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What Are the Steps to Beginning an Illustration Career?

Dec 23, 2020
(updated: Nov 30, 2022)
Max 5 min read

Are you one of those kids who was always called out in class for doodling instead of taking notes? And were you also told constantly that taking notes would take you places but doodling wouldn’t? A world full of professional illustrators would beg to differ.

If you’re ready to take that step and start an illustration career, where do you begin? While there are plenty of possible directions to take your career, they’ll all start with these essential steps.

 1. Choose your specialty or specialties

One fact that surprises many people is the number of different types of illustration gigs out there. Some artists focus on book illustration while others prefer illustration for videos, fashion, comic books, or even courtrooms. Figure out your niche depending on what you enjoy and what you do best.

Worried about pigeonholing yourself into a small niche? Don’t be. Have one or a few key specialties but feel free to gain experience by taking jobs in other types of illustration too. Some illustrators work in a variety of settings and content types.

2. Decide on a career path

With a specialty in mind, there are two directions you can use to build your career: employment or freelancing. As in many other art forms and vocations, there are pros and cons to each.

Employment gives you more predictable income as well as benefits like health insurance, vacation days, or other perks. A freelance illustrator, on the other hand, has more freedom to plan their hours and choose their projects. Freelancers also make more money on average. The typical freelancer makes around $60,000 per year while illustrators in traditional employment make about $42,000 per year.

Keep in mind that these two paths often intersect. Some illustrators start out with employment to gain experience while building financial stability, then transition to freelancing when they’ve built a name for themselves. There’s no need to plan the next 30 years ahead, just choose which path you want to start down for today.

3. Assemble your portfolio

This is true for any creative profession and that includes illustrators: the #1 thing that will help you get jobs is a strong portfolio. That’s the case whether you’re opting for traditional employment or freelancing.

A professional illustration portfolio should show off your versatility so include work in many drawing styles and for many different purposes. Because you know what you want to specialize in, though, steer more heavily toward that specialty.

For instance, an aspiring comic book illustrator’s portfolio should be about 75% comic book illustration, 25% other types of illustrations to show what all you can bring to a creative team. Ideally, publish your portfolio online so it’s easy for potential clients or employers to access.

4. Identify any skills gaps

We all have skills our jobs required but we didn’t learn in advance. If you’re lucky, you can get hired anyway and learn them on the job. In some cases, though, employers or clients want illustrators who are fully stacked with essential skills.

Read through an illustration career description or illustration job descriptions to see which skills and software tools they require. Make a list of any you’re lacking.

Next, look for online courses or other easy ways to fill in those skill gaps. If art direction isn’t your strong suit, for example, look for an online art direction course. There are tons of low-cost or even free online courses out there.

5. Assemble your other hiring assets

With a portfolio and skillset ready, it’s time to pull together the other essentials for getting hired, whether you want an employer or freelance clients. Create your resume with all the relevant essentials, from any art school coursework to fine art experience.

For those eyeing traditional employment write a cover letter template you can tweak for each application and gather references too. For freelancers, write an elevator pitch and assemble some references or testimonials. Don’t forget a business card to hand out when you’re networking.

6. Establish a personal brand

Creating your personal brand gives employers and clients a sense of who you are and why they want to hire you. Brand yourself as an expert illustrator but also brand yourself in a way that fits with your authentic personality.

To spread that brand, start being visible. Get active on social media with a professional account, create a personal illustration website including your portfolio, and start posting illustration-related content. Try guest posting too: posting on other sites under your name, which showcases your expertise and expands your audience while giving that site free content.

7. Start job-hunting or client-hunting

Now that you have all those essentials, it’s time to hit the ground and start running! If you’re opting for traditional employment, look for illustration opportunities on job boards and by directly reaching out to companies you’re interested in. For aspiring freelancers, look for gigs on freelance websites instead.

In any case, though, don’t forget networking. Network on LinkedIn and other platforms with fellow illustrators, recruiters, and even similar creative professionals like graphic design artists. You’d be surprised how many opportunities can come through these channels.

Launching your illustration career

It’s a truly incredible feeling to have a career doing something you actually enjoy, and I believe that’s a joy everyone deserves. If illustration is what makes you happy, get moving and turn it into your career with the steps above.

Get started today!

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