Illustrators are responsible for bringing all manners of wonderful media to life that has inspired our imaginations and fuelled our dreams. These talented artists work as art directors, in graphic design, in the fashion industry, and more.
Illustrators strive to enrich our lives by visually enhancing some of fashion, pop art, and marketing's most successful outputs.
The most iconic Gucci, Versace, and Louis Vuitton dresses were once extraordinary designs on paper before they sprang to life. The original artwork of leading comic books like Spider-Man or Batman are leading examples of American illustration art.
Every graphic designer strives to improve our everyday lives by adding beautiful visual elements to complex ideas and campaigns, and many of them are primarily concerned with illustration.
Of course, none of our favorite children’s books would be half as engaging, educational, or memorable without their countless beautiful illustrations.
But who are these talented people that turn original designs into winning works of visual communication? Certainly, illustrators deserve plenty of recognition beyond the odd illustration award.
We'll explore the most talented names in digital illustration, comic book art, fashion design, and the field of illustration in general. Working as a full-time artist is not easy, and some of the most talented artists in history and modern times are responsible for the illustration of ideas that are hard to convey in words alone.
We’ll also expand on illustration as a profession and how you can become one yourself.
If you’re wondering how to become an illustrator, this guide is a great place to start.
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What is illustration?
According to Oxford Languages, an illustrator creates or draws images for adverts, magazines, or books, among many other types of media.
Illustrators are specialized artists that enhance writing with visual representations. A graphic designer, for example, will use graphic software like Curve or Procreate to create a digital illustration to accompany copywriting.
One of the key roles of a graphic artist or graphic designer is to clarify complicated ideas or objects with their original designs. This visual communication applies to both children's books, where youngsters might grapple with understanding ideas with text alone and in the elucidation of marketing concepts and adverts for adults.
Illustrations are congruent images that are supposed to work with and improve information, without distracting the viewer. A graphic artist will add more character and personality to a concept without taking away from the prime focus.
Illustrators work with various mediums, including digital illustration, physical paint, and pen and ink, to create packaging design, t-shirt design, magazine cover illustrations, animations, and children's books illustrations.
There are various illustration styles, including fantasy, comics, fashion, children’s books, and cartoons.
Some examples of famous illustrators
There are plenty of iconic illustrators that are integral to our everyday lives, from our preferred pop art heroes to the people driving the current trends in fashion and marketing. While it is impossible to do justice to the international content of artwork available, here are a few international and historical icons.
This American illustrator is among the most influential and beloved of the early 20th century. Millions of Cats is perhaps Wanda Gág's most famous work, an adorable and astoundingly detailed illustrated storybook.
The 1928 illustrated tribute to felines won Gág a Newbery Honor award in 1929, an exceptional achievement for a picture book. Millions of Cats also happens to be one of the oldest picture books still being printed, making the American illustrator an invaluable cultural treasure.
E. H. Shepard
Ernest Howard Shepard OBE MC, better known as E. H. Shepard, was the figure behind the page and cover illustrations of the Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows children's books. The British E. H. Shepard began his career contributing to the satirical Punch magazine while he was enlisted in World War I.
Following the end of the First World War, Shepard was introduced to A. A. Milne, the creator of the lovable Pooh bear, in 1923. Together they created the original designs for the honey-loving anthropomorphic teddy bear and his friends.
Antonio Lopez was a 20th-century Puerto Rican fashion illustrator most famous for his contribution to the modern fashion illustration style. Lopez worked with fashion icons like Karl Lagerfeld and Charles James.
Lopez was famous for discovering youthful models who would serve as his muses, such as Jessica Lange, Jerry Hall, and a few of the "Warhol superstars" like Jane Forth and Donna Jordan. Lopez's legacy has inspired everything from MAC Cosmetics lines, the Spring 2012 line of fashion designer Anna Sui, and even legendary manga artist Hirohiko Araki's character designs in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.
If Winnie-the-Pooh isn't your thing, there's a good chance that you're a fan of the equally adorable Moomins, created by the Finnish illustrator and book author Tova Jannson. While the multi-talented Jansson is best recognized for bringing the Moomins family to life, she was also an author, comic artist, and painter, as well as an illustrator.
Still, The Moomins remains Jansson's lasting legacy and greatest work, and the Finnish illustrator was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1966 for her contributions to children's fiction. The Moomins were adapted into all manner of comics and animated television shows throughout the 20th and 21st century, with the 2019 Moominvalley animated series being the latest production.
Ashley Bryan was an American illustrator and writer of children's fiction that focused on African-American lived experiences. Like his Finnish contemporary Tove Jansson, Bryan was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2006.
Bryan was best known for adapting African folktales in an American life context. A children's illustrated book like Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum, was awarded the Coretta Scott King Book Illustrator Award in 1981.
Even if you aren’t the biggest anime or manga fan, you’ve probably heard of Hayao Miyazaki and might even be a devoted follower of his animated masterpieces. The Japanese Studio Ghibli co-founder is one of the most universally acclaimed animators and illustrators, often labeled as “Japan’s Walt Disney.”
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Although Miyazaki dislikes being compared to Mickey Mouse’s creator, it cannot be denied that he matched (or even exceeded, according to fans) the beauty and splendor of Disney’s animated films. Miyazaki’s most acclaimed works include Spirited Away (which won an Academy Award for best animated feature), Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke.
Beatrix Potter was a British illustrator known for children's books.
She was also a natural scientist and conservationist. She is perhaps the best-known illustrator on this list and one of the beloved artists who defined many childhoods.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit is an acclaimed children's book written and illustrated by Potter. The book focuses on a young rabbit named Peter Rabbit, as he gets into trouble in the garden of Mr. McGregor.
Jerry Pinkney is an American illustrator and children's author who has illustrated over 100 books.
He is known for watercolor illustrations and is recognized for his work on The Lion & the Mouse, published in 2009.
Pinkney is still creating beautiful illustrations. One of his recent book illustrations is A Home in the Barn, by Margret Wise Brown, which was published in 2018.
Yuyi Morales is a Mexican-American children's book author and illustrator best known for her books Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book, Little Night, and Viva Frida.
In 1994, Morales left Mexico and moved to the United States. She spoke no English but found solace and inspiration in her local library.
She became a children’s book author and has since won countless awards, including the Pura Belpre Medal for illustration and a Caldecott Honor.
Sir Quentin Blake is a British cartoonist, illustrator, and children's author who has illustrated over 300 books.
He is best known for his work with Roald Dahl, with whom he collaborated on 18 books. He is known for his use of colors and vibrant characterizations.
Jean Jullien is a French illustrator and graphic designer who created an instantly recognizable style with his distinctive characters.
His work as a designer has been made into clothing, posters, and exhibits. He specializes in magazine illustration, and his work has been featured in some major publications, including the New York Times, New Yorker, and National Geographic.
You can follow him on social media to keep up with his ongoing work.
Bijou Karman is definitely an illustrator, artist, and designer to keep an eye on.
Her work focuses heavily on the female form and colorful patterns. Her work is popular among major fashion brands such as Prada, Nike, and Harper’s Bizarre. She has created an impressive collection of art, including portraits, books, fashion designs, and prints.
Check out her Instagram account, and give her a follow so that you don’t miss her upcoming posts.
Frank Miller is an American screenwriter, inker, comic book artist, film director, and illustrator. Miller is lauded for his gritty and impactful graphic novels like Sin City, 300, and his various takes on leading comic book superheroes like The Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil: Born Again.
A few of Miller’s graphic novels have been turned into successful Hollywood films, like Sin City and 300. The multi-talented artist and director noted manga and film noir as his leading influences and aimed to create a hybrid of Japanese and Western comics in his work.
While these leading names in illustration created historical and invaluable careers and legacies, illustrators, in general, need a bit of help from various organizations and benefactors.
What is the society of illustrators?
While several organizations aim to preserve and promote historical and modern illustrators' legacies and efforts, few are as recognized or acclaimed as the Society of Illustrators.
Its mission is invaluable to the field of illustration in general. The Society advances the place of current illustrators and their craft while appreciating illustration's history and progressive future through education and exhibitions.
The Society of Illustrators was established in 1901 and serves as the most historic nonprofit organization devoted to illustration within the United States. Some of its most prestigious members included Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, and Rube Goldberg.
The Society has done much to advance the art of illustration, holding annual exhibits and competitions, with extensive art education courses for the graphic artist and illustrator alike. The Society of Illustrators also preserves around 2,500 works used as resources in art education degrees.
The MoCCA Gallery is one of the newer wings of The Society, where one can find comic artist and cartoonist exhibits. Of course, an organization like this requires much funding to support artists.
But what does a day in the life of a full-time artist look like? You might be wondering what the business of illustration entails and what makes up the professional life of an illustrator.
What does an illustrator do?
When you think of an illustrator, you probably imagine someone diligently hunched over a drawing pad, working late into the night on extraordinary designs to earn a median wage. Indeed, illustrators will work on all manner of incredible projects, like packaging design, t-shirt design, current design trends, and cover illustrations.
Some of the most notable illustrators would have studied at institutions like the Parsons School of Design, the Rhode Island School of Design, and other leading design agencies. An illustrator can work as a design consultant, a successful freelance designer, or in corporate branding.
The average illustrator works as a successful freelance designer, often enjoying much control over the freelance projects that they embark upon while earning an hourly wage. At the same time, it is recommended that an illustrator work with an agent, or they can be directly commissioned by magazines, businesses, and the odd book author.
An illustrator's job is rarely limited to simply refining their illustration style and creating extraordinary designs. They also need to have plenty of business savvy and keep their instant messaging software open at almost all hours.
The typical illustrator's responsibilities include:
- communicating with design agencies, editors, and authors
- learning new skills like video editing, custom effects, and user interface design
- negotiating the most beneficial and achievable contracts
- researching fields or subjects that they are unfamiliar with while developing new ideas
- keeping up with current design trends and developments in the art of illustration
- drawing and submitting preliminary sketches
- yielding conclusive illustrations
Compared to a graphic designer, an illustrator is more likely to work on specific drawings rather than the entire page layout. That being said, the line often blurs between the two professions, as in the case of a small-to-medium business's project description.
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Which tools do illustrators use?
The modern illustrator needs several moderately expensive tools and programs to ensure that their work is of the highest quality. We’ve put together an essential starter kit that will work for professionals and beginners alike.
The drawing tablet is perhaps the most frequently used and important tool in any modern illustrator’s toolkit. Even if you prefer drawing with pencils and paper as a traditionalist, your clients will likely need scanned digital files.
Drawing tablets, styluses, and their related illustration software allow you to make infinite revisions, with full mobile freedom. You can also emulate almost any artistic medium, such as oils, acrylics, and watercolors. A good entry-level drawing tablet generally costs less than $1,000.
If you prefer to sketch on a tablet or iPad, a tablet stand is essential for maximum ergonomic convenience. Illustrators will happily tell you that long hours bent over a piece can cause much physical strain on the neck, shoulders, back, arms, and hands.
A tablet stand allows you to position your work as appropriately as possible, allowing you to work healthily and comfortably. While a Surface Pro comes fitted with a kickstand, getting a proper tablet stand allows you to angle your tablet or iPad to your preferred angle.
A high-quality and comprehensive graphic pencil set is essential for the most detailed and precise drawing and sketching possible. Try to purchase a range that includes everything from 9B to 9H.
If you enjoy mixing digital and traditional methods, you’re likely to begin a sketch physically before scanning it in to finish it digitally. We recommend a non-photo blue pencil for this process, which will allow you to experiment with your sketch without the faint lines being picked up by a scanner.
The right software
If your output primarily depends on digital software, you will need a suitable graphic design program. A tool like Curve, as its name suggests, is ideal for illustrators that adore working with vectors.
Illustrators are constantly looking for simpler and shorter ways to perform their tasks, and Curve excels at streamlining the design process in general. It also has a very accessible learning curve, meaning that beginners can improve their illustration skills quickly.
The best career options for illustrators
We typically think of an illustrator working as a visual artist, but plenty of commercial occupations are available to them.
Many businesses are happy to spend money on designers, especially in the following fields:
- Graphic design
- Concept art
- Multimedia programming
- Production design (i.e., film, television, and theatre)
- Video editing
- Communication projects
- Corporate branding
In terms of relevant work experience, illustrators would benefit from internships in animation studios or graphic design agencies, where they will garner the skills needed for their preferred career path. These opportunities also allow them to better understand the business side of the creative process.
Illustrators will also learn how to market themselves and their extraordinary designs better. The practice of selling your works is an invaluable skill for any illustrator.
Of course, an illustrator needs an impressive image portfolio and would benefit highly from 1-1 portfolio and business consultations.
Thanks to online freelance platforms, illustrators have access to many freelance opportunities in the modern world.
Working as a freelance illustrator
So, how do you hire an illustrator? Thanks to the varied nature of modern freelance work, illustrators have plenty of online options, such as Fiverr and Upwork.
These platforms allow illustrators to connect with potential clients easily.
Fiverr has a straightforward system for locating freelancers. Rather than requesting clients, Fiverr has established a freelancer directory. There are plenty of categories and subcategories within the Fiverr directory, promoting freelancers with specialized skills, like experience in branding.
Each freelancer (known as "sellers" on Fiverr) will enjoy a detailed profile with a star rating, client reviews, and their individual specializations and services.
Fiverr works best for illustrators that prefer single or short-term engagement with a variety of clients. That being said, Fiverr is relatively limited in its categories.
Its leading departments include digital marketing, graphic design, video animation, writing, music, entertainment and lifestyle, programming, and translation.
Upwork functions similarly to Fiverr in that it helps clients and freelancers match with each other based on skill level and needs. Thanks to this automatic matching, clients can easily find the most appropriately talented freelancers with Upwork.
This client selecting process is further streamlined by Upwork providing them with freelancers' relevant skills and experience. Upwork users can compare and review the workers provided and interview them if needed.
Unfortunately, Upwork is incredibly saturated at this stage, and users have complained that only a portion of workers are actually highly skilled at their stated profession. As a result of this high population, clients must be very selective when filling a temporary position.
Being an illustrator certainly seems to be a demanding profession. Not only do you need to ensure that your work is of the highest quality, but that your bills are being paid and that your business thrives.
Of course, being a creative in the 21st century comes with a fair amount of risk and stress, but there are few things worse than being naturally talented and not making said talent your life’s work.
Not that illustrators rarely settle, however. They are constantly upskilling and improving their crafts while finding exciting and lucrative ways to share their skills with the world. That being said, design software like Curve allows you to get started with illustration without formal training or education.
Illustrators provide a vibrant and invaluable service to the world, whether by illustrating children’s books or working on new package designs.
We hope that this article did justice to the illustrators of the world, both past and present, and that you enjoyed a better understanding of what they do (and how they make a living). If you have always wanted to get started as an illustrator, it should be clearer now how to do so.
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Adí is an SEO developer working for Linearity in Berlin. Her hobbies include drawing comics, yoga, swimming, infinite scrolling, and birdwatching.