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Illustrator Career Guide

What is an illustrator?

An illustrator is a specialized artist who visually communicates stories, messages, or ideas. They work in various mediums, including digital and traditional arts, to create images that can represent, clarify, or accompany written text in media such as books, magazines, and digital content. Notably, these artists play a vital role in engaging readers and viewers by visually depicting concepts or narrations to make it easier for an audience to understand and appreciate the content they interact with.

Duties and responsibilities

An illustrator is responsible for executing visual interpretations of textual or concept briefs provided by a client. This may involve creating storyboards, sketches, or digital art relevant to a particular project. They also collaborate with graphic designers, writers, or editors to make sure their illustrations match the vision or tone of the overall project. Another duty is adhering to deadlines, managing workload, and ensuring all projects are completed within the given timeline without compromising the quality of work.

Work environment

The work environment of an illustrator can vary widely based on individual preference, the nature of the project, and the employers’ needs. Some may thrive in a studio environment, surrounded by materials and inspirations, while others prefer to work in digital spaces using a tablet or computer. Many of these artists work remotely, managing their work commitments from home or co-working spaces, allowing them the flexibility to work at their own pace and schedule.

Typical work hours

The work hours for an illustrator can be flexible, often aligning with project deadlines rather than traditional 9 to 5 schedules. As many are self-employed or work on a freelance basis, they have the advantage of setting their own hours. However, this also means that they may sometimes have to work during evenings and weekends to meet deadlines or cater to client demands. In contrast, those employed by a firm may have more structured hours but could still be required to extend their workday during busier periods or high-demand projects.

How to become an illustrator

This career guide section outlines the steps to become an illustrator. The journey involves the development of artistic skills, the acquisition of relevant education, and the building of an impressive portfolio.

Step 1: Develop artistic skills

The ability to draw, paint, and imagine creatively is essential to becoming an illustrator. For those who are naturally talented, honing these skills through continuous practice is vital. For others, participating in art classes at the local community center, attending arts-focused schools, or taking a course online can also facilitate this skill development.

Step 2: Acquire a degree in fine arts or design

Although not strictly necessary, many earn a bachelor’s degree or higher in arts or design for professional development. Such a degree enables a comprehensive understanding of essential artistic theories, techniques, and tools that will serve as the foundation of your career.

Step 3: Learn Adobe Creative Suite

Technical skills are as important as artistic skills for modern illustrators. Proficiency in computer-based design tools such as Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, and InDesign is valuable. Online tutorials or short courses can help in mastering these tools.

Step 4: Specialize in a type of illustration

Identify a niche of illustration that suits your interest and talent. You might find joy and fulfillment in creating children’s books, fashion illustrations, medical diagrams, or storyboarding for films and animations. Spend time honing your craft within this specialization to stand out in the industry.

Step 5: Build a portfolio

A portfolio showcasing your best work is mandatory for securing jobs or freelance projects. Include various works that can demonstrate your versatility, but be sure to highlight your specialty. An online portfolio can serve as an accessible platform for potential clients to view your work.

Step 6: Gain industry experience

Getting into an internship or a junior position at a design studio or publishing company can offer valuable practical experience and the chance to learn from professionals in the field. Use this opportunity to become familiar with the industry and establish important networking connections.

Step 7: Keep updated and continue learning

Trends and tools in the creativity-driven field of illustration change frequently. Attend workshops, art exhibitions, or webinars to stay relevant. Improve your skills by learning and adapting to new tools and techniques.

Step 8: Market yourself

As a final step, promote your work on various platforms. Social media, networking events, or word-of-mouth are all valuable marketing means. An engaging online presence can attract significant attention from potential clients, leading to job offers and project opportunities.

How much do illustrators make?

Illustrator salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Compensation can also be greatly affected by their portfolio, reputation in the industry, and specialization, such as animation or medical illustration.

Highest paying industries

  • Motion Picture and Video Industries – $100,940
  • Advertising and Public Relations – $76,890
  • Publishing Industries – $70,390
  • Software Publishers – $67,980
  • Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers – $64,200

Highest paying states

  • New York – $80,390
  • California – $78,230
  • Connecticut – $75,680
  • District of Columbia – $75,464
  • Washington – $74,010

Browse illustrator salary data by market

Types of illustrators

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for illustrators. This section offers a broad outlook on how these artists can professionally practice and utilize illustration skills.

Storyboard artist

An intriguing path for those with a flair for both storytelling and drawing is as a storyboard artist. In this role, they use illustration to craft story sequences, primarily in film production, advertising, or animation. These professionals work closely with directors, writers, or producers to translate their vision into visual scenes. This engagement involves creating panels of images and diagrams that map out each scene or main event in a story.

Scientific illustrator

Illustration offers an opportunity to blend science and art for those inclined to both. As scientific illustrators, these talented individuals are involved in creating accurate visual representations of scientific information. These elements include medical procedures, biological organisms, or complex scientific processes. Their work often features in textbooks, research papers, and digital resources to clarify complex concepts and contribute to visual learning.

Fashion illustrator

Fashion offers another dynamic realm where illustrators can apply their talents. In this context, they work with designers to bring clothing concepts to life through visual renditions. They help present a designer’s vision in a way that is easily understood by manufacturers and stakeholders, allowing them to visualize the end product before initiation. Their work forms an essential part of the fashion design process and can also feature in advertising and publication.

Editorial illustrator

Synthesized with journalism, illustrations become a powerful tool for communication. As editorial illustrators, professionals serve a significant role in conveying the context or message of a written piece through relevant images. They create posters, covers, page layouts, and other graphic elements for print or online publications. Their work often accompanies and enhances articles, opinion pieces, and other written content, potentially reaching a large audience.

Children’s book illustrator

Another popular manifestation of the art is found in children’s book illustrations. Here, illustrators help shape young minds by producing captivating imagery that brings stories to life. These professionals work closely with authors, helping to visualize and flesh out characters, scenes, or actions in a way that appeals to young readers. They play an important part in creating engaging and educational books for children.

Top skills for illustrators

This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as an illustrator.

Artistic ability

Creating captivating visual compositions is the bread and butter of this profession. Having a knack for drawing, painting, and design principles and the proficiency to work across different art styles, techniques, and mediums is essential.

Digital knowledge

In today’s modern world, it is important to have experience with various digital design software such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or Procreate. Having a good understanding of these tools allows you to enhance traditional artwork, create digital pieces, and meet industry standards in your work.

Storytelling skills

Being able to tell a story through your illustrations is vital. This is particularly true if you’re designing a sequence of images or working in a narrative medium like children’s books or comic books. Being able to creatively and effectively convey a narrative or concept is a key part of the role.

Communication and collaboration skills

Whether you’re interpreting a client’s vision or working within a team, clear communication and the ability to work collaboratively are essential. This involves understanding briefs, providing insights, receiving feedback, and making revisions as necessary.

Time management

While creativity can’t be rushed, realistic time management is a must. Often, you will be working with clients and deadlines, so being able to efficiently manage your time and work effectively under pressure is valuable.

Attention to detail

An eye for detail is an invaluable tool in their arsenal. From capturing realistic features in a portrait to ensuring visual consistency across a series of illustrations, close attention to detail is essential to creating compelling, polished work.

Illustrator career path options

For illustrators, a world of opportunity awaits, offering many avenues for advancement and expansion. These creative professionals aren’t limited by the traditional progression of job titles. Instead, they find their success through diversity and adaptation in their chosen field.

Career progression in the world of illustration

Building on skills and experiences, these artists might assume a more senior position within a creative agency, leading a team of less experienced illustrators. They may be responsible for mentoring new talents and overseeing creative projects as a director. Opportunities for such roles are ample in advertising agencies, publishing houses, and design firms.

Exploring new horizons

Another route is to enter the freelancing field, allowing flexibility and the opportunity to work on a wider range of projects. Offering their services to various industries, from advertising to couture, can lend creative diversification to their portfolio. In the age of digital media, online platforms have opened global opportunities for these professionals, introducing the potential of working with international clients.

Becoming a known name

Many illustrators aim for a defining career moment: writing and illustrating their own book. Children’s literature, in particular, offers a chance for artists to leave a lasting legacy, as many prestigious awards can boost their reputation and cement their position in the industry. Another great step is to start their line of products, such as prints, clothing, and merchandise, with escalating popularity leading to large commercial deals or collaborations.

Dabbling in multiple art forms

Many apply their artistic skills to adjacent fields. Cartooning, animation, and graphic design are just a few examples where their knowledge is highly valued and can help them diversify their career paths.

Starting a visual arts career requires a portfolio of work illustrating your skills and creativity to potential employers. More recently, the industry has seen a surge in digital illustrators who use software tools to create their work. This shift toward technology has, in turn, created a demand for those who are proficient with these tools. As more businesses and brands go digital, the need for custom illustrations to effectively convey brand messages has grown considerably. This does not mean traditional illustrators are not required; both skill sets have their unique demands and are needed in different industries.

Freelancing is another common trend among these artists. With businesses of all scales requiring illustration work and the power of the internet enabling a global reach, many are choosing to work as independent contractors or freelancers. However, this has led to a highly competitive market, where the best portfolios usually win the job. Staying updated with art styles and software tools is a great way to stay ahead in this field. In this profession, embracing change and being open to learning will help you adapt to evolving industry trends and expectations.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for illustrators is projected to grow 6% through 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. This growth rate reflects the demand for illustrators across various industries. Since this profession relies heavily on creativity and artistic ability, individuals who have a unique style or specialize in a particular genre of illustration may have better job prospects.

Illustrator career tips

Invest in the right tools

As an illustrator, having the correct tools is essential. This refers not just to physical tools like drawing or painting materials but also to software used for digital illustration. Some industry-standard digital drawing tools include Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and iPad’s Procreate. Investing in the right tools can significantly improve your productivity, artistic abilities, and the quality of your finished product.

Update your portfolio regularly

Keeping your portfolio current and fresh is paramount for securing new clients and assignments. Showcasing your most recent work, along with your best and most distinctive pieces, will catch the eye of potential employers and clients. Remember, your portfolio is the primary vehicle for demonstrating your skills and style to the world, so take the time to revise and update it regularly.

Specialize in a niche

It can be tempting to try and appeal to a wide range of clients by offering all types of styles. Yet, it’s often more beneficial to develop a particular style of illustration you’re passionate about and become an expert in that niche. This strategy can differentiate you from competitors and make you more sought-after by clients looking for that specific style. Try to find a balance between a style that’s unique and a niche that’s commercially viable.

Attend workshops and industry events

Participating in industry events and workshops is beneficial for professional development. It provides opportunities for networking, learning new techniques, and staying updated on industry trends. It also allows you to meet potential clients and mentors. Remember that building relationships are an integral part of growing your career.

Build a professional network

Networking plays a significant role in the illustration industry. Connect with other illustrators, join groups, and participate in online communities. Establish a professional and friendly relationship with clients; you never know when clients might refer you to their contacts.

  • The Society of Illustrators
  • The Association of Illustrators
  • Illustrators Australia
  • The Illustration Collective

Continuous learning

Art is a fluid, constantly evolving field. Staying open to learning new techniques, styles, and software is important. This continuous learning improves your skills and keeps you relevant in the industry. The world of digital art and illustration is particularly dynamic, with new software, apps, and tools becoming available regularly. Make use of online art classes, tutorials, and resources to keep your skills sharp and current.

  • Art classes at local community centers or through an art school
  • Online learning platforms like Coursera and Udemy offer courses in illustration and related topics
  • YouTube tutorials on specific techniques or software


Although no specific certifications are typically needed, certain certifications can showcase your knowledge and expertise. This is particularly true for those working in the digital space. Certifications in tools such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop can be beneficial.

Where the illustrator jobs are

Top employers

  • Marvel Comics
  • DC Comics
  • Penguin Random House
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Disney

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Illinois
  • Oregon
  • Massachusetts

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Behance
  • Upwork
  • LinkedIn


What skills are essential for an illustrator?

Key skills for aspiring illustrators include artistic ability and creativity. They should have a sharp eye for detail, the ability to imagine and create visually engaging content, and a strong understanding of colors, textures, and layouts. Proficiency in design software like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop is also important.

What types of companies hire illustrators?

Various types of organizations can provide job opportunities for them. These may include advertising agencies, publishing houses, the fashion and textile industry, film and animation studios, video game developers, educational institutions, and freelance platforms. Some also work independently, creating pieces to sell in galleries or online.

Are there different types of illustrators?

Yes, there are different types, often segmented by the mediums they work in or the type of work they specialize in. Some may specialize in book illustrations, while others focus on fashion, medical, or technical illustrations. Digital illustrators work primarily on digital platforms, using specialized software to create their work.

What is the work schedule like for an illustrator?

Their work schedule can be quite flexible, particularly for those who are self-employed. Some projects may require long hours for a short period, while others may allow a steadier flow of work. It’s also common for them to work on multiple projects concurrently.

What do illustrators do to stay updated in their field?

To stay current in their field, they may attend workshops or take online courses to learn new techniques or software. They also keep up with trends in their industry and sometimes participate in design and illustration competitions. They often use social media and online platforms to display their work and engage with the creative community.

Can an illustrator work remotely?

Yes, they can work remotely. The nature of the job, which primarily involves creating digital or hand-drawn images, makes it suitable for remote work. In fact, many self-employed illustrators work from home or in shared office spaces.

What tools do illustrators typically use in their work?

In the digital space, they typically use graphic tablets, styluses, and professional design software like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or Procreate. For traditional illustration, they might use various materials, including pens, pencils, watercolors, and acrylics.

Is formal education required to become an illustrator?

While formal education can certainly enhance their skills and credibility, it is not a strict requirement for success in this field. Many successful illustrators are self-taught or have gained skills through workshops and online courses. Ultimately, the quality of your portfolio and your ability to create captivating illustrations are most important.

How important is a portfolio for an illustrator?

A portfolio is paramount, as it serves as a visual resume, showcasing their skills, style, and breadth of work. A well-crafted portfolio can help draw the attention of potential clients or employers, demonstrating their ability to deliver on a variety of projects and themes.

Do illustrators collaborate with other professionals?

Yes, they frequently collaborate with other professionals. For example, they might work with writers to create visuals for a story, with art directors to align their work with a brand’s aesthetic, or with graphic designers to incorporate illustrations into overall design elements. They also might work closely with clients to capture their vision accurately.