Our world is full of images, whether it’s a billboard that we see on our way to work or a magazine we flip through as we sit in a waiting room. Even the food that we eat every day has some kind of graphics on the packaging. All of those pictures can be grouped together under one big artistic umbrella: graphic illustration.

In this guide, we’ll help you get a better understanding of what graphic illustrations look like, the styles that artists like to use, and how you can become a graphic illustrator yourself.

What Is Graphic Illustration?

Before diving into courses and software in graphic illustration, let’s get familiar with what this phrase actually means. Graphic illustration is about combining elements of design—like colors, shapes, and lines—with the classical work of an illustrator, who creates art that visualizes a story or idea.

new york times cover
Illustration is about blending traditional illustration techniques with modern graphic design.

Illustration styles are highly creative and artistic, focusing on the principles of fine art and bringing in different elements to help enhance the image and make it work for a brand or product in their advertising or media messaging. 

Graphic Illustration vs. Graphic Design

You may have heard the term “graphic design” more frequently associated with commercial products, websites, or even posters that you’ve made at school or work. Graphic design usually refers to single visual elements, either on their own or together. That could be a logo, a symbol, or really anything that isn’t text.

The difference between this and illustration is that graphic design often takes elements of illustration to work into a final project, creating a single cohesive look. Illustration is more focused on the artistic and creative side of the visual—the actual picture itself. 

nike illustration
No matter what your artistic style, you can create illustrations that wow viewers.

So how does graphic illustration fit in? Essentially, graphic illustrations are a combination of traditional illustration and modern graphic designs, using drawn images within the context of digital typefaces and hand lettering to create the final graphic.

Graphic Illustration Software

While illustration techniques have been around for hundreds of years, most graphic illustration artists have shifted their technique from paper and pencil to digital platforms. 

Adobe makes some of the world’s best software for illustrators and graphic designers alike. Their range of products is perfect for anyone looking to give graphic illustration a try and can take you all the way up to professional-level programs.

adobe illustrator
Tools like Adobe Illustrator are great for both amateur and professional illustrators.

Adobe Illustrator is a great starting point. It costs around $10 per month for personal use and is fully customizable across all devices. It primarily uses vector graphics to help you create your illustrations without any digital line bleed (no fuzzy edges here!). Adobe Fresco is also an excellent choice and works well on tablets too.

If you’re thinking about becoming a professional graphic illustration artist, becoming familiar with Affinity Designer can be useful. The range of design, illustration, and drawing tools within the software is hard to match and at only $35, you can’t beat the price. While Adobe may be the most common tool that you’ll see when applying for illustration jobs, knowing how to work effectively in another program could put you ahead of the rest.

drawing on ipad
Pen tablets are the easiest way to draw by hand but still use digital tools.

For those who still prefer to draw by hand, drawing tablets can give you the best of both worlds. All you need to do is hook it up to your computer and the software that you’re working in before drawing freehand on the tablet and seeing it replicated on the screen (or use a tablet-first program, like Procreate). Pen tablets are the most affordable (like an iPad and Apple Pencil), with Wacom being a popular brand in the graphic illustration community.

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How to Become a Graphic Illustrator

There are plenty of paths to becoming a graphic illustrator, from online courses and building a freelance portfolio to full college degree programs. 


If you’re still testing the waters on whether a career in graphic illustration is for you, start by taking a few graphic illustration courses. They’re the best way to get an overview of different graphic illustration styles and learn the basics of different software programs at your own pace.

illustration in pink and blue
Illustration courses will build on your existing drawing skills.

You’ll want to have some skills in drawing and digital tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator before starting most graphic illustration courses, and any understanding that you have about design concepts or theory can be incredibly helpful too.

Degrees in Graphic Illustration

Pursuing a graphic illustration degree, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, is a big commitment, so you’ll want to be sure that this is the field you want to work in before accepting a place on a degree course.

You’ll want to choose a graphic illustration degree program that covers the basics of drawing, design, art history, and even business basics if you’re hoping to work for yourself. But the best part about getting a degree in illustration is the portfolio that you’ll build up over your years in school. By the time you graduate, you should have a digital and physical portfolio of your best work, highlighting your style of design and the type of work that you would like to do more of in the future.

Jobs and Employment

While the history of graphic illustration shows that there were fairly limited options for people with these artistic skills, that’s not the case anymore. These days, graphic illustrators can find work in a whole range of industries, from publishing and advertising to television, film, and media.

Before you start applying for graphic illustration jobs, take some time to think about the type of work that interests you most and tailor your portfolio to those industries. If advertising is the direction you want to head in, have more examples of your designs that fit client briefs (even fake clients that you worked on in school will do!). Want to work in book cover design? Pitch a few self-published authors to see if they’d like to work with you before you approach big publishing companies.

For most in-house positions, you can expect to see mid-career salaries around $50,000 a year. If you choose to freelance, the sky’s the limit!

Start Your Graphic Illustration Career Today

Illustration is one of the most exciting and creatively rewarding jobs that you can pursue as an artist or designer. Whichever route you choose, the opportunities are out there. Good luck!

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Written By

Holly Landis

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