Illustration is harder than many professions. Illustration can be your career and an amazingly lucrative one, but it isn’t about your talents or gifts. It’s about your drive above others to express yourself and create your niche. If you’re wondering if you’ve got what it takes, read on.
Before we take a deep dive into ten tips on how to become an illustrator, it's crucial that we first clarify what the illustration art style is and how it differs from drawing.
Even though both drawings and illustrations are visual representations that convey a particular message, they differ a lot from one another. For starters, drawing is a self-expression technique, while illustration is a professional work used for commercial purposes.
Moreover, you can expect that a drawing will stand alone, not needing accompanying text to convey a message. Illustrations can’t be fully appreciated if they are not accompanied by text.
Now that we cleared that up, it's time to explore the world of illustrators a bit and help you find out whether working as a full-time illustrator is the right career for you.
Talented illustrators use their illustration skills to communicate and express a feeling or a meaning. They can also use their illustration skills to simplify a complicated idea. Most of the time, illustrations complement a text or message. In some cases, however, just like drawings, illustrations can stand alone and convey the message without needing any text to explain it.
As an Illustrator, you are expected to create two-dimensional images needed in various fields, from fashion design to medical manuals. Illustrators also use several illustration techniques to create the desired effect.
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Ready to take the next step? Here are ten tips on how you can become an illustrator.
1. Delay “Job Quitting” as soon as possible
If you already have a ‘day job’ and value financial security, we would not recommend quitting your job right away to focus on becoming a freelance illustrator.
Even if you work as an employed illustrator, it's crucial to understand that making a living out of any profession on your own is challenging and can become stressful, especially since you won't receive a full-time or even regular income every month.
When you work on your own and have several projects lined up for you at different intervals, the month-to-month income streams will never be the same. The intermittent nature of freelance work also makes it hard to manage your finances or plan in advance.
In the meantime, it might be best for you to build your illustration portfolio, grow your art skills, and become a more confident artist while you wait for the ideal client.
If you have worked for many years as an employed illustrator and feel ready to start on your own freelancing business after contemplating for a long time whether to launch your solo illustration career or not, then you should go for it. If you feel ready and have several projects lined up for the coming months or years, you can give it a go.
Otherwise, we would recommend keeping your day job and pursuing freelance jobs on the side from time to time until you feel confident enough to quit your day job.
2. Take your time
Becoming a digital Illustrator or launching your career as a freelance illustrator right after graduating may be your dream.
However, when you are fresh out of college, you might not have the right contacts or enough experience to do so. That’s why you must take your time and search for an illustration job where you'll learn new skills.
College experience is great, but in the workplace, it doesn’t count for much. Although your favorite college instructor might have been amazing, it’s your technical skills, personal skills, and work ethics that really make you hireable.
Working for different companies and clients will also help you determine which type of illustrator you want to be. It will also help you develop your character and build your reputation. Once you see yourself gaining more experience, building a network, and getting more clients interested in your work, you can “break free” and become your own "boss."
3. Work Hard
An amazing artist might say, “making art doesn’t feel like work” because they enjoy being a digital illustrator so much. But, working as an illustrator is never easy.
Just like a graphic designer should never stop learning and work hard to keep up with new trends, an illustrator is always “required” to keep working hard and advancing their skills.
By constantly improving your illustration skills and incorporating new elements into your personal style, your work will be appreciated by more and more people and even potential clients.
4. Build a strong portfolio early on
To “be seen” by as many people as possible, you have to make your work visible and “advertise” yourself and your skills. Creating an impressive online portfolio will make it easier for you to land a job interview. Even if you are a recent graduate and have no professional work experience, you can still add to your portfolio any university project you have worked on. You can also add any illustrations you have created for fun or any university-run magazine or newspaper.
As an illustrator, you have several options to showcase your work and build an online portfolio. Among popular websites to build your portfolio are Behance, Dribbble, ArtStation, and PortfolioBox.
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5. Specialize in one industry
While it's great to be good at many things simultaneously, it's important that you pick one illustration style or industry that you want to focus on.
Picking one illustration field will make you stand out in that particular industry. People who've worked with you will also recommend you if they have any leads in that particular field that you are specialized in.
Here are some types of illustrators working in various industries:
- Storyboard Illustrator/Artist
- Editorial Illustrator
- Product Illustrator
- Technical Illustrator
- Children’s Book Illustrator
- Fashion Illustrator
- Medical Illustrator
It's also essential that you don’t rush when it comes to picking one specific industry. You can take your time and try out different ones before deciding which one you prefer the most or which ones you have a natural talent for. For instance, to become a medical illustrator, you might need to have a natural talent for drawing surgical procedures or human organs.
If you are great at sketching clothes, you might choose to specialize in the fashion design industry and work as a fashion illustrator. To become an illustrator for children, you might need previous experience as an illustrator for books.
You might also need to be good at expressing emotions through your illustrations. In other words, you need to bring stories to life. Here are 19 Children's Book Illustrations that might inspire your next project.
Specifying in your portfolio that you are specialized in a particular field will also be helpful for any potential clients who want to know beforehand if you would be a good fit for their specific illustration project.
6. Take advantage of your “free time”
If you ever have some free time or know in advance that summer months, for instance, won't be as hectic as any other months, you can take advantage of this and learn new skills during these quiet periods.
You can use the free time to take on projects that seem challenging and require you to learn something new in the process.
You can take many college-level online classes on the fundamentals of design or further or re-shift your focus to another industry that might find your illustration skills useful. Most pros in this field will tell you that you won't need a degree in illustration to become a professional illustrator.
Instead, when you have free time, treat each block of time as time for learning, watching video tutorials, and attending as many online courses as you can. In time, you’ll begin to perfect the skills you have and grow your portfolio.
A great tool to get you started is Curve (formerly Vectornator). it's offered entirely for free and offers features like:
- Auto-trace technology that transforms your illustrations into vectors in seconds
- Cross-platform functionality syncing projects across MacBook, iPad, and iPhone
- Access to over 1M royalty-free images from Unsplash
- Access to over 80k icons
- A minimal and decluttered interface that makes curve easy to learn
7. Offer online courses to develop your skills
You can even offer online courses for new students on how to make digital illustrations. By teaching others, you'll also learn more in the process, especially if you have to research to prepare for your classes.
Even if you do not need to research anything in advance, the sole process of having to show your students how you do what you do will be helpful to you. Teaching them the different illustration processes step by step will help you grow as an illustrator expert and as a professional in the long term.
8. Research potential clients
This step is essential whether you work as an employed illustrator or solely as a freelance illustrator.
If your goal is to become an illustrator and create your own business without relying on one employer, it's vital to always be on the lookout for new clients. Keep in mind that researching is also time-consuming, and you'll need to work overtime to find those clients and build relationships with them.
9. Take yourself seriously
Want to become an Illustrator? Then take yourself seriously – as an Illustrator, we mean.
Set mini goals, and work towards achieving them. Doing some work for free here and there while you are still studying or completing a non-paid internship right after graduating are good alternatives to working on personal projects.
Once you gain some experience and are trying to make it as an illustrator, you should set your sights on long-term goals like owning a business or publishing a professional art blog. By seeing yourself as a business, other people will also see you like one and take you seriously - meaning they will stop asking you to create illustrations for gaining exposure (aka working for free).
Even if you work as an illustrator on the side, work is still work; even if illustrating is something you are happy to do for free. So don’t be shy to advertise your work and actively seek commissions. You should be paid for the work you do. As you start getting more and more clients, you’ll be on the right track to becoming financially stable enough to quit your day job and work as a full-time illustrator.
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10. Stop comparing yourself to others
Not every successful illustrator has arrived where they are by following the same path. Even if some illustrators may seem like they have been successful their whole lives, that is rarely the case.
You never know how many rejections they had or how many struggles they had to surpass to arrive where they are. So it’s pointless to compare yourself and how much you've achieved so far with someone else’s path.
The same goes for their works. Illustrators who've been perfecting their skills for years and years keep updating their professional portfolios and websites with their best works, removing their old ones. It's a long process, and no one begins their career creating masterpieces.
It takes time to become a master of your craft, so do not be hard on yourself if you are not there yet. Your time will come if you keep on working hard and developing new skills.
Bonus tip: there is no ideal client
In a perfect world, the client would hire you for a project, you would finish the project, and the client would be happy with it, having zero feedback to give.
But this is almost never the case. A lot of the times, there's going to be a bit of back and forth between you and the client or other people you work with. So you’ll have to learn early on that there is no ideal client, and there will always be something to change in your designs, even if you are happy and proud with your final product.
Working in graphic design, 3D design, and so on means having to listen and understand your client’s needs. As an Illustrator, sometimes you might need to rework some ideas or exchange ideas with the people you work with so you fully understand their wishes and how they envision the final product.
We hope these ten tips with a sneaky bonus one will be useful and help you start your career in illustration. The creative and entertainment industries are always looking for new illustrators with fresh ideas for their art departments. You just need to find your illustration style and work hard on perfecting it. Here are 12 illustration styles to get your inspiration going.
Ready to take your first steps into becoming an illustrator? Download Curve today to get started and bring your ideas to life.
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Ben is a Content Lead for Linearity living in Berlin. His hobbies include board games, cooking, reading, and writing.