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It’s a remarkable time to start a career as an illustrator. Long gone are the days when print media was, well, the only media. Today, mediums such as ebooks account for upwards of 17% of a publishing company’s total revenue. Not only does this indicate an increased demand for books, but it ultimately means that writers and publishers need talented illustrators to bring their stories to life.
As most people research how to become an illustrator, they tend to learn two things. First, as Katie Lyons told us, some illustrators do the work as a passion project for years before it turns into a career. And more importantly, many pros will tell you that you don’t need a college degree to become an illustrator.
We’re not going to lie—there’s a lot of work ahead of you as you begin your career as an illustrator. But to get you started, we’ll answer some of your burning questions and help you take the first steps towards making your dream a reality.
The internet has changed the way most people think of the term “illustrator.” Many companies hire illustrators to work on logos, marketing materials, and social media ads. And there are dozens of other less traditional ways to use your illustration skills—as a forensic artist, fashion illustrator, stationery designer, or tattoo artist, to name a few!
But let’s not get too deep into the weeds. Here, we’ll focus on helping you figure out how to become an illustrator for books.
When most people think about how to become an illustrator for books, they often think of children’s books. And that’s not a huge surprise. According to the Amelia Book Company, illustrations in children’s books are meant to tell a story that words can’t show. Kids also get bored really quickly, so illustrated books make reading more fun.
But book illustrators also create images for adult books. You’ll see illustrations in anything from a long fiction novel to a medical textbook. They’re crucial to these books just like they are to children’s books—even adults can’t stare at big blocks of text without losing interest with a piece.
As you research how to become an illustrator, it’s important to get a clear idea of what your work schedule might look like.
We reached out to Raissa Figueroa, a children’s book illustrator based in San Diego. Spoiler alert: This is not your typical 9-to-5 job. But Figueroa’s schedule is flexible enough so that she can work on things that inspire her, while also leaving room for her to drop what she’s doing to meet a critical deadline.
If you’re here because you want to learn how to become an illustrator for children’s books, here’s a breakdown of a typical day for Figueroa. Each of these items equals about a 50-minute block of time:
- Figueroa wakes up and starts her day with exercise. Most mornings, this includes walking her dog.
- Before she starts drawing, she’ll respond to any emails that require attention. Getting emails out of the way frees her up to focus on illustration for the rest of the day.
- Then, Figueroa begins with a quick drawing warmup on Quickposes, which is a library full of quick illustration exercises that improve your ability to draw poses and gestures.
- Throughout the day, she’ll play an animated movie and pause when she feels inspired by a still. Then, she’ll hand-draw those stills by hand to improve her technique (This is especially crucial for folks at the beginning stages of learning how to become an illustrator for children’s books.)
Figueroa tells us that she usually takes a lunch break at around noon before diving back into the 50-minute blocks of work above. But this schedule has one caveat: If she has a deadline for a book project, she drops everything to prioritize it.
Before you run off to enroll in art school, fear not: There are several realistic answers for people looking for tips on how to become an illustrator without a degree.
But while a degree isn’t a prerequisite to a career as an illustrator, there isn’t a straightforward path to reaching that goal, either. And while much of the advice you find online might seem intimidating, there are a few simple steps that you can take to set your goal of becoming an illustrator in motion.
Step 1: Learn the Basics
If you’re looking for advice on how to become an illustrator without a degree, let’s assume that you’re starting from the very beginning. The first (and likely obvious) step is to learn the basics—and currently, that means getting up to speed on digital illustration skills.
Here are some great courses to consider:
- Digital Illustration: Doodles to Designs
- Master the Basics of Adobe Illustrator to Create Awesome Illustrations
- Digital Illustration: Communicate with Color, Pattern, and Texture
- Illustration & Inspiration: Keeping a Sketchbook
Step 2: Draw What You Want
Now that you’ve gotten some practical illustration tips, what’s next? According to Kathryn Moy, an illustrator based in the Netherlands, the key as you get started is to draw what you want.
Let’s say you’re looking for advice on how to become an illustrator for a publishing company. While it might be a few years until you finally land one of those jobs, it’s not actually too difficult to find low-paying gigs that don’t require a ton of experience. The problem with this is that it’s really easy to get sucked into this type of work. And before you know it, you’ll have a portfolio full of illustrations that are good, but not exactly what you want to be doing in the long-term.
Of course, it’s not a bad thing to take a few less-than-ideal paying gigs while you’re just starting out. But it’s equally important at this stage to make sure that you make the time to draw things that will help build your portfolio—so when those ideal clients do come along, you’ll be ready to impress them.
Step 3: Don’t Compare, But Do Network With Other Illustrators
Want to see some great examples of book illustrations? Head to a bookstore, where you’ll find thousands of pieces of really incredible artwork in a variety of books. And as you’re getting started, you’ll find a lot of inspiration in their work.
But it’s just as easy to start comparing yourself to those illustrators in a negative way. Instead of falling into that trap, shift your focus to finding ways to connect with those colleagues.
As illustrator Nuria Boj told us recently, “Illustration is a business, and you have to promote your services to others.” There are several easy ways you can start networking, including leveraging social media platforms like Instagram to share your work and connect with like-minded artists. Additionally, consider attending virtual Meetup events, where you’re bound to meet illustrators from whom you’ll gain a wealth of knowledge and potential business connections.
Step 4: Document Your Growth
As you evolve as an illustrator, be sure to document all of the growth that you’ve made. Sure, a large part of that means keeping a lot of your work. Any artist will tell you that it’s important to reflect on your old work and see what you would change if you could do it all over again.
But also consider keeping a running journal of things you’ve learned. Even little notes about things such as editing tricks, brush strokes, or even just an illustration concept that you applied for the first time will pay huge dividends down the road.
A few job sites tend to come to mind, especially for freelance book illustrator jobs. Fiverr is especially popular among illustrators looking to break into the industry. Illustrators can create “seller” profiles and offer up specific items at a set price. The illustrator below, for instance, is offering botanical images for $55.
Additionally, sites like Upwork specialize in freelance jobs. Employers can search for illustrators based on skill and experience level, and freelancers can create profiles and set rates for specific tasks, even those searching for book illustrator jobs or a drawings job.
However, there are a few things you can do if you want to be creative about, well, getting creative work.
An illustrator named Renée shared a few ways she’s gotten a drawings job in a comprehensive post on Medium. She says that she and her colleagues leverage social media; in one case, a friend of hers was hired because someone saw her work on Instagram. Renée adds that her first book illustration job came as the result of networking on Twitter. She also offers up tips such as cold emailing organizations that might need your services.
Glassdoor currently has data on 540 illustrator salaries from across the country. Here’s a glimpse of the average full-time salary for an illustrator in the United States:
Hourly rates tend to fall between $12-21 per hour. And as you can probably guess, you can expect slightly higher salaries for candidates with more experience and those in very specialized industries.
There’s a lot of overlap between graphic designers and illustrators. And in some cases, a graphic designer will do illustration work on the side and vice versa. But to understand the differences between the two, David Paul at Design Hill breaks it down in just a few words.
“The job of an illustrator is to provide a visual representation of an associated text or idea,” Paul writes. “A graphic designer aims at conveying a message to a target audience.”
While illustrators are most often associated with book projects, graphic designers tend to work with businesses to create marketing assets, logos, and sales materials. Their work is more closely tied to business outcomes, while illustrators are tasked with bringing stories to life.
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