“A good illustration is an amazing thing. It can illuminate an idea, simplify a complexity, and give us the feels all at once.” With a few words, graphic novelist Ira Marcks illustrates (pun intended) the amazing power of this craft. He continues: “An illustrator is in constant pursuit of two creative goals: to communicate with clarity and meaning, and to evoke a strong emotional response. But getting good at drawing is only part of it—illustration is a state of mind.”  

With those goals in mind, here are seven illustration tips to take your creative practice to the next level. 

7 Tips That Will Help You Grow Your Illustration Skills  

1. Cultivate a Daily Practice

Illustrator Leah Goran shows her early sketchbooks to show how daily practice helped her develop her style.
Illustrator Leah Goran shows her early sketchbooks to show how daily practice helped her develop her style.

We all know the fastest way to improve any skill is to practice daily. One of the best tips for illustrators who want to take their practice to the next level but find it hard to stick to a daily routine is to join a challenge. Search for general tags such as #illustrationchallenge or #365daysofdrawing on Instagram, or join more established challenges like #inktober or #365daysoftype. Your favorite illustrators might even have their own challenges, where you get to reinterpret their work in your own style. 

For a truly ambitious mission, check out the amazing 365 Days of Creativity class.

2. Keep a Sketchbook

You can use a journal to experiment with drawing styles, take notes for later inspiration, or collect mementos of your day-to-day. 
You can use a journal to experiment with drawing styles, take notes for later inspiration, or collect mementos of your day-to-day. 

If you ask most professional artists and illustrators, they will invariably say having a sketchbook is an integral part of their creative practice. Even if you prefer to use digital tools for your illustrations, starting with a good old pen and paper can help your brain figure out the basic elements of composition, lay out your ideas clearly, and simplify the process of starting an illustration. It also improves your focus, since you won’t have any browser tabs open! 

A sketchbook can be the place where you explore ideas and materials, jot down quotes or references to look at later, capture your thoughts and experiences, and most importantly, allow yourself to make mistakes. A sketchbook can be anything you want it to be, and it’s the one place where quantity can take precedence over quality.

Start Your Illustration Sketchbook

Illustration and Inspiration: Keeping a Sketchbook..

3. Get Inspired

Find inspiration by looking at other illustrators’ work, such as this editorial illustration by Roman Muradov. 
Find inspiration by looking at other illustrators’ work, such as this editorial illustration by Roman Muradov. 

Inspiration is essential for illustrators—not just in terms of subject matter, but also when it comes to learning about color, materials, approaches, and style. Illustrator Chuck Groenink agrees: “The one thing that has helped my career is staying curious and remaining open to the world. That means trying different things out, reading far and wide, and going to museums. For me, a project can spin out of finding some unexpected bit of inspiration. A 15th-century painting can inform the color scheme for a whole book, and reading a history book can lead to an idea for a picture book.”

Here are some tips for illustrators in search of inspiration:

  • Look at other illustrators’ work on Instagram, Pinterest, or Behance. Get a feel for current illustration trends and new ways to use color and shapes.
  • Look up the top illustrators in your chosen line of work. Here are some of the most iconic children’s illustrators and digital illustrators to get you started.
  • Collect old books and magazines to use for reference in your illustrations, to cut out for your sketchbook, or to emulate a specific vintage style.
  • Go to a cafe or a museum and draw what you see—people, food, drinks, works of art, and spaces can all be great additions to your illustrations.
  • Go to the cinema, read a book, go for a walk, or watch a YouTube video on your favorite subject. Sometimes the best illustration tip is not to illustrate but to look out for things in your daily life that can spark your imagination.

4. Create Your Own Briefs

Skillshare student Katia Gaigalova chose to set her editorial illustration brief around the topic of taking care of plants. 
Skillshare student Katia Gaigalova chose to set her editorial illustration brief around the topic of taking care of plants. 

If you’re looking for illustration portfolio tips or tips on how to make editorial illustration, creating your own briefs is recommended by both illustrators and the clients looking to hire them. As illustrator and Skillshare instructor Leah Goran says, “if no one is coming to you, make the work that you want to make.” Whether you want to be a children’s book illustrator, an editorial illustrator, a pattern designer, a fashion illustrator or a botanical illustrator, visualize yourself as the client in your dream assignment and give yourself a specific project and timeline. Not only will this move your work in the right direction but, once it’s in your portfolio, it will show potential clients how perfect you are for the job. Which brings us to the next illustration tip…

5. Make a Portfolio

Source:    http://www.boccaccinimeadows.com     A page from print designer and botanical illustrator Sara Boccaccini Meadows’ portfolio. 
Source: http://www.boccaccinimeadows.com A page from print designer and botanical illustrator Sara Boccaccini Meadows’ portfolio. 

Quantity is more important than quality inside your sketchbook, but when it comes to your illustration portfolio, the opposite is true. This is where your best ideas, projects, commissions, and self-imposed briefs will live. Other illustration portfolio tips to consider include thinking about the kind of work you would like to make. Is this reflected in your portfolio? If you want to be a children’s book illustrator, for example, it will be much more effective to include one or two amazing picture book illustrations than, say, ten pattern illustrations and five vector graphics. 

Curate your best work, and remember to keep it focused: When a potential client looks over your portfolio they might lose interest if they have to scroll through too many images. An endless scroll is what your Instagram is for!

6. Show Your Work

Commercial illustrator Cat Coquillette shares her process on Instagram before uploading the final work on her website and online shop.
Commercial illustrator Cat Coquillette shares her process on Instagram before uploading the final work on her website and online shop.

“The reason I was assigned my first picture book was that one of my promotional postcards arrived just as the editors were starting to match an illustrator with a manuscript they had acquired. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and show your work. Have a website and an Instagram account and approach publishers regularly by email and regular mail.” 

This story by artist Tatjana Mai-Wyss illustrates just how important it is to get your work out there. Not just by making your website, but by keeping your Instagram updated, sharing your work on platforms like Ello or Behance, learning how to use Pinterest to your advantage, investigating the possibilities of print-on-demand websites, and being creative about the ways you approach potential clients. Whether you land a dream gig immediately or not, showcasing your illustrations will help you begin to understand what resonates with your audience.

7. Evolve Your Style Over Time

Illustrator and muralist Eric Friedensohn in front of his large scale work. 
Illustrator and muralist Eric Friedensohn in front of his large scale work. 

Style is a tricky beast. It is always changing and evolving, and it will slowly show itself to you through doing all of the above. Trusting that your style will come from practice is perhaps the most important of our illustration tips. To quote illustrator Eric Friedensohn: “There is no formula for coming up with a signature style. You just have to keep creating and then you’ll start to notice patterns; look back at your past work and keep making projects. Don’t think that style is fixed, style will continue to evolve just like any organism. You have to treat it like a living, breathing animal.”

Become a Professional Illustrator

Your Guide Into the World of Illustration.