How to become an illustrator

How to start an illustration career (part 2)

On a daily basis I get questions from people that want to pursue a career in illustration and have questions on where to start. In a two-part series I write about how you can give that career a kick start. The first part was posted last Tuesday. It’s good to start there.

In this second and last part, I got some help from illustration-friends. These great, talented illustrators give you tips and advice on the business.
I will discuss how to get jobs as an illustrator, how much to ask for your work and if you should work for free.

In the previous post we talked about what illustration is exactly and how to create a portfolio. Once you have your portfolio sorted out, you can take the next step: getting jobs.

Getting illustration jobs

Now you have sorted out your work and you know what kind of clients you would like, you can start spending time on acquisition. This means you let businesses and potential clients know you’re here and ready to take on work.

You can do this by sending potential clients your portfolio and a nice letter to go along with it. You can do this by email but it also helps having a little booklet printed with examples of your work to send by mail.

Getting actual jobs might take a while. For me it took one year to get my first job, and it took five years to get a decent amount of jobs to pay my bills. It’s very rare to get paid jobs the first year you started with illustration. It takes time, money and effort to get jobs.
So hang in there! If you are patient enough, and willing to work hard, it will pay off. It’s survival of the fittest.

Renée van den Kerkhof

“Networking and promoting can sound scary or way too commercial, but there is always a way for you. Even having drinks with some fellow creatives can be considered networking, or blogging about your recent works can be a marketing tool. Don’t do things that keep feeling weird, but try different kinds so that you can find the way that fits you best.”
neetje (illustrator)

Using social media

A great way of getting your work out there is using social media. It depends on what suits you best but in general Instagram is a good platform to start with. You can easily show the work you’ve done and gather an audience.

Instagram do’s:

  • Use hashtags relevant to the photo you’re posting. Like #illustration #art #pencildrawing #sketch for example.
  • Start following people on instagram that inspire you. They might even follow you back when they like your work!
  • You want to get noticed by other artists? Some people have a lot of followers and might not even see it when you start following them. Don’t be disappointed: comment every once in a while to their posts and they might start noticing you!
  • Not only show finished pieces but also sketches or work-in-progress.
  • Try to be as nice as possible even when you’re having a really shitty day.

Instagram don’ts:

  • Do not randomly comment on other people’s account with “Please follow me back” or “Take a look at my work please?”. It might come across as annoying.
  • Don’t post work you’re unhappy with for the sake of posting something. If you have nothing interesting to share, it’s okay!
  • Don’t tag other people in your work when it’s not relevant to them. It comes across spammy and people might block you.
  • Don’t follow people just because you want them to follow you back. Be genuine in your following and follow accounts you really like.

Illustrator and expert on social media (with over a 529.000 followers on instagram) Lois van Baarle has advice for you:

Loish advice

Loish (digital artist): “Try to find a style of presenting yourself on social media that is close to who you are in real life. People may follow you for the art you make, but you become truly interesting to follow when you show what kind of person you are. You can do that with personal stories, snippets of your daily life, being open about your insecurities, etc. Don’t try to be perfect, just try to open up!”

Working with clients

Working for a client is the absolute best if you enjoy working with a briefing and if you like putting a client’s idea to a visual image. Being an illustrator means you have to be a good listener and create work that fits your client. You can not get your ego in the way and do whatever you please.

Be kind, understanding, come up with solutions and be flexible. Clients have deadlines you have to meet and it’s an absolute no-go to not deliver the work on time.

Yvonne Hop

Yvonne Hop (illustrator and art director): “Always make sure you have all agreements on paper (or email), so you always have something to refer to when a client is changing his ideas.”

Illustrator Neetje agrees with Yvonne Hop on this:

Renée van den Kerkhof

Neetje (illustrator): “Before you start on a project, make sure you go over the essential things you need to know, like: when is the deadline? What are the required technical specifications (size, type etc.)? What kind of people form the audience? When will your client pay you and how much? It’s always a good idea to have a (semi)formal contract signed or to get a green light through an e-mail, so both parties know what’s up.


A unique illustration style

This seems the number one question amongst illustrators that are just starting out. And I can’t stretch this enough: it’s nothing to sweat about.

When you just start out it’s only normal that you haven’t found your signature style yet. Give this time: it might take years and years before you have found a style that fits you like a glove.

In the mean time: experiment as much as you can with styles and techniques. A big part of finding your style is knowing what materials suit you best. Some illustrators love working with coloured pencils and it suits their style, while others excel in digital illustration.
Knowing who you are, what you want and what materials to use eventually result in your own personal style.

A personal style isn’t necessary by definition but it can help you getting jobs. If clients recognize your work by style they’re more likely to hire you because of that style. But you can also decide to be a master of different styles to help as many clients as you can handle. It’s a matter of choice.

Kenny Rubenis and Emmeline Pidgen are both professionals in the illustration field. Kenny works as a successful cartoonist and Emmeline is an illustrator with years of experience in the field.

Kenny Rubenis (creator of ‘Dating for Geeks’): “I get this question a lot. “How did you develop your style?”. I didn’t, really. It just sort of happened. You pick up different skills and things through life and then one day, you flick your wrist and it just clicks and you “find” that style that is just “you”. Basically, it’s like in Harry Potter. The wand chooses the wizard. The style chooses the artist.

Emmeline Pidgen (award-winning illustrator): I personally don’t think an illustration style should be a fixed thing; you grow and develop so much as an artist, it just seems restrictive to try to stick to a rigid visual style or one medium forever – the thing I think is important though is how your creative and visual ‘voice’ carries throughout your work. You can be illustrating in ink, digitally, or even with crayons, but if your work reflects your passions, creative problem-solving and your personality, it will have that consistency, but with a little extra breathing space to explore creatively!

Conclusion: experiment, give it time and most importantly: do what your hand wants to do. It’s not something you can really push but over the years you will find out what suits you best and get more skilled as an illustrator.

Hourly-rate or: “how much does this illustration cost?”

When you’re a freelance illustrator it means you’re self-employed. That means:

  • You must pay taxes on all income. In the Netherlands this is 21% on illustration and after that: 42% on your profit. The easiest way to calculate something is: what do I need to earn? Then double the price, because half of it is going to the government.
  • Get to know your deductibles (art supplies, software, computer, research, tax credits, etc).
  • Research how much you need for a pension, disability insurance and the likes.
  • Research fees, licenses, and documentation for running a small business before you begin.


You spend a huge amount of time doing other stuff, while you can only charge for the hours you spend on illustrating.

In the Netherlands the starting rate is €65 an hour (excl. VAT) for newly designers and illustrators.

Like I said in the previous post: an illustrator does so much more than just drawing. Drawing is just a small part of it, and in most cases it’s the only part that will pay. So if you spend about 30% of your week on drawing (in other words: you only get paid for 30% of your work week), you should adjust your hourly rate to this.

You do want to be able to pay your bills right?

Yvonne Hop

Yvonne Hop (illustrator and art director): “Never underestimate yourself because you’re looking up to other illustrators. Never forget you truly own something special, a talent, and know that clients are willing to pay for that. Never lower your price because you think ‘Oh gosh, I’m just a beginner.'”

What to draw and where does inspiration come from?

Go outside, look around and draw what you see or feel. It’s that easy. For everyone it’s different so it’s  hard to tell you exactly where to find it. But you do have to allow yourself to be inspired. Sitting on your butt all day waiting for inspiration to come is quite hard.

Going outside, visiting a museum, seeing a good movie, listening to beautiful music: this can all help you getting inspired.

Aimée de Jongh, creator of the award-winning graphic novel The Return of the Honey-Buzzard and Days of Sand makes this short and sweet:

Aimee de Jongh

Aimée de Jongh (graphic novelist): “Inspiration is for amateurs. In other words: don’t sit and wait for the ideas to come to you. Sketch and sketch and sketch, get your brain in the creation mode. Then the ideas will come!

Cartoonist Yasmin Sheikh knows how it works:

Yasmin Sheikh (creator of ‘Luna the Vampire’): Work your ass off. And share your work. You can be the most amazing artist, but if you hide your stuff away nobody will ever know.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think “OH YES, give me an athletic body NOW!”. But we all know you have to work to get such a body. If I don’t work on it, I will never get it.
Same goes for illustration. You can’t laze around waiting for something to happen. You have to actually work for it.

Working for free

A lot of illustrators have a lot of opinions about this. But the fact is: some companies will always try to get stuff for free. Because: why pay for it if people are crazy enough to give it for free?
There are a lot of contests floating on the interwebs, some by very big companies. With very big bank accounts. If it’s a big company asking for free art work, consider if they’re really valuing art. A company willing to pay for art work means that they actually understand that art work is made by someone talented who worked hard.

Paying in ‘exposure’

Because we all have a ‘exposure’-card which we can use to pay our groceries. Yeah right!
No. *shakes head*

I worked for free, I’m not going to lie. The very first illustration I made was for a children’s magazine to enter a competition. I came in second and after that my illustration career was launched. I also worked for the Teenage Cancer Trust. If I work for free, I carefully choose for which causes I work.

If you work a lot of free, the signal you give off is: what I do is not good enough to pay for, therefore I give it away. People assume more easily you’re an amateur and not a professional when you create art for free.
You really have to think about whether that’s a good signal to be sending out in the world.

When you’re just starting out, it’s good to look into contests which might just give you that big break you need. But choose carefully and think whether it’s useful in your portfolio, and if you get enough out of it as a reward. More on working for exposure in this blog post.

The best flowchart ever created to check if you should work for free is created by designer Jessica Hische. If you’re ever in doubt to work for free, check this chart.

Above image is created by Jessica Hische
Renée van den Kerkhof

Neetje (illustrator): “When you consider doing a portfolio piece (for free), contact a local charity. They are almost always in need of new material and don’t get big funds, but you usually get a lot of creative freedom and also a good way to practice working for a client and receiving feedback. When the project goes well, don’t hesitate to ask a testimonial for your website.”


I can’t answer more illustration questions to this post unfortunately.

Creating the two blogs on this topic, including research, has cost me over 14 16 hours.

Thanks so much for reading! Spread the love for illustration by sharing the article or commenting to this post. See you next time!

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