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What would a children’s book be without illustrations? A comic book without cartoon drawings? Magazine and web articles without accompanying graphics? They wouldn’t be as effective—and they wouldn’t be as fun to read.
Enter: illustration design. Illustration designers use graphics to bring stories, from children’s books to editorial articles, to life.
Want to learn more about the path to careers in illustration design? Below, explore everything you need to know about how to become an illustrator, from the types of jobs available to the salary you can expect.
When you first hear the term “illustration design,” you might think of the pictures on the pages of a children’s book—and that’s a great example of book illustration. But illustration design goes much further than storybooks. The art of illustration encompasses visual designs that tell a story or explain an idea in a wide range of formats. This can extend to web design, stock graphics, comic books, magazines, posters and prints, fashion design, fantasy art, and much more.
Illustration Design vs. Graphic Design
Based on that definition, you might be wondering how illustration differs from graphic design. While they are closely related, they are two separate creative fields. Here’s a breakdown of how they differ:
Graphic design is the art of communicating ideas to a target audience through graphic elements, including imagery, color, and typography. Graphic design is often applied in commercial uses to catch consumers’ attention or convey a certain tone or mood, through, for example, a business’s branding, website, logo, and marketing materials.
Illustration design is more concerned with the creative interpretation of stories or ideas. When provided with text, an illustrator creates a visual representation of what’s contained in those words. While it may include elements of graphic design, illustration is considered more of a fine art and is, overall, a different type of design.
As you grow as an illustration artist, you will develop your own unique style, not only based on your preferred medium (e.g., digital vs. paper and pencil) but also based on your interests and the types of jobs you pursue. When you specialize in a particular type of illustration, potential clients will come to recognize—and seek out—your work.
While every artist’s approach is unique, here are a few examples of illustration styles that can serve as the foundation for your own artistry:
- Cartoon: Overall, a cartoon refers to drawings that aren’t meant to look realistic. There are many different styles within that category, however. Vintage cartoons were characterized by short torsos and long limbs, like Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop. A more modern cartoon style incorporates bright colors and geometric shapes.
- Anime: A type of cartoon illustration, this style originated in Japan and features characters with exaggerated expressions and facial features, like wide, doe-like eyes.
- Comic: Comic illustrations incorporate a wide variety of illustration styles. Some of the earliest comics, meant for publication in newspapers, were characterized by simple 2D drawings with little detail. When the artform expanded into comic books, the illustrations became more colorful, complex, and realistic.
- Realism: A realistic illustration style depicts characters and settings in detail. While realism can be stylized (in other words, it doesn’t have to look exactly like a photograph), compared to cartoon or comic illustrations, these images are meant to represent subjects in an accurate manner.
- Flat: A flat illustration style is characterized by large, 2D shapes and few colors—reminiscent of 60s pop art. These illustrations do not include shadows or highlights, and instead, offer a clean, high-contrast, modern look.
If you want to pursue a career in illustration, a degree isn’t a prerequisite—but you will have to do some sort of learning, whether through a formal college education or by taking illustration design courses.
Many colleges, universities, and art schools offer illustration programs, with students ultimately earning a degree in illustration or visual communication, either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Fine Arts. These programs typically include a range of foundational art classes, such as drawing and color theory, as well as illustration-specific classes, including digital illustration, animated illustration, world building, character design, and more.
A number of schools, including Savannah College of Art and Design, also offer e-learning options that allow you to earn your illustration degree online. Other online illustration degree programs include Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and the Art Institutes.
Illustration Design Courses
If you don’t pursue a degree in illustration, you may opt to take illustration design courses at your own pace. Fortunately, you can find online illustration design courses that cover everything from art fundamentals to complex illustration styles. To get you started, look for courses that cover:
- Basic art techniques: You can work in nearly any format as an illustrator, whether you prefer pens and ink, colored pencils, watercolor paints, or computer illustration. Whatever your preferred medium, your first priority should be to master those fundamental skills, as well as art basics including form, composition, organization, and color theory.
- Digital illustration software: Today, nearly all illustrators are expected to use illustration design software, such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, in some capacity. Even if you prefer to work offline—with paper, pencils, or paints—it’s essential to understand how to transfer those designs to a digital format, since most illustrated designs will be printed multiple times. Using these platforms to create vector illustration designs will ensure that your art can be resized and reprinted without losing any quality.
- 2D and 3D illustration: With the digital illustration software available today, you can take advantage of a wealth of illustration styles. Beyond flat illustration, also consider learning 3D illustration, which can help you push your creativity and take your projects to a new dimension.
- Character design: While not all illustrated designs require characters, many do—especially if you hope to work as a book illustrator or comic book illustrator. Understanding how to create effective, multi-dimensional characters will serve you well on your journey to becoming an illustration designer.
- World building: For some illustrations, you won’t only need to design a character, but also the world where he or she lives. Creating the backdrop for a character—settings, houses, rooms, and more—is an art form on its own.
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Full-Time vs. Freelance Illustrators
While some illustrators seek out full-time, salaried employment, most work on a freelance basis, fulfilling short-term contracts. There are many ways to find freelance illustration jobs, from freelance service marketplaces like Fiverr and Guru to an individual company’s job listings. However, the best freelance illustration jobs often come from word of mouth. Focus on building relationships with professionals in the industry, and they will be more likely to send potential clients and jobs your way.
With that in mind, a portfolio is an essential tool for finding freelance illustrator jobs. Potential clients will first look at your prior work to see if your style aligns with their vision, so make sure to curate a collection that fully and accurately represents you as an artist.
Part of the allure of illustration design is that it can take you in a wide range of directions. Whether you want to illustrate children’s books, websites, magazine articles, or comic books, you can find a niche that’s perfect for your skills and interests. Below, explore a few common types of illustration design jobs.
Book illustration is, of course, a common career path for illustration designers. These illustrators produce artwork for digital or printed books. While illustration is most common in children’s books, other works, including graphic novels, young adult novels, and instructional books and textbooks, can also require artwork. In many cases, book illustrators choose to specialize in a particular genre.
Book illustrators may work on a freelance basis or partner with an agency to find clients. Alternatively, book publishers may actively seek out up-and-coming illustrators via social media (another reason to maintain an updated online portfolio!). According to Ben Hughes, a deputy art director at Puffin Books (a children’s imprint of Penguin Books), “When searching for something particular or new, we tend to search Instagram, Twitter, and sites such as Behance. We also attend degree exhibitions.”
Digital illustration is a broad category of design with a primary focus on digital media, such as online articles, web design, and digital marketing. Compared to book or comic book illustrators, digital illustrators tend to work with businesses or other commercial clients, helping them tell the story of their products, services, or clients.
While digital illustration is similar to the role of graphic design, it tends to be more creative, focusing on translating a company’s message into artistic graphics. Illustration in web design could, for example, include materials such as infographics, ebook illustrations, or characters and settings for corporate explainer videos.
Comic Book illustrators
Comic book illustrators may work on their own, creating original works with their own storylines. Or, they may work as one of several comic artists on larger illustrator jobs—for example, DC or Marvel comic books, movies, or related projects.
However, keep in mind that breaking into comic book illustration is difficult and competitive. In addition to submitting your work to potential publishers, focus on networking. Look at it as an excuse to attend comic book conventions—seriously! By building relationships with others in the industry, you may have an easier time getting your work into the hands of someone who will publish it.
While fantasy illustrators may produce images for books, this design style is distinctive enough that it warrants its own category. Fantasy illustrators specialize in incorporating magic, adventure, myths, and the supernatural into their artwork. (Think: Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series.) It’s all about exploring other worlds, which is a great way to stretch your style and challenge yourself.
Fantasy illustrators may create original artwork for new books or images based on existing books or movies. This can include digital illustrations, as well as fine art prints.
Some artists choose to sell stock illustrations as passive income between bigger gigs—but some illustrators make an entire career out of it. Here’s how it works: You create illustrations to sell to stock libraries. You may receive an initial payment for that image. Then, every time someone downloads your image, you receive a small commission. The more stock images you create and upload, the higher your earning potential.
It can take a bit of trial and error to figure out the types of stock illustrations that sell, however. If your illustration is too generic, users may never find it among pages and pages of similar images. If it’s too specific, few people may ever have a need to download it. Successful stock illustrators recommend that you base your work strategically around frequently searched keywords and current trends.
Illustrations bring vibrancy and life to the pages of books, comics, magazine articles, and more. By pursuing a career in illustration design, you have the opportunity to help authors tell a more effective—and more enjoyable—story.
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