Illustrators create drawings or diagrams to make products more attractive or easier to understand.

What does an illustrator do?

Illustrators produce drawings, paintings or diagrams that help make products more attractive or easier to understand. This could include books, book jackets, greetings cards, advertisements, packaging and detailed technical diagrams.

This role would typically include:

  • discussing requirements or briefs with authors, editors or designers
  • negotiating prices and timescales
  • deciding on the right style for illustrations
  • creating illustrations using hand drawing, painting or computer design packages
  • speaking with the client and changing designs if necessary
  • making sure the work is completed within set budgets and deadlines

Some illustrators may specialise in one type of illustration, such as heritage illustration, designing pictures for guidebooks, leaflets or maps for stately homes and castles. Educational illustration might involve designing websites, leaflets and publications for an academic institution.

Freelance self-employed illustrators need business skills so to market their goods and services, deal with finances, and build up and promote the business.

Creative Choices describes the work of an illustrator, including an archaeological illustrator, a technical illustrator and a children's book illustrator.

What do I need to do to become an illustrator?

You’ll need to be creative while sticking to your customer's design brief. Time management is something you’ll need to use when meeting publication or client deadlines.

There is no fixed route to become an illustrator. Many illustrators have a degree in illustration or another art-related subject. Even without a degree you can still be successful if you have artistic flair, creativity, a strong portfolio and employers like your work.

Relevant degree subjects include:

  • illustration
  • fine art
  • graphic design

To do a degree, you will usually need five GCSEs (A-C), including maths and English, plus three A levels. Entry requirements may also include a foundation course in art and design or you could even be accepted on the strength of your portfolio. You should check with universities for exact entry requirements as other qualifications may also be accepted. 

As a freelance illustrator you will need to think of creative ways of getting your work noticed. You’ll also need to start building up a portfolio of your work to show prospective clients or for entry onto courses.

Building a website or starting a blog where you can showcase your work is one way to get noticed. Social media, such as Twitter, is also a great way of connecting with the public and future customers. Many illustrators also produce promotional material, such as postcards, graphic novels or comics, to send out to customers and contacts in the industry.

You could market your work by contacting relevant companies directly. You can find advice about getting started as a freelance illustrator, how to prepare a portfolio, lists of publishers, and other useful information in The Writers' & Artists' Yearbook.

The Association of Illustrators (AOI) website lists agents, publishers, advertising agencies and other specialist organisations, such as children's book publishers. As an AOI member you can promote your work by listing your contact details and displaying samples of work on the AOI website.

If you work as a freelance illustrator you may decide to sell your work through an artists' agent, who may be able to put you in touch with more buyers. An agent will take a percentage of your sales as commission. The Society of Artists Agents website has details of agents as well as examples of artists' work.

You can find more information about careers in design illustration, case studies and networking opportunities on the Creative Choices website.

Related skills

  • Attention to detail
  • Communication
  • Creativity
  • IT
  • Technical ability
  • Time management

Academic route

  • Five GCSEs (A-C), including maths and English

Related subjects

  • Art

Desirable qualifications

  • Degree in illustration or another art-related subject

Where to find out more

Where could I be working?

You could be based at home or in a studio, and may spend time visiting clients to market your work and discuss briefs. If you are involved in technical, scientific or engineering illustration you may also make site visits. 

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0

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