Illustration Careers

Make a living AND make a difference.

Illustrators’ work appears in books, magazines, papers and television ads. They illustrate posters, calendars, greeting cards, and comic books. They draw pictures for soup cans labels and cereal boxes. They illustrate catalogs, technical manuals, and medical texts. They draw for children’s storybooks and school history books. Your style, your interests, and “the breaks” will determine what field of illustration you choose.

You can certainly make a living from illustration but it will take passion, hard work, perseverance and sometimes plain luck. Some illustrator can hit their stride right away, while others may struggle for several years. Because almost 85% of illustrators work freelance it is in the best interest of the illustrator to know their market, how to market and have a good sense of business, contracts, pricing and intellectual law.

Editorial Illustrators: Generally, this is free-lance work. The artist illustrates magazine-and newspaper articles as well as advertisements. The art director and the illustrator decide which important point in the copy should be illustrated. The illustrator then executes a drawing, painting, or collage in a unique personal style to illustrate the focal point of the copy.

Product Illustrator: Most often this is free-lance work. The artist usually works with advertising agencies. In order to create a finished drawing or painting of a product, precision, drafting ability, and the capacity to render varied materials realistically are required.

Storyboard Illustrator: This illustrator may be employed in large ad agencies or may work free-lance. Taking the agency art director’s roughs, he develops finished drawings for presentation of a potential TV commercial or industrial film to a client. This series of drawings, which illustrates the progress of the action, is called a storyboard. The appropriate dialogue is typed underneath each drawing. This gives the client an idea of how a film might look before the client undertakes the expense of production. This technique can also be used to illustrate a potential TV pilot. Since multiple drawings must be produced within a short period of time, the artist must work rapidly and carefully, using economy of means to suggest detail.

Cartooning: This field of illustration is familiar to everyone. There are as many variations in style as there are cartoonists. Each has a unique humorous or dramatic point of view and the ability to illustrate it in a direct and economical pen and ink technique. In most cases, the ability to write is essential. The cartoonist may do spot drawings or gag or satirical cartoons on a free-lance basis. He may have a staff job for a publication, or he may be syndicated as a comic strip artist or political cartoonist. In any case, the ability to sustain a high level of humor or drama over a long period of time is vital.

Caricature: The Caricaturist is primarily a free-lance artist who works for newspapers and magazines, but he may also be called upon to illustrate advertising. While similar to the cartoonist in skill, the caricaturist also has a special ability to emphasize facial and body features in a drawing in order to create a comic but completely recognizable drawing of a particular individual.

Animation: The animator has grown in popularity with the tremendous burgeoning of the television medium, and there are many companies who produce for advertising agencies. Another area, which we know well, is in movies dealing, specifically with cartoon. There has been a new growth in the use of animation in full-length features, as well as the continuing use of the cartoon material.

Fashion Illustrators: Fashion Illustrators are among others who work only in one subject. They draw models wearing the latest fashions. They also do accessories such as gloves, handbags, and hats. Their artwork appears in catalogs, newspapers, magazines, and television commercials. Most are free-lancers. Others are staff members of clothing manufacturers, fashion designers, mail-order firms, or department stores.

Free-Lance Illustrators: Free-lance illustrators may do many kinds of artwork or they may produce only one kind. Most illustrators do not start in staff positions doing illustrations. Many begin free-lance work right after graduation. Some may get staff jobs in related fields as they build up their portfolios. As a rule, illustrators work for many clients, instead of one company. They line up jobs and plan their work so that they will be busy but not rushed. Some artists call on art directors, show samples of their work, and get assignments. Other artists hire agents (called reps) to get work for them. Well-known free-lance illustrators have clients who come to them. Free-lancing is the aim of many illustrators. This work lets them do the kind of illustrations they like best and allows them to schedule their own workload. Many of them travel or do assignments by mail. They may develop a unique style and do only one kind of illustration such as animals, children, home furnishings, or fashions. Free-lancers do all the tasks of an assignment. They get the job, buy supplies, hire models, do the project (from rough sketch to finished illustration), and deliver it. Some have aides who fill in color or background, add lettering, or do other tasks. Some free-lancers have agents who acquire jobs for them to do.

Technical Illustrators: Technical illustrators, who do most of their work in black and white, also use drafting tools and machines. Their work may consist of layouts showing how to install equipment, diagrams for wiring, or perspective and cutaway views of machines. They study blueprints, models, engineers’ drawings, and equipment to make sketches. They often use computer-aided design techniques.

Medical Illustrators: Medical illustration is used in textbooks, magazines, charts, and advertising directed to the medical profession. This work demands both a scientific and an artistic knowledge of anatomy. Precise and accurate draftsmanship combined with a realistic style is necessary.

Mural Designers: The primary application for the mural is in hotels, restaurants, and residences. One must have the ability to emulate various artistic styles. Excellent painting technique is required. One should approach this field with an education in fine art and art history. Muralist can works for an interior designer.

Pricing and Wages

The average earnings for salaried illustrators are around $30,000 to $50,000. Earnings for self-employed illustrators vary. The best source for salary statistics for staff illustrators and pricing for freelance illustrators is located in the Graphics Artists Guild Publication The Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. There are also some great websites for freelance illustrators that cover pricing, contracts, legal issues etc.

Job Opportunities

There are many opportunities for jobs in illustration. As an illustrator, you may find employment with magazines, periodicals, book and software publishers, manufacturers, or working with various types of electronic media. There are also opportunities in the motion picture and video industries, and computer game design industry as well. Or you may decide to be a self-employed, freelance illustrator, and do work in several of these industries on a contract basis.


Every Illustration student should become familiar with and have a copy of the yearly publications The Artist’s & Graphics Designers’ Market, 2,800 places to sell your illustration work and The Children’s Writer’s & Illustrators Market.

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