How to Become a Professional Illustrator

Do you know how to create a career from drawing and designing? In this edition of our ‘How to Become’ series, we cover the career path of an illustrator, covering everything from average salaries to how to get started. Enjoy!


What Would I Do as an Illustrator?

Man using a refurbished Mac computer looking at a printed picture

Illustrators typically either do commercial work for creative image-centred companies like comic book makers, publishing houses and advertising agencies, or work for a variety of clients by freelancing or as part of a creative consultancy. Illustrators do a lot more drawing and designing than graphic designers, focussing on product packaging, book illustrations, company logos, and the graphics in novels.

This role would typically include:
• discussing requirements for briefs with clients
• negotiating prices and timescales
• choosing the right style for illustrations
• creating illustrations, usually through drawings or computer design packages
• speaking with the client and changing designs to meet their needs
• making sure the work is completed within set budgets and deadlines

Depending on the type of illustration you’re interested in, your style and the type of clients you take on, the work you produce with vary drastically. For example, if you start illustrating for animated TV shows, chances are your technique and form will be very different to someone who works for heritage sites creating graphics for leaflets and guidebooks, which will be different again for illustrators for children books.


What is My Expected Salary as an Illustrator?

Polygon illustration of a black and tan dog

Pay for illustrators can vary drastically depending on where you live, the demand for your skill, how big the company or client is, and your experience level, amongst other factors.

Generally, your pay will start between £18,000 to £20,000 outside of London, and £23,000+ if you work in London. Once you have a few years under your belt, you can expect to see your pay rise to roughly £30,000 a year whether inside or outside of the city. Well established illustrators working for a company with more than a decade’s experience can earn around £50,000 a year.

For freelancers, pay can vary much more dramatically. It is not unheard of for freelance illustrators who can quickly churn out projects to earn over six-figure sums. However, usually, freelance pay is slightly below that of full-time illustrators, with the benefit of more flexible hours and the ability to choose your own projects.


What Do I Need To Become an Illustrator?

Woman using an iPhone and Refurbished MacBook Air with a dongle

Firstly, you need the basic drawing and designing skills that are essential to illustration. While designers who work by hand is still a large field in the market, the demand for digital designers is growing faster and faster every year. Digital illustrators who work with computers and illustration software can find employment and freelance opportunities more easily today, especially in the entertainment and marketing industries.

Even if you don’t want to go down the road of digital illustration, strong understanding of the current software used to aid illustration work is necessary. Adobe Illustrator remains the gold standard in the industry, though what software you use depends on what you feel most comfortable with. A refurbished MacBook Air is a brilliant device for running Illustrator and the rest of the Adobe Creative Cloud suite smoothly and at a cheaper cost than many other options.

Finally, a portfolio is essential to becoming a professional illustrator. A demonstration of your skill and your previous work is vital to attracting the interest of potential employers. You should also consider creating social media accounts on each major platform including Tumblr, DeviantArt, and Flickr, to further promote the popularity of your work and attract a following.


Is Illustration Right For Me?

A collection of pens, brushes, and pencils in a container

An illustrator has to find a balance between expressing their own originality and creativity and sticking to their client’s brief to provide a product that meets their requirements. If you are excited about the prospect of creating on a daily basis and seeing your designs be turned from paper to product, then this is the perfect career for you.

To succeed in this competitive career, you need an imaginative mind and a creative spark to convince new clients that you can turn their vision to reality. There is a lot of pressure to make each piece perfect, but if you can meet the expectations of those you work for, then this is an incredibly satisfying career.


Steps to Becoming an Illustrator

A brown and turquoise polygon illustration of an eagle
There is no clearly defined career path to becoming an illustrator, though many do get a degree in a creative subject before entering the field. However, some things you can do to get ahead are:

  • Read illustration books
  • Watch or attend galleries and showcases of artists works
  • Watch or read artist interviews, such as on The Great Discontent, Juxtapoz, and Artists & Illustrators
  • Get inspired and find your style and area in which you want to illustrate
  • Build a portfolio of freelance, intern, or career work
  • Particularly if you want a technical illustration career (such as medical illustration), complete a degree specialising in your niche
  • Create a clean portfolio, and create a collection online
  • Create social media platforms to share your work
  • Talk to potential employers and start to build a career in the field!


We hope you’ve enjoyed reading our account of how to become an illustrator! If you have any more advice to share or have anything to add, please leave us a message below or drop us a comment on social media. We’d love to hear from you!