting.

The work of an illustrator can often be confused with a number of different creative jobs, such as a graphic designer or an artist. For both of those comparators, it is important to remember what the purpose of the image is. For example, an artist creates work to express a concept, or emotion where an illustrator’s work is complementing a certain set of texts. A piece of artwork usually does not need to be accompanied by a text and speaks directly for itself. On the other hand, graphic design is another area that is similar — however, they are using images, graphics, and typography to communicate information, where again the illustrator is focused on telling the story of the text it is accompanied with, whether that is clarifying or amplifying the message. If you enjoy sketching or drawing and having your own creative process to figure out what image needs to be paired with a set of words, then illustrator may be the perfect job for you. On the other side of the spectrum, a role of a graphic designer would involve a more team oriented approach and not just specifically focus on the drawing or illustration.

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 Are The Different Types Of Illustrators?

Illustrations are used across a vast range of industries and these two dimensional drawings that are paired as an explanation to various ideas are far reaching. We’ve developed a list of seven different common types of illustrators, but this list is not exhaustive. In fact, there are a number of different types of illustrations you can work on that we don’t cover in detail, such as scientific, storyboard, technical, forensic, product packaging, concept art, etc. These different specialties give you room to find creative spaces to work within. You can find a niche that you are passionate about or one that can challenge you outside of your comfort zone to grow as an artist. Let’s draw out in detail seven different types of illustrators:

Editorial Illustrators

An editorial illustrator works on newspapers, magazines, and journals to create images that support the text. Their job is to attract readers, engage them, or draw their attention to certain areas to entice them to read more about an article. The goal of an editorial illustrator should be to better explain what is inside a text. They are also famously used in the editorial cartoon section of a newspaper which is often a humorous and satirical section focused on politics or current events.

Product Illustrator

A product illustrator creates a drawing for a specific product for a private company or brand. These product illustrations are used for promotional materials such as brochures, websites, commercial product packaging, and various other types of advertising. These illustrations, whether they are a drawing or a painting, can often become a large part of the company's brand identity. Product illustrators are used to add a human element to a product.

Children’s Book Illustrators

Illustrations in children’s books are a perfect example of how drawings and images can be combined with text to help tell a story — enhancing the text itself. The work of a children’s book illustrator is to create visual representations that match the text story on each page so a child can visually follow the narrative. Illustrators working on children’s books often work either independently with writers or with a publishing company. They would start by meeting with the client to get an idea of how they visualize the storyline, before diving into the creation of the illustrations themselves.

Medical Illustrators 

A medical illustrator is someone who creates illustrations of medical models to make them easier for the reader to understand. This speciality is difficult because you need to have extensive training in medicine and science, as well as the ability to use technology and media to communicate the concepts. Medical illustrations are often used to improve patient literacy, as well as public literacy so medical illustrators will often work closely with medical professionals to ensure that the drawings are accurate. The ultimate goal of a medical illustrator is to make a difficult medical topic easy to understand which can be both a challenging and rewarding experience for an illustrator.

Fashion Illustrator

If you have a passion for fashion, a fashion illustrator is an interesting and creative job choice. The role of a fashion illustrator is to create abstract fashion images or vivid drawings of different fashion items or trends, whether that is a particular article or accessory or a full outfit design. It’s all about communicating fashion through art and drawings. A fashion illustrator may work for a fashion magazine, blog, a department store or a specific brand or fashion house. These illustrations can be used to help clients decide on fashion outfits or to be used for advertising and selling different lines of clothing. The process of fashion illustration can be used as a brainstorming tool in developing new clothing styles so there is lots of space for big creative ideas.

Comic Book Illustrators

The role of a comic book illustrator is quite self explanatory — you are creating the drawings for cartoon strips, books, and cartoons. Sometimes these roles are also called cartoonists, graphic novel artists or comic script illustrators, yet they all mean the same thing. Often you will have to include text or spaces for text within the illustrations themselves. The goal is to tell the story, depict the characters, craft the scene, orsituation in a way that is clear, concise, as well as captivating to audiences. Readers want to be engaged and entertained in their comic books — the illustrations play a big part in that, so becoming a comic book illustrator is a niche to specialize in. 

Courtroom Illustrator

A courtroom illustrator is an important role that can sometimes be quite stressful — the job is to draw the proceedings of a trial to be matched with the notes taken. These illustrations need to provide a visual representation of what happened inside the courtroom and are especially important in closed court proceedings where cameras are not allowed in the courtroom due to a ban by the judge. Their work is heavily referenced by media outlets, especially in high-profile cases, so the illustrators often work for or directly with media to help share information with the public. A courtroom illustrator needs to work quickly within the time restraints of how long the court proceedings are. This often means drawing as quickly as possible while capturing the scene accurately, and all while doing so under pressure.

What Are Some Examples Of Illustrators?

Looking at examples of illustration portfolio examples is both fun and inspiring — it can also give you ideas of how to organize your own work and successfully create your illustrative story. Format has captured 21 of the best illustrator portfolio examples from 2022 and we have highlighted a few goodies for you. All of the templates were created using the variety of different ones that Format has to offer, yet they are all very different and customized to tell the story of the artist. 


Edmon

Edmon is an illustrator from Spain and created his website using the Slate template. His specialty is both illustration and animation with a focus on his work providing clarity on the world we live in. The Slate template used allows him to focus his work via one large image at a time, with a row or column of smaller thumbnails — this template is perfect for allowing videos to be displayed large or small gallery images to be shown in detail as a visitor scrolls through your online portfolio.

Theme used: Slate


Miriam Galea

Miriam Galea is an illustrator who describes her work as ‘ever noncommittal’, opting to evade definition in the belief that the unspoken is often truer than the explained. This ideology is the basis behind her work. She used the template Ora to showcase her illustrations. Ora is a vertical scroll template that arranges your images in a single column and is best for showcasing a few pieces of your best work.

Theme used: Ora


Mingjun Guo

Mingjun Guo is an illustrator who uses a variety of media, such as watercolor, acrylic, and gouache to portray the relationship between nature and humans from a philosophical perspective. Guo chose to use the Amazon template to display her illustrations. The Amazon template is perfect for showing a large number of photos at once with a masonry-style grid that allows you to click-to-enlarge images. It is a template that is youthful, fun, and image-forward.

Theme used: Amazon

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.

Ready to create an illustration portfolio?

Showcase your creative pieces with a stunning online portfolio website.

How Do You Price Yourself As An Illustrator?

Like many professions in the creative field, illustrators can work either as a full-time employee for a company or as a freelance artist who sets their own pricing and value on the work they do. It can be challenging to negotiate salaries or set rates so we’ve put together a how-to to help you get started on setting your prices as an illustrator. Whatever realm you find yourself working in, it is important that you are paid accordingly for your services and don’t undersell your illustrations in the process. For the freelance work you do, you’ll want to make sure that you set a competitive wage, one that is on par with the industry. Let’s get started on setting your price for illustrations:


Average Salary

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for an illustrator in the US is $49,120 per year. The same as essentially every other job, this salary will fluctuate depending on the size of the company you work for, the scope of the projects, as well as the type of illustration work you specialize in. For example, it is common for a book illustrator to be paid on the higher end based on demand. An entry level illustrator will also be paid less than one that is highly experienced or well established in their career. For illustrators who fall into this category, they can make a salary of $80,000 or beyond.


Freelance Advice: Work Backwards

There are two types of payment types you can receive as a freelance illustrator — either a flat rate for the project or an hourly rate. We’ll get into both of those later on, but to start it is important to decide on your base rate of how much you want to charge for your illustrations. A good way to do this is to work backwards from how much you expect to make in salaries for a full year and then calculate how much you would have to charge for your work on a per hour or per week basis. On average there are 261 working days a year — to account for holidays you will be knocked down to 250. You also may decide you want to account for a few other days off in the year or sick days, that will be up to your own discretion. From there you should create a salary amount you are comfortable with for the year and divide by your number of days, followed by hours. This base number is the perfect starting point as you move into deciding whether your illustration freelance work will be based on a flat rate or hourly rate.


Flat Rate

With flat rate pricing, you will be basing your illustrations off of the deliverable as opposed to the amount of time you will be spending. The flat rate pricing for your illustrations is the most common when it comes to freelance illustration. After you know how much you value your illustrations per hour, you will then need to estimate the amount of time it will take for the project and then develop the flat rate. As you gain more experience and develop a better understanding of how long illustrations normally take you to complete, you will have an easier time accurately estimating hour many hours an project will take to complete. 

Hourly Rate

As outlined above, working backwards from what you want your average salary to be will help you hone in on your hourly rate. For your reference, the average hourly rate for hiring an illustrator is $200 yet we see the actual range differ greatly. We can see ranges between $25 to $100 per hour but can be higher depending on experience and the illustrator’s the specialization. When you look at the nationwide range across the U.S. that covers larger projects, specialty designs, or factors in the reputations of different artists, you can see these numbers range from $90 to $465. Keep in mind that your hourly rate may go up or down depending on the project and will also be affected as you move through your career.


By now we’ve touched on everything from what an illustrator is, and what an illustrator does, to how to price your illustration work and steps to get started in the industry. 

As with any creative vocation, at the center of your practice there should be a strong portfolio, and to show off your hard work you need a well-designed, and easy to navigate website or artist portfolio. You can get started with an online portfolio in just a few simple steps – just hop over to Format to browse our beautiful templates and get started for free.

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 Get Started As An Illustrator?

Four simple steps will help you get started in a career as an illustrator — immersing yourself in formal education, finding your specialty or your niche, building your online illustrator portfolio, and growing your network to secure clients. Let’s go deeper into each step: 


Get Some Education Or Training

A formal education is certainly not a prerequisite for becoming an illustrator, however, illustration is a career in fine art so receiving a formal training of some sort will be beneficial to kick start your career path. You may want to consider taking a bachelor degree or post-secondary certificate that will provide you with technical skills in drawing, painting, and computer graphics software or animation such as elements within the Adobe suite. There are also a number of online resources and courses you can turn to if you are looking for training options beyond a full post secondary degree or diploma.

Find Your Specialty

The next step is to decide on your specialty and start to develop your style. There are so many different types of illustration from medical to children's books, fashion to courtroom illustrations that finding your passion and deciding on a specialty will be a good starting point in knowing where you want to channel your energy. Doing more research may also help you decide which avenue will best suit your passion or goals. You are going to want to start drawing and gaining experience in that specialty. This step is also important because it will be your focus as you build your online portfolio and will give you direction on how and where to network your services. You will also want to think about the style of illustrations you want to create as an artist. Oftentimes illustrator’s distinct styles will be something like their signature and the thing that sets them apart from other illustrators.   


Build Your Portfolio

The next step is to build your online illustrator portfolio — a must-have to help you get noticed and to use as a platform to showcase your work to potential clients. To get started, Format has put together some tips on building an illustrator portfolio website and developed a comprehensive guide to help you do so. Here are some important tips to help you build your illustrator online portfolio website:

  • Less is more – focus on highlighting the best of your best work when it comes to illustrations, as opposed to overwhelming the audience by putting absolutely everything you’ve ever done on there. Quality of quantity is always a good rule to follow when it comes to deciding which illustrations to showcase. Focus on choosing 10-20 different pieces that are diverse and show your style. And don’t worry, you can always swap them out when a new project comes out that you cannot wait to share.

  • Tell a story – your website should be cohesive and easy to follow. Your goal should be to create a narrative to share with the viewer. It should showcase a diverse selection of your work, but in a way that expresses the essence of who you are as an illustrator.

  • Who you are – your online portfolio should also be a space where you share your story as an illustrator. Through your bio, blog posts, or writing that is attached to your illustrations you want to be able to give potential clients a glimpse into you as an illustrator, your passions, and why you do what you do. Allowing people to connect with you will help you gain clients. Also remember that you need to add a contact form on your portfolio and connect your online portfolio website to your social media platforms so people have several way to contact you.

Build Your Network

The final step is to begin building your network and start to secure clients. Sharing your online portfolio via social media channels can help you further your reach and connect with other illustrators. You can also focus on industry-specific research on LinkedIn or attend industry conferences and events to meet other illustrators as well as potential clients. The larger you are able to build your network and further your reach, the easier it will be for you to secure work whether that be full-time or freelance projects. As you build your network, you may find yourself introduced to more people and on and on. Your network is not always about finding people who can give you a job or instant return — there is value in finding people who you can turn to for mentorship, to ask questions, or talk to for support.

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 website 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!

Create your own portfolio website with Format today.

Plus, get FREE access to our exclusive Photography Business Masterclass Course

Start Your Free Trial