How to Become an Illustrator: A Step by Step Guide

Becoming a professional illustrator is truly a labor of love. Unlike some careers that you can simply “fall into,” illustration requires skill, determination, and a tremendous amount of elbow grease.

That said, it’s far from impossible to turn your love of illustration into your career; if you’re an aspiring illustrator, this step-by-step guide will help you focus on the key action items you can take to bring your art to the next level.

1. Start Drawing

It sounds obvious, right? But to become a professional illustrator, you need to continually create new drawings so you can keep your skills sharp and build a large body of work.

While you can’t be taught a natural aptitude, illustration is a skill that can be improved upon, regardless of initial ability. You can learn several tips and tricks to help you expand your skills as long as you continue to practice.

If you want an illustration career, you should be prepared to spend hours every day drawing and reiterating, so the more you get in the habit of devoting a large amount of your time to it, the better off you’ll be when you start doing it full time.

As you create work, compile it into digital and physical folders and store it chronologically. One of the joys of being an illustrator is looking back on your body of work and seeing how you’ve grown and changed.

Reflecting on past illustrations is also a great way to notice things you want to improve upon and help you recognize your artistic style.

2. Consider the Type of Work You Want to Do

To have the best chance of success, you should decide what illustration style you want to pursue and practice creating illustrations in this style the most. Below are some common professional illustration specialties:

  • Editorial illustrator
  • Medical illustrator
  • Fashion illustrator
  • Children’s book illustrator
  • Graphic designer might be a good idea to mention concept artists, storyboard and comic illustrators :’) like illustration for entertainment is the reason most Illustrators get in the media

While it’s essential to have a foundational knowledge of various illustration styles, having a clear vision of what type of art you want to make and honing your illustration skills in that area is even more critical.

For example, if you want to be a medical illustrator, keep in mind that this typically requires formal schooling. You’ll need to have a detailed understanding of the medical illustration style and human anatomy.

To be successful as an illustrator, you should have a clearly defined personal style in a specific area that calls to yourself and others. You want to be able to show a cohesive body of work that flows well together.

Your work won’t be suitable for every job, but clients will come to you when they have projects that fit your niche if you have a definable and discernable style.

3. Manage Your Expectations

Beginning an illustration career may take years to become reliable enough that it can be your only job. Consider keeping your day job while you go through school (if you choose to) and build up a body of work.

Even as you build a client base, reliable income can be challenging, so if you plan to quit your job, make sure you have enough savings to float you for at least several months if work begins to slow down. True but sounds a bit harsh.

Consider finding a day job in the art field that allows you to build connections and practice your skills, but understand that you’ll have a significantly lower level of creative control working for someone else than you will if you’re doing freelance jobs and can select your own clients and projects. Most “day jobs” on the art field are soul crushing. An easy way to step out of the industry in the early days of your career. Still good advice.

At the beginning of your career, it’s more about building up a client base and proving that you can do the work than it is about completing your dream projects.

4. Learn to Compromise

Like managing your expectations, learning to compromise is integral to starting your illustrating career.

Compromise doesn’t have to look like doing projects you hate or working in a style that you’re not familiar with, but it does mean that you should be prepared to pay your dues.

Being selective is a luxury that comes with steady work and reliable income. Try to cast a wide net to gain experience in several fields or styles and build up your network when you’re starting.

5. Consider Getting a Formal Education

Depending on your ultimate goal, getting a formal education might benefit you. We live in the internet age, so teaching yourself to draw has never been easier.

Still, formal education gives you a broad understanding of the history of art, different styles, and technical skills and feedback that are invaluable. It also allows you to form connections with professors and other students who might be able to help you build your career.

If you know your ultimate goal is becoming a freelance illustrator, consider getting a Bachelor’s degree or even an Associate’s degree. However, if your ultimate goal is to be an art director, you may be better off getting a Master’s of Fine Arts. Do some research on the expectations of the role you’d like to grow into.

Continuing education is also vital to having a career in illustration, so even after you have a degree, it’s best to continue taking classes at your local community college or art school, Skillshare, or MasterClass.

These classes can help you hone your skills further, get continued feedback, and keep you aware of current design trends. Yes but they’re expensive :’) maybe some less expensive suggestions like Udemy and Crehana

6. Create a Portfolio

A portfolio is necessary to land any job as an illustrator, freelance, or otherwise. To know they want to hire you, they need to see samples of your work and get a feel for your style and skill level.

While a physical portfolio is necessary, a digital portfolio is how you can allow the whole world access to your art and let them come to you.

Your portfolio should be a selection of your best work and should show off your personal style. While versatility is encouraged to appeal to a wide net of potential clientele (especially at the beginning of your career), you don’t want to compromise a feeling of unity between the pieces you choose.

Furthermore, make sure to highlight pieces that show the kind of work you want to be doing. If you created a piece that other people have given positive feedback on, but it’s not at all the type of illustration you want to be doing, don’t include it.

Your portfolio should be a cohesive showcase of your best and current work, and you should consistently update it as you produce new pieces that you’re proud of.

7. Immerse Yourself in the Community

Being in touch with other artists and people close to the art world is essential for several reasons; first and foremost is networking.

Creating contacts within the art world is a great way to get your name out there, get feedback on your work, and meet new potential clients or employers.

It’s also a great way to meet more experienced illustrators who can give you feedback on what went well for them when they began their careers.

Being a part of the art community means that you’ll be more in touch with your local art scene and what’s going on in the art world at large. It also means you have a network of people that can critique your work and from whom you can draw inspiration.

8. Create a Social Media Account

Creating a social media account is almost necessary in today’s world, especially if you want to build your own business. You can use social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram as a way to showcase your work and get in touch with other talented illustrators around the world.

Your social media account can also function as a consistent catalog of your body of work and allows potential clients to get a feel of who you are as a person outside of your art.

Make sure to use social media to your advantage by creating connections, participating in illustration challenges, and linking to your portfolio or store so people can find out more about who you are and how they can work with you.

9. Create a Website

Essentially an online portfolio, creating a website is necessary if you want to be taken seriously and have a way for people to view your body of work.

Your website can reflect your personal style but should include a gallery of your favorite pieces, a way for people to contact you about working together, an about you page, and a link to your social media.

Depending on how established you are, you can include pricing and other information as you see fit.

You should constantly update your website with your latest work and relevant information, as it’s your digital portfolio.

10. Get Your Work Out There

Start selling your work! Give people an opportunity to pay you for the art you create using whatever platform you like the best.

Some illustrators have success with Etsy shops, while others prefer using websites such as Fiverr and Upwork to sell their services.

It’s never too early to start selling your art, and you should play around with some different methods until you find one that works for you.

As you begin selling your work and services, encourage new clients to leave reviews and give you feedback on how to improve to help you grow as an artist and a business owner.

11. Get an Agent

Although not a necessity by any means, if you’re struggling to find work, consider hiring an agent to help you.

Agents take fees, so you should be prepared to make less money initially, but they also have meaningful connections and have the potential to help you get started and build your network.

Agents can also help deal with contract negotiations and get you paid more for your work as you become an established artist.

12. Always Keep Drawing

Continuing to practice your craft is the most critical thing you can do when starting as an illustrator.

Continually producing illustrations not only help you grow and improve, but it helps you get in touch with what makes you special and unique as an artist.

Take every opportunity to use your downtime to create art that’s meaningful to you. Participate in challenges on social media and design sprints. If you draw for work but don’t get the chance to explore your creativity the way you’d like to, create a piece that you’re passionate about when you get home.

Building a successful illustration career takes drive and determination. You will need to constantly expand your body of work and grow as an artist.

Drawing consistently during your free time not only keeps your skills sharp, but it allows you the opportunity not to turn what you love solely into something that you get paid for.

13. Don’t Compare Yourself to Other Artists

Potentially the most challenging part of growing a career in illustration is to avoid comparing yourself to others.

Your art and you as an artist are not defined by the level of success that others can achieve or the art they create. It’s essential to find the balance between drawing inspiration from other artists and trying to mimic them or holding yourself to the same standards.

Part of the journey of becoming a professional artist is finding, believing in, and investing in your personal style. If you spend too much time wishing you were creating the type of art that someone else is, you run the risk of losing the quality that’s special about your art.

Furthermore, success can mean many things when you turn your art into a career. Depending on the illustrative style you choose or the type of career you want to have, you can experience success in various ways.

Final Thoughts

Becoming a professional illustrator requires time and devotion, but if you follow the steps above, you should be able to turn your love of drawing into a career.

Keep in mind the importance of continually creating illustrations, connecting with people in the art community through social media and other channels, and being willing to get out there and say yes to some projects that might not be your dream jobs.

To succeed as an illustrator, you must have a clear idea of what illustration style you want to create and a developed sense of personal style.