So You Want to be an Illustrator?

By Tanja Bauerle – written for “The Journey”- SCBWI-AZ Newszine

What is involved in becoming an illustrator, and where should you start? Making illustration a career means hard work and persistence. You have to love what you do, because it can take years to succeed. Getting your first break can be tough; the illustration field is highly competitive. It is not a good career choice for the easily discouraged.

Does this sound disheartening? Perhaps, but understanding what you’re up against will help you mentally prepare for your journey. It’s unrealistic to think that once you’ve sent one sample out, you’ll make the big time. Sure, it might happen, but it rarely does.

Here are some steps that will put you on the right track for your illustration journey:


  • Go to the library or bookstore and look at what books are out there. Study award-winning books and try to learn why they are the best.
  • Frequent illustration-specific discussion boards. You can learn a lot from public discussions that include successful illustrators and others who are just starting out.
  • Familiarize yourself with publishers and what they are publishing. This will tell you whether your style is suitable for a particular house.
  • The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (published yearly) is a must-have. It lists most publishers and their art directors or editors, tells you what they are looking for, and provides their submission guidelines.
  • Join a critique group or a professional organization, such as SCBWI, to familiarize yourself with people in the industry. Networking helps you to meet like-minded individuals willing to help you on your journey. Also, it’s is a great way to learn about the industry as a whole and to become familiar with the publishing and illustration processes.
  • Look into the various markets that are part of the field of illustration. Picture books constitute a huge market, but by no means the only one. Consider mid-grade interior illustrations, editorial work, and cover art as opportunities to explore.

Refine and improve your craft.

  • Your ability to draw, paint, or create is the backbone of your career. Take field trips to the zoo, mall, etc., and draw every day in order to keep improving.
  • Invest in your craft by taking classes. Life drawing, fundamental drawing, color theory, and composition are just a few of the disciplines you need to understand in order to produce quality work.
  • Attend workshops, seminars, or conferences that focus on illustration. You will learn about your trade and be inspired by the other artists you meet.

Be patient and realistic.

  • Realize that you will most likely start out small and work your way up to bigger projects.
  • Understand that the career of a free-lance illustrator will probably entail having another job to support yourself or your family while you are building your free-lance career.
  • Don’t get discouraged. You may get many rejection letters before you get a commission. This is normal. Even if an art director loves your work, he or she might not have a manuscript that suits your style at that moment. Be assured that the art director will hang on to your sample and contact you as soon as a suitable project comes to his desk.

Be business savvy.

  • Working free-lance as an illustrator means that you own your own business. You are responsible for getting clients, completing and delivering the work, taking care of your own bookkeeping, and paying taxes and your own insurance, just to name a few of the responsibilities.
  • Marketing yourself and your work is a major part of being an illustrator and the only way you will be able to find work continually and build your clientele. If consumers don’t know about you, they can’t hire you for a project, no matter how gifted you are as an artist. Realize that sending out samples to potential clients and meeting with art directors is as important to your career as your ability to create artwork.

These suggestions will help you begin your career with both eyes open. Illustration is truly an art form. You must be passionate about it if you plan to make it your career.

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