How to Become a Professional Illustrator in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a professional illustrator. Learn about degree programs, professional portfolios and career prospects to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Children`s Book Illustration degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is An Illustrator?

Illustrators use their artistic talents to create a visual rendering of an image. They may sketch a person, place, structure or other item of interest. Their work is usually done by hand using charcoal, pencil or pastels, or it's done within a software program. An illustrator's sketches may be used for pictures, greeting cards, posters, advertisements or book illustrations.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree
Education Field of Study Illustration, fine arts
Key Skills Drawing, computer literacy, interpersonal skills
Job Growth (2014-2024) 3% (for all fine artists)*
Median Salary (May 2015) $46,460 (for all fine artists, including painters, sculptors and illustrators)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Is an Illustrator?

At work, illustrators' duties include conferring with clients, art directors and writers about image content, as well as submitting preliminary sketches for further consultation, creating finished artwork and making revisions as needed. Illustrators also maintain portfolios of their work and stay current with developments in the field by conducting research, visiting art exhibits and reading art publications.

Step 1: Study Art in Elementary and Secondary School

The earlier you learn to draw the better. Formal drawing programs should be available to you by middle school if they weren't in elementary school. At that level you can expect to work on basic figure and still-life studies in assorted media, including pencil, ink, watercolor, charcoal and paint. Computer courses, especially graphics courses, are also helpful because computers have been widely adopted in commercial art.

Step 2: Earn a Degree

You will find that 2-year associate's degree and 4-year bachelor's degree programs in illustration are widely available at both public and private schools. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) most illustrators earn a bachelor's degree (www.bls.gov). Programs impart both technical skill and expressiveness, with the aim of training you to think visually. Course topics may include color theory, drawing, 2-D and 3-D graphics, printmaking, art history and typography. A large share of class time is devoted to practicing.

If you're interested in medical or scientific illustration, detailed knowledge of living organisms, surgical and medical procedures and human or animal anatomy are important. A bachelor's degree that combines art and pre-med courses can provide the necessary preparation. Many illustrators in this niche pursue a master's degree in medical illustration.

Step 3: Develop Your Portfolio

A strong, diverse portfolio will be an essential asset in establishing your reputation and career. Create a diverse range of hand-drawn and computer-generated images in multiple formats while you're in college developing your skills. Choose the ten best pieces to become the basis of your portfolio. Your portfolio will change and improve with each project, allowing you to present your best, most challenging work to prospective employers.

Step 4: Find Employment

Publishers, advertising agencies, corporations, TV networks, movie studios or any organization with a publicity department could potentially hire you, either as a staffer or as a freelancer. You could contact prospective employers directly, network through membership in a professional organization such as the Society of Illustrators or gain exposure by submitting your work to art contests. The BLS reported approximately 26,300 people worked as fine artists in 2014. Figures specifically for illustrators weren't available. The BLS projected employment to grow three percent by 2024 to 27,100. However, competition for positions should be intense because the supply of talent is likely to exceed demand.

Step 5: Earn a Master's Degree

Earning a master's degree in arts administration might enhance your prospects of becoming an art director, especially if you work in advertising, film production, publishing or graphic design. Arts administration programs emphasize financial management, problem solving and finding a balance between achieving an organization's mission and maximizing its revenue. Courses touch on fundraising, public policy, problem solving and project management. Some programs are available online.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Photographers also capture visual images; however, they use photographic equipment instead of sketching by hand or drawing within a software program. Multimedia artists may use a combination of their sketching ability and computers to develop animation and effects. Other careers that require an artistic eye, sense of proportion, and understanding of how to combine colors and shapes effectively include those of graphic designers and fashion designers. Art directors also utilize their artistic sense to develop layouts for magazines, books, newspapers and other printed materials.

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