Professional Illustration 101

It’s very easy to sit daydreaming in your office, at your desk, working a job you might like but aren’t truly passionate about, and think how cool it would be to be paid to illustrate for a living.

Just think…people would actually pay you to create and draw and illustrate. It’s always been your dream, hasn’t it?

But in reality, making a living from your illustration skills isn’t all about creating and illustrating – there are other parts of the “job” which may be less appealing.

Below we’ll look at  number of things you’ll need to consider if you’re going to pursue your goal of becoming a professional illustrator so that you can forge ahead with your eyes wide open…

What Do You Want to Illustrate?

Ask yourself this question…If you could illustrate anything and get paid for it, what would it be?

Your portfolio should reflect the type of work you want to be doing, not just what you can do. There’s a BIG difference.

After all, if you’re going to make a career of this, it makes sense to choose something you enjoy illustrating, doesn’t it?

If you hate illustrating comics (even if you are great at them), it isn’t sensible to fill your portfolio with samples of your comics work.

Even if you think this is your best shot at getting that first commission, we recommend that you focus on creating a portfolio that reflects the work you really, really want to do – not just the work you can do.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the different types of illustration income streams:

  • Editorial illustrations for newspapers & magazines
  • Illustrations for children’s books
  • Magazine covers
  • Book covers
  • Art licensing (e.g. patterns you see on children’s clothing or greetings cards)
  • Advertising campaigns
  • Packaging

If you take a look at your local shopping mall, you’ll see just how many things you could illustrate. The fun (and sometimes tricky) part is deciding what you want to illustrate.

Your Illustration Style

There are differing opinions on whether a signature style is a good thing or not. There are generally two schools of thought on the style issue:

  1. You should be able to adapt your style to fit the job
  2. You should develop a recognisable signature style

Lets look at the pro’s and cons of each…

The Adaptable Style

Pros:

  • Being able to work in multiple styles (potentially) opens you up to more clients/opportunities.

Cons:

  • You run the risk of becoming known as a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.
  • It makes Art Directors nervous because they don’t know what they are going to get from you.
  • Difficult and expensive to market as your potential client base is so varied.

The Signature Style

Pros:

  • Easier to market your work to a specific niche and stand out in the crowd.
  • Become the ‘go to’ person for your style of work.
  • Makes you more memorable.
  • In the eyes of an Art Director, you’re potentially more reliable because they know what style they’re going to get and how it’s likely to look.

Cons:

  • Only able to go for jobs/genres that your style would be suitable for.

Where you fall on this debate will determine the type of portfolio you create and the type of work you decide to pursue.

From experience (and the input of numerous Art Directors and Agents), developing a signature style is the approach that will likely get you the most work in the long term.

What Does It Mean (To You) To Be A Professional Illustrator?

There are numerous definitions which you can apply to the term “professional illustrator”. The one that’s most important is the one which holds most meaning to you!

For example, you’re a professional illustrator as soon as somebody pays you to create an illustration – even if that’s a friend who wants a mural for their kid’s wall.

It’s important to define what being a professional illustrator means to you – so that you know exactly what it is you’re aiming for. There are probably more options than you realise!

Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Are you looking to create a supplementary income stream using your creative skills to give you a bit more income alongside your day job?
  • Do you want to create a full-time income to replace your day job by using your creative/illustration skills?
  • Would you like to be paid to illustrate?
  • Would you like to earn an income which enabled you to create whatever you wanted whether you were paid for it or not?
  • Are you aware of and prepared for the additional aspects of running an illustration business – such as the administration side of running and growing your own business?
  • How important is it to you to be paid for the illustrations you create?

It’s Not Just About the Illustration…

Running your own business as a professional illustrator means you’ll be diving into the world of entrepreneurship and business ownership.

This is something many creative people forget as they dream of making a living from their art.

Alongside the fun, creative parts of being paid to illustrate, if you want to succeed, it will also be necessary to perform numerous non-creative tasks to keep your business going and growing.

These tasks include:

  • Deciding on a business structure
  • Managing your own finances
  • Marketing yourself & getting commissions and regular work
  • Keeping clients happy

It is these tasks which trip up even the most talented artists and illustrators so it’s useful to go into this with your eyes wide open and be fully aware of everything you’ll need to do to make a success of being a professional illustrator.

Some of the Business Skills You’ll Need…

Alongside the obvious creative skills you’ll need to build a sustainable career as a professional illustrator, there are a number of additional skills which will really determine how successful a career you’ll have.

This includes building up some core skills and knowledge in the following areas:

  • Business strategy
  • Branding
  • Marketing & Social Media
  • IT and technology
  • Financial management
  • Client Management

While these are often seen as the more mundane, boring skills for creative entrepreneurs to cultivate, they are what make the difference between two creative professionals with the same level of creative talent and ability…

The illustrator who has the ability to market themselves, run a business and manage their finances more effectively in the long term will highly likely have the more sustainable, effective and profitable career in the long term.

The other will struggle with the ongoing ups & downs and boom/bust nature of being a professional or freelance illustrator.

Now you’ve got a clearer idea of what the life of a professional illustrator might be like – and you’re still keen! – you might want to check out the next stage in your journey, Setting Yourself Up in Business.

5 Responses to Professional Illustration 101

  1. Oh this is great!! I am dreaming of breaking out of my cubicule at work but i am a little scared. I too am struggling with the adaptability of style vs trademark… can’t wait to explore this website!

  2. Wow great site now I feel like I have a starting point to achieve my goal of becoming a pro.

  3. Hi Jonathan!
    It’s a really interesting point to split adaptable and signature style when it comes to the style of your illustration.
    It’s pretty hard to make the right decision in terms of sticking to your own style or not, never know what’s better regarding your clients. We support the idea of having a small selection of illustrators, each with his/her own style and out of that one can always decide who fits more to what they are looking for.

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