Professional Illustrator: Career Definition, Job Outlook, and Education Requirements

Research what it takes to become a professional illustrator. Learn about job duties, education requirements, and job outlook 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?

Professional illustrators use a variety of media and/or software-based design programs to create images. These artists might generate visuals for books, magazines, newspapers, or packaging. They may also create artwork for products like calendars, greeting cards or textiles.

Illustrators are using computers more and more in their work, but may first create art with a pen or pencil. They may then take the drawing and scan it into a computer to color or edit it. These professionals should be trained in art techniques like color, space, texture and composition. Illustrators may keep a professional portfolio and/or showcase their work in galleries or online markets. See the table below for more information about education requirements, salary, and job outlook for professional illustrators.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree helpful
Education Field of Study Illustration, fine arts or related field
Job Growth (2014-2024) 2% (for all craft and fine artists)*
Median Salary (2016) $42,704**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **PayScale.com

What Do Professional Illustrators Do?

Professional illustrators create realistic, stylized or abstract images. In your work as an illustrator, you could create images to accompany the content of newspaper articles, journals, books and product packaging. Increasingly, you could work with new media technology where you might use design software to create illustrations for games and websites.

What Education Do I Need?

Although a formal degree is not required of illustrators generally, earning one could help you gain familiarity with professional standards. A bachelor's degree program in illustration helps you master drawing skills to hone your individual style while supporting you in the creation of a competitive portfolio of work. You'll take courses in art history as well as subjects such as color theory, computer art applications and design elements. You may be able to focus on children's book, editorial, advertising or electronic illustration. Master's degree programs in illustration are also available.

If you'd like to specialize in medical illustration, you'll usually need at least a bachelor's degree; some schools offer pre-medical illustration bachelor's degree programs which combine art courses with science courses such as anatomy and biology. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that those specializing in this field also often opt to complete master's-level medical illustration programs.

What Is the Career and Salary Outlook?

BLS projected that jobs for craft and fine artists, including illustrators, would grow by 2% from 2014-2024, which is slower than average. Competition for jobs among artists is expected to be high because there are typically more qualified and interested candidates than openings. While the expanding demand for technologically oriented images limits the number of prospects for traditional pen-and-ink illustrators, medical illustrators should be in demand due to growth in medical research.

According to PayScale.com, illustrators earned anywhere from $21,279 to $92,861 per year as of October 2016. The median salary for this same year was $42,704. However, many fine artists, including illustrators, work on commission and are employed on a project basis, so salary is quite variable depending on the amount of work you are able to do.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Some related careers that require only a high school diploma and some on-the-job training include those of jewelers and photographers. Jewelers and precious stone or metal workers design and sell their jewelry. These workers may also appraise gems and jewelry. Photographers capture images to help tell a story or record an event. Another related career is that of a graphic designer. These professionals need a bachelor's degree, and they create visual concepts through various media that may be used for things like advertisements or magazines.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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