10 myths about illustration

 31 May 2013

Emma is a freelance heritage illustrator, who works on trails, guidebooks and maps for stately homes and castles. She uses her own experiences to discuss ten myths about illustration.

“The client is after value and experience, so show them you can offer both” Image: Emma Metcalfe
“The client is after value and experience, so show them you can offer both” Image: Emma Metcalfe

Myth 1: Illustrators only work in publishing

Illustration is everywhere. Wherever you see a picture, someone has been commissioned to produce it.

“From my experience, some areas of illustration are:

  • Editorial illustration in magazines or newspapers,
  • Children's book illustration,
  • Advertising and licensing designs, used on products and giftware.

“I admit that my favourite illustrator is Quentin Blake, the illustrator of Roald Dahl's books for children. He captures the wickedness in his characters with a few pen strokes.

“However, an overlooked sector in illustration is education. Here, you deal with the owners and management teams of academic institutions, instead of publishers and editors.

“An area that is growing larger is digital illustration for websites, apps and e-books. Companies try more and more to catch the reader’s attention through good design.”

Myth 2: Publishers are hard to contact

It may seem daunting to approach big publishers, but preparation is key. I have my website portfolio ready, showcasing my experience, awards and competition-entries. It’s pretty unusual to meet publishers in person these days.

"No one graduates as an illustrator – you need to build your experience and show your talent."

When you're ready to approach, resources like The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook has publisher's contact details.

Also, the Association of Illustrators (AOI) offer membership and support, with an online shop offering discounted publications for members.

“When I got started in heritage, I searched the internet, looking for heritage sites. I called them and asked if I could send them my work.

“You might get a response saying your details have been put on file. That’s not a fob-off – I contacted a company and, a year later, they contacted me back for an interview.”

Myth 3: Illustration is always done by hand

“I’m a case study for both approaches. I use hand-drawn illustrations to express my ideas and pitch for work, using my own style that I developed during my illustration degree at Falmouth University.

“But I also use a graphics tablet and Adobe Photoshop to add colour and detail to my drawings at the final stages of my projects.

"I know that if I make a mistake, I can start over. That might be a disadvantage as it could make an illustrator lazy.

“Most importantly, it's important to have creativity. If you don’t have that, no technology or pencil in the world can help you replicate it."

Myth 4: An illustrator doesn’t need a contract

“The Association of Illustrators advises using a standard terms and conditions contract, to lay out the scope of work and payment details.

"Never start on a project before a price has been agreed and you have written agreement.”

Myth 5: Illustrators are bad at business

Illustration artists are recognising that business skills are necessary to sell their services.

“You can set up a website or blog, where people can find your work, but you also need to approach people and ask 'can I send you my work?’

"If your illustrations are funny, they will appeal to people of all ages."

“If you’ve drawn something and hated doing it, don’t showcase it. People tend to commission you for work that is similar to work in your portfolio.

“Copyright is a very valuable asset and means you can keep control of your own work and, potentially, generate more income from it.

"It's not necessary to part with the copyright to your work, but you might do it unknowingly, so brush up on copyright law

“Send an invoice after the project is completed. If possible, secure a deposit – if a project is long, then you’ll have money in lean periods.”

Myth 6: It’s easy to get into illustration

“At school, the careers advisor said artists could only be painters or graphic designers – there was no in-between.

“Art foundation courses are useful for teaching beyond these areas and helping you figure out the right career for you. 

“Look for courses that include some practical experience. No one graduates as an illustrator – you need to build your experience and show your talent.

“It can be intense – I remember working from 9am to 5pm in the studio everyday – but it’s your opportunity to shine."

Myth 7: An illustrator should never sign their work

“Make your work unique – my favourite thing to draw with is an old inkwell pen with a scratchy nib – and showcase your style.

“It’s okay to include your signature or name. People may go and find out who you are, so it’s important for your details to be visible and clear.”

Myth 8: The brief will tell you everything you need

Normally, a brief is delivered by the client and tells you:

  • What they are trying to achieve,
  • What they want you to do,
  • How they want you to do it.

“The briefs can be fully-formed and precise. For example, a publisher has a specific story and details the ten specific illustrations they want.

“But there can also be less formed briefs – usually smaller organisations have the idea to use illustration, but don’t know what is possible.

“You need to get involved and be as helpful as possible, even making suggestions and drawing on your own experience.

“And research! You may have to illustrate a historical character, so you need to understand what someone of their status would be wearing, at that time in history.”

Myth 9: The brief cannot be changed

“Briefs are usually the starting point and may change as new ideas come to the table. Treat them as a guide and follow the instructions.

"An area growing larger is digital illustration for websites, apps and e-books."

"Don’t be afraid to share your ideas and be creative, but always remember that you’re aim is to meet the needs of the brief.

“Think about the illustrations in the context of the space and environment to see if the work.

“The client is after value and experience, so show them you can offer both.”

Myth 10: Children's illustrations are just for kids

"Even if your work is aimed at children, it is often adults who will be reading the books to them and helping them with an activity. 

"If your illustrations are funny, they will appeal to people of all ages. Also, illustrations – if realistic enough – may impress adults just as much as children."


Which myth has affected you the most? What insights have you come across working in illustration? 

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