How to become an illustrator

How to start an illustration career (part 1)

Being an illustrator is a hot job: everybody wants to be an illustrator these days. It sounds romantic, iddylic almost. Drawing and painting all day every day. And when you got the skills to create a beautiful drawing, why not make this your full-time job, right?

But where to begin? And is it the most romantic job ever? For those who are ready to dive into the world of professional illustration, I wrote this blog. Please know that this blog is written based on my own experiences and the experiences of illustrator-friends. It also includes advice of other professional illustrators.

Ready? Let’s go!

Are you drawing or illustrating?

This is a good question to start with, because illustration is not the same as drawing a picture.
I recommend starting with google’ing what is illustration? and get yourself familiar with the field. This may sound denigrating but it’s incredibly important to know the ins and outs of the field you want to be a professional in.

An illustrator creates an image (this can be done in very different ways) to go along with a piece of text. Usually to clarify this text. He or she does this in most cases for a client.
For me illustration means: creating an image to go along with a text or concept.

Illustration is different from fine art. Fine art can easily be a stand alone piece, whereas illustration is in most cases built around an idea or concept.
In my perception the difference lies in the communication. Fine art doesn’t necessarily need to communicate with its audience although it may ‘find’ an audience. Illustration on the other hand is created for the sole purpose of communicating with an audience.

For example, you made a drawing of your neighbour. Can you guess which category it falls into?
Right! That’s a drawing, or fine art. It doesn’t make an illustration (yet).

Okay, we’ve got that bit straightened out. Onwards we go!

Are you drawing yet?

Before even dreaming of becoming an illustrator, you should start drawing. I come across a lot of people that have a career in mind while they haven’t even started drawing yet. Invest your spare time in drawing, experimenting, taking painting and drawing classes, attending workshops and lectures.

Illustration workshop
I teach a workshop in illustration every few months in which I tell and teach about the ins and outs of illustration. During the workshop you get to experiment, ask questions and you get an assignment to develop your skills.
Check my workshops page for more information.

Renée van den Kerkhof

“Always take your work seriously. That doesn’t mean you can’t doodle for fun or make very childish and weird art, just don’t let people talk your works down. You have lots of reasons to be proud of what you make; others can’t draw or think the way you do. Creative work is worth no less than other kinds of work.”
neetje (illustrator)

traveling_marloesdevriesKnowing what you’re doing

There are hundreds of books on illustration and also on the business side of it. You should and must read about the business before starting in it, I really want to emphasize this.
A good book to start with is How to be an illustrator by Darrell Rees.

Using a computer
In the old days, illustrators didn’t have computers to create their illustrations. Most illustrators used pencils, paints and all things analogue to create their work. When they were done, their illustrations were send to a lithographer who made it ready for re-production in books, news papers or magazines.

Things are different nowadays: there are very few lithographers left and illustrators are expected to know how to scan or photograph their work properly and make it ready for print.

There are still clients that accept the original drawings and get a lithographer to digitize your art work. Do ask your client beforehand if you’re not familiar with computer programs!

It helps knowing how to scan and digitize
Knowing how to digitize your work, so it’s ready for print, gives you most definitely an advantage. So you might want to consider following classes in graphic design and how to scan your work properly.
You can find graphic design classes in cities near you or you can look up tutorials online.

Creating your own print work
If you want to create post cards, prints, stationary, etc. you don’t necessarily have to scan it yourself. There are plenty of print shops who can scan it for you and reproduce your work for print. Please realise this will always be more expensive than doing it yourself.

“Do I need to go to art school to become an illustrator?”

Marloes de Vries Illustrator

No, it’s not necessary. Clients don’t demand a copy of your diploma to create an illustration.
But! Going to art school can be very insightful and you do have the time to discover your personal style, explore, learn from your fellow students and hear stories from professionals in the business.

What does an illustrator do exactly?

It depends but one thing is true for every illustrator: it’s not all day every day sitting at your drawing desk drawing, with a cat on your lap and a pot of fresh tea to sip from.
Illustrating is just a part of the job, because you have to answer emails, do administration, pay taxes, meetings with clients, promoting your work through social media, a great deal of stressing out, buying supplies, etc.

It’s all part of running a business.

Getting familiar with your own work and wishes

Gather your work! If you work analogue, put them all on the floor so that you have a good overview. If it’s digital: print it out.
Take a good look at your work and try to write down what you see. Who is your target audience, would you say? Is your work colourful, happy, dark, gloomy, thoughtful, decorative? Make a list of all the things you see when looking at your own work. Get a friend involved to help you if you’re stuck!

It can be really helpful to make a list of the clients you would love to work for. Write down names of magazines, publishers, brands, etc. Now you have a starting point!

Renée van den Kerkhof

“Try to make more than just pretty pictures; when you want to work for clients, think about what your work can mean for them. For example: sell a product, tell their story, explain something, grab the attention of their audience for an upcoming event etc. Make it appealing for a client to want to hire you.”
neetje (illustrator)

Creating a portfolio

You can not start a illustration career without having a portfolio. It’s like a surgeon about to operate on a patient without a degree from med school. Your portfolio shows what you can do and helps to get you assignments.

I hear a lot of people saying “Fake it ’til you make it” and that can get you a long way but not if you actually want to work in the illustration field. In the end, clients don’t want fakes; they want real professionals that can actually do it. And a portfolio does just that.

Selecting your best work
Make a selection of your best 15 pieces and get a portfolio website. You can let a professional web designer create your website, or you can start with companies that offer portfolio websites, like Squarespace and Cargo.

Renée van den Kerkhof

“Visit a portfolio review event; sometimes these can lead to jobs. And the worst thing that can happen is that you get useful feedback on your works. “
neetje (illustrator)

Part 2 of ‘How to start an illustration career’
In the second part of this series I discuss how to get paid jobs, how to deal with clients and social media tips. Including advice of some kick-ass illustrators!

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20 reacties

  1. Thanks, Marloes! I’m a huge fan of your work and just started illustrating, so I’m looking forward to the next one! 🙂

  2. It´s great!! Thanks for share your experience. I love your job and I´ll be waiting for the next post!
    Hugs from Argentina!! 🙂

  3. “In my perception the difference lies in the communication. Fine art doesn’t necessarily need to communicate with its audience although it may ‘find’ an audience. Illustration on the other hand is created for the sole purpose of communicating with an audience”

    This made me feel really good inside.
    Like destiny level feeling.
    Thank you very much.

  4. Hey Marloes,

    Ik heb net je instagram/blog/werk ontdekt. Hoe leuk! Echt fijn dat je andere creatieven (waaronder mij) ook verder probeert te helpen. Deze blogpost heeft me in ieder geval heel erg geholpen met mijn struggles rondom illustrator worden.

    @simonedecaluwe op instagram

  5. Love this post!! My favourite part is illustration isn’t drawing all day with a cat curled on your lap with a cup of tea! 🙂 thanks for your insight. Aleesha x

  6. Hey there, thanks for a great article! What schools do you suggest for illustration degree either undergrad or Masters? What’s considered the best art schools out there for illustrators?

    1. Hi Nicole! I have no idea where you live, so I can’t help you with that. I think it’s best if you ask people that live close(r) to you where they went to school and what their experiences are. Good luck!

  7. Thanks so much for this blog – it’s very inspiring yet realistic.
    I’ve just written a to do list. I also love the quote by Neetje – it’s often very difficult to get people to take creative roles seriously, and get money for it too. x