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How To Become An Illustrator

How To Become An Illustrator main article image
Posted on March 11, 2021 by Giada Buccarella

Today more than ever, talking about job orientation is an obligatory step to understand which are the most appropriate roads and channels for what may be our school or study path, and which also adheres to our ambitions.

But sometimes there are no “instructions” or “guides”. There are some professional profiles for which there is no stable or certain ashy path, such as for example in other professions such as lawyers or cooks.

The work of an illustrator is one of those professions where the variables are many, where sometimes it is not only the studies you have made, the talent, or the number of followers on your Instagram profile that count.

How to become an illustrator?

If someone asks “How can I become an illustrator?”, the answer would not be linear and certain. Embarking on a career as a designer involves various aspects that must be considered as a whole, and today we will try to answer precisely this question.

1- To be an illustrator, you must have attended an art school or obtain academic training.

No! Absolutely. Whoever tells you this does not – presumably – know anything about the illustration or design industry.
To name a few: Frida Kahlo, Van Gogh, Claude Monet, were self-taught.
With this, we are not devaluing didactic training or saying that it is not worth dedicating to it, but we want to recognize the fact that very often there are talented artists who are simply self-taught and can work in this environment as much as a professional trained in specialized schools.

2- Being an illustrator won’t pay your bills!

False! You can lead a normal life and pay all your bills, provide and support and contribute to your family, raise your kids, and so on.

When it comes to “becoming an illustrator”, a distinction should be made between the various declinations that this word implies: not all illustrators are the same.

Not everyone draws by hand or traditionally (which means using oils, or pencils, or acrylics), not all illustrators work digitally, not everyone makes comics, not everyone is into science fiction, and so on. There are line artists, (those who trace the outlines of images; this figure is often found in animation or comic productions), there are colorists, who only deal with color, there are fashion illustrators, those who only draw portraits, those who only draw portraits of animals, the educational designers who take care of illustrating school books…. And we could go on for hours listing the different variations. 

Talent isn’t the only thing you need

Each variant is different and is accessible in a different way. It’s important to understand that for each specialization, there is a different outlet or channel in order to find you spot in this market. If you do not know where to start, you can find some ideas below, in the hope of clarifying and helping those who follow us. Whatever your ambition, however, always remember that talent is certainly not the only thing you need to work in this sector. You will also need a lot of persistence, because the waste will be there, and it will not be pleasant, so be aware of that. You will need a lot of patience, especially if you find yourself working on commissions from clients or third parties, and diplomacy is a skill that will come in handy especially when you have to get hires on your side. Know right now that the traditional work, as it has always been imagined in its more traditional “9 to 5” version, does not exist in the world of those who do this job. The illustrator is a cross between a Buddhist monk and an athlete or a soldier.

When there is a job to be delivered within a week or five days, and you need to be up late at night to finish, the illustrator knows he or she will stay awake to finish. You’ll need to set your priority straight, and be ready to be in charge. Not delivering a work on time may potentially lead to damage for your client and his/hers business, so you have a big responsibility! Discipline is very important because drawing is a type of activity that involves both the physical mind (the hours spent sitting are really many!), and also a more wearying aspect which is the neurological and psychic one.

No one wants to destroy your social life or else, but you have to be aware that your contribution is the most important part of a chain that involves many steps: the editor needs illustration to print a book and promote it, the web developer needs that logo to launch a website, the businessman or businesswoman needs that business card to start promoting his or hers real estate business, so you are on top of the pyramid. 

If you decide to become an illustrator you can evaluate whether to be a freelance or to work for publishers, agencies, or companies, or even do both.

What you need to know before starting

1 – Prepare a portfolio

The first step is to build your portfolio. It is essential to show what you do and what you like, but it’s also important  to allow those who want to offer you a job to understand if your style is suitable for your employer. To create a portfolio in an orderly and clean way you need to insert your most successful works; you can also decide to plan what to include in your portfolio, perhaps differentiating styles and techniques. You can create an online portfolio for free (many websites will ask you for the link to your portfolio, especially illustration agencies and publishers) or you can also print your portfolio and send it to publishers and agencies, along with a cover letter complete with all your data or even a resume.


2 – How to contact publishers or agencies

This is one of the most difficult points to face for many aspiring artists because very often once the portfolio is created, many of us feel lost when trying to contact publishers or agencies. Given that nowadays Google offers all the answers to our questions and that a search like “illustration agency” (just to mention one at random) generates about more than a million results in 0.58 seconds, to simplify the work it may be important to know that there is a tool that all artists should know. We are talking about the wonderful “ARTISTS AND WRITERS YEARBOOK”, a volume that comes out every year, and dedicated to writers and artists, which includes every type of agency and publisher for every type of creative work. The yearbook is available for both artists and writers in both a generic and specific way for the “children” sector. If you plan to contact some publishers through the addresses mentioned here, keep in mind that sending a physical copy of your portfolio is almost always preferable (always attach a cover letter!)

3 – Dive into the artist community

You will be surprised to know how much solidarity there is among fellows creators! Many times, what happens is that gigs and job are found among your own colleagues, or friends in the artist community! It’s very important to join group, forums, discussion, and get to know people like you, as exchanging information or sharing experiences in this field will absolutely help you out when it comes to decide what steps to take next.

4 – Offer your service online 

While you’re waiting a response from an agency, or if you want to challenge yourself having some experience in illustration, a good start may be considering offering your services online. There are tons and tons of websites where people look for illustrators and hire illustrators, so it may be worthy of taking this into consideration. 

5 – Expose yourself!

Another way to start testing the waters is exposing yourself online! Let people know you!

A YouTube channel may be a great start. Also, social media platforms, Instagram in particular, is a way to showcase your art and what you do! Joining Facebook groups also may be a great idea.

6 – Join a challenge or a contest

Even if challenges or contests have nothing to do with paid jobs, they are always a good way to let people know who you are and what you do! 

7 – Open your own store on Creative Fabrica!

With more than 5.000 artists and 18.000 products online, Creative Fabrica is – hands down – the best place to start your own business and start developing a new stream of income. Many illustrators do work for private companies and also have their own shop online.

open a store

8 – Create your own digital novel or set publish your own work

As amazing as it may sound, the truth is not all us will ever reach a publisher and will be hired from a great agency, and not all of us will ever be published. 

Is this a reason to be disappointed? Is this enough to let you think “Ok, I’m not even starting this.” Or “If no one will offer me a gig or a job, I’ll quit”.

If the answer is yes, then this isn’t the right job for you. Illustrators never give up.  Writers never give up. Freelancing is not for everyone; only the most determined will make the cut. And this is proven fact. 

The world is full of people that was discouraged or denied a chance. J.K. Rowling was denied several times before publishing Harry Potter. Walt Disney failed and went bankrupt. Steve Jobs was fired from his own company. 


We are not quitters. 

Do you have your own comic and want to publish it? There are several platforms that allows you punishing your own graphic novel. 

Do you want to sell your illustrations? There are hundreds of micro stock agencies! 

You can try self-publishing if you want to publish your book, it may be a novel or just an activity book, you have freedom to choose and act independently of agencies, and this does not mean you are failing. Many illustrators find more success when they do freelance work rather than when they join an agency. 

9 – Know your limits

If you find yourself in the position of choosing between a freelance career or join an agency, be honest with yourself and ask yourself if you are able to take in the pressure that takes when working for third parties because these are two different situations. If you think you can handle the pressure that comes from a paid gig offered from your agency that is paying you for illustrating a work for a client, which means strict deadlines, several requests to change or modify an artwork, adding or removing details or other features in the artworks, then you should give it a try. If you think you just cannot handle it, then working for someone above you, it’s not the right thing for you and you should probably consider going solo. 

10 – Stick to yourself 

Try to stick to your own truth. If a project does not resonate with you, or you don’t like who’s behind it, if the projects goes against your own beliefs, you should think about taking down the offer. If you don’t “feel” the project or like it, this  will show in your illustrations, and you’ll be praying and regretting saying yes to it. Do not trade your own wealth or mental health for the sake of someone else’s project.

11 – Keep your workplace clean, organized and tidy!

No need to explain it: Keep your desk clean! Not like the one in the picture here below! Do not place water bottles or soda cans near your devices : you may risk frying your electric equipment! Disinfect keyboards, desk, mouse, and screen. A tidy workplace will make you more productive.

be tidy

12 – Your body is your first instrument

Last but not least. Be gentle with your own body. You’ll be seated for long hours, you’ll absorb screen light (one of the most known consequences is difficulty in sleeping because of screen blue lights), you’ll use your hands, fingers, and most of all, your shoulder, elbow and wrist A LOT! On the long term, you’ll feel it, if you don’t care for your body so be sure to take a break every one hour or so, practice some sports, even go for a walk may be enough and as soon as you feel any kind of pain …STOP!

be gentle

As we discussed this introduction to start taking the first steps into the illustration industry we want to wish you an amazing career and the best for your success!

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