How to become an illustrator in 14 steps (plus definition)

Updated 31 January 2023

Working as an illustrator is incredibly rewarding and creative, whether you're illustrating books, adverts or working digitally. Becoming an illustrator requires a lot of hard work, but the experience of building up this skill pays off when you land your first job. Thriving as an illustrator is about knowing where your talents and technical skills fit in, having the determination to achieve your goals and learning from others who have been there before. In this article, we discuss how to become an illustrator, improve your portfolio and set up your career as an illustrator.

What is an illustrator?

An illustrator is a visual artist who specialises in enhancing written or other non-visual concepts by providing a visual representation that corresponds to the content of the associated text or idea. The illustration may help to clarify complicated concepts or objects that are difficult to describe textually.

A company or client may hire an illustrator for a single project or ongoing work to add illustrations to the text or storyboard before it goes into production or publication. An illustrator may also collaborate with a writer on certain projects, such as picture books or comics. The illustration style used depends on the medium or technique used for the project and its purpose. For example, editorial cartoons often lean toward caricature, whereas technical manuals often require highly detailed illustrations with little variation.

How to become an illustrator

If you're wondering how to become an illustrator, there are several ways to go about it. You could go to art school, take classes or read books on the subject. Alternatively, you could practise your craft and hone your skills until you're ready to show them off. Every artist has their own process, but there are some commonalities.

Illustrations are often used for marketing purposes rather than traditional illustrations for books and magazines. It also helps explain how products work or how to use them. Whichever path you choose, there are certain steps that every aspiring illustrator can take to ensure success:

1. Figure out what kind of illustrator you want to be

If you're thinking about becoming an illustrator, it's a good idea to know what kind of illustrator you want to be. There are so many potential career paths in illustration, including technical art, realistic drawings, children's books and editorial illustration. If you're an artist who's interested in illustrating children's books, for example, focus on learning how to draw kids and animals. If you want to create poster-style art for advertisements, then get a handle on perspective and composition. If graphic novels are what interests you, learn how to tell stories with words and pictures.

If you have a specific area of interest, it can be easier to get a job in that field. For example, if you're interested in drawing cartoons and animation, it might be easier to get a job as an animator than as a painter. If you're not sure where your interests lie, consider reading some books about the different types of illustration work available and then taking classes in these areas.

Related: What does an illustrator do? (Responsibilities and FAQs)

2. Consider formal training

If you have no experience, consider taking art classes at art school. Also look into online courses that teach specific skills like cartooning, drawing and painting. These programmes often include instruction on how to use different mediums and tools, such as paintbrushes and pencils. This step is optional and formal training is not the only way to become an illustrator.

3. Learn from a mentor

A mentor is an experienced professional who can teach you the skills needed for your craft. If you're just starting out, it's likely that you don't have enough experience to teach yourself everything there is to know about illustration. It helps to have someone with experience who can guide you along the way. A good mentor can give advice on all aspects of your work, including:

  • how to present yourself and your work professionally

  • how to handle clients and other people involved in the business side of illustration

  • how to improve your technical skills, drawing, colouring, composition

Related: How to find a mentor: a useful step-by-step guide

4. Find your style

There are many different styles of illustration and artists. Some artists draw in a realistic way, while others use a more cartoony style. The best way to find your own style is to experiment with different mediums and techniques. Try drawing from life or photos or try drawing from imagination. Also, try different kinds of drawings. Portraits, landscapes and still life are some examples of what you can draw to help find your own style. Experimenting like this can help you get to know your own strengths as an artist and what kind of art you enjoy making the most.

As an illustrator, you often interpret someone else's vision into your own style. As a learning tool, it's possible to learn about how artists you enjoy use their mediums to create powerful imagery and then apply those techniques to your own artwork.

Related: Types of illustrators: what role fits your career goals?

5. Create a portfolio

When applying for work, it helps to show samples of your previous illustrations to potential clients and employers. Your portfolio may contain samples of your favourite illustrations that show off your skills, plus examples of other work that relates to what you wish to do as an illustrator. It can also include an artist statement explaining why you are passionate about the work you do and what makes your work unique or special.

Social media is a great platform for showcasing your work. Alongside posting images, write captions that describe the project and your creative process. This helps people understand what you can do for them and how they can get in touch. Posting regularly shows people you're active and interested in their work.

Related: What is a portfolio? Tips and guidelines to create one

6. Research the field

Researching the field of illustration can help you understand what is out there and how to tailor your experience to benefit you. Look at the work of other illustrators, both contemporary and historical. Start by looking at books in your local library or bookstore that feature illustrations and then find similar books through online searches. To take your research further, check out portfolios of designers or artists and see what kind of work interests you most or research different types of illustration jobs, like editorial illustrations or advertising.

7. Network in the industry

Whether you're looking to get your first job in the industry or looking for a new challenge, networking can help you get your dream role. The best way to network is face to face, but there are many ways to connect with others online too. To network online, set up social media accounts and follow other people who post about illustration, art, design and typography. This helps you find potential clients who might reach out to you if they like your style or work ethic.

Related: 14 of the best networking strategies and where to use them

8. Learn to use drawing and editing tools and software

Learning how to use tools and software is beneficial when becoming an illustrator. Many professionals in different fields use Adobe Photoshop, including marketing, advertising and product development. This photo editing software can help fine-tune illustrations, allowing you to alter images and create graphics from scratch. You can use it to edit photographs or illustrations, add text and create logos.

9. Buy a sketchbook and use it often

The more you practise drawing, the better you're going to get at it. Keep your sketchbooks close by so you're able to sketch whenever you have a few minutes to spare. Make sure to take them with you when you're out running errands or waiting in line somewhere, like at the bank or the pharmacy. The more drawings in your sketchbook, the better your chances are of finding inspiration when you're stuck for ideas later on. Some people use pencil and paper first, then scan those sketches into their computer and work from there.

Related: A guide to illustration careers (with salaries and duties)

10. Apply for internships and jobs

When applying for jobs, it's ideal to have a CV that highlights your skills, experience and education. Be sure to prepare a cover letter that explains why you want the job and how your qualifications fit the needs of the employer. Before sending off your application, make sure you have all the necessary skills, experience and qualifications required for the position. Researching the company before applying helps you understand the position in the context of the company as a whole. This allows you to better understand what they do, what they're looking for and how to tailor your application accordingly.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.


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