13 March 2013

An illustrator creates visual images to convey a message or mood. They often specialise in a particular design medium.

Most illustrators work on a freelance basis. Image: University of the Creative Arts
Most illustrators work on a freelance basis. Image: University of the Creative Arts

What is the work like?

Illustration involves creating visual images. An illustrator uses their creative skills to convey ideas, facts or emotions.

Illustrators may use:

  • drawing or sketching
  • painting
  • photography
  • computer software.

Most illustrators specialise in one or more of the techniques.

Illustrators may be commissioned to create images for:

Build up a portfolio of work which reflects your personal style and shows your versatility.

  • book covers
  • posters
  • magazines
  • exhibition materials
  • packaging
  • websites
  • multimedia software, film or TV.

Specialists may illustrate medical, technical or scientific text books or instruction manuals.

Most illustrators work on a freelance basis. They take commissions from, for example:

As a freelancer, you spend time building up and marketing your business to potential customers. This might include:

  • networking with other creatives
  • working closely with graphic designers
  • displaying your work.

Many freelance illustrators advertise their work on a website, either their own or a collective such as the Association of Illustrators. You may be able to choose your own hours of work, but you may work long hours to meet deadlines.

How do I become an illustrator?

You need to be very creative and have a good idea of how an illustration can convey a particular mood. You also need to be able to:

  • pay great attention to detail
  • communicate your ideas
  • come up with creative ideas, but also to be able to listen carefully to what the client is asking for
  • work to a brief, within the constraints of a budget and deadline
  • deal with your illustrations being rejected and be prepared to rework them,sometimes at very short notice.

It is important to build up a portfolio of your work which reflects your personal style and demonstrates your versatility.

Illustration is a very competitive field with a large number of good-quality freelancers looking for work. You need to demonstrate that you can produce the type and style of illustration the client is looking for.

If you are self-employed, you need business skills so you can market your goods and services, deal with finances and develop your business.

Qualifications and training

There is no set entry route, but you need to develop your technical illustration skills. Although it is not a requirement, most illustrators have a degree. This could be in Illustration.

Some may study related subjects such as Graphic Design or Fine Art.


There are degrees in Illustration at several universities and colleges throughout the UK.

If you know you want to be a specialist illustrator, you may want to choose a course which offers relevant options, such as the Illustration degree at Blackpool and Fylde College, which offers modules in scientific and natural history illustration.

Some courses which include illustration may have other titles, such as:

  • Illustration and Design
  • Visual Communication.

Graphic Design, Fine Art or other similar degrees are widely available across the UK. The UCAS website lists all courses. D&Ad also has information about design courses.

It is important to read the course content carefully to make sure you choose the right course.

Degree entry requirements

For a degree, you usually need at least two A levels or equivalent. Some design degree courses may also ask for a Foundation Diploma. This is a one-year course offered by many colleges and some universities.

You can prepare for a degree by studying Art and Design at different levels. As well as GCSEs and A levels in Art and Design, you could take:

  • Awards, Certificates and Diplomas
  • HNC or HND.

You need to see what’s on offer at colleges in your area.

It may be possible to enter through an apprenticeship in design at level 2 or 3. Employers will expect GCSEs usually in English and Maths. They may want Art and Design or IT. Some may ask for one or more A levels (for level 3 apprenticeships).

Career development

You can build up your career as an illustrator by taking on small commissions and adding each piece of work to your portfolio.

As you widen the diversity of your work, you can take on larger projects. You will gradually build up a reputation within the creative world.

What can I earn?

As a freelance illustrator, you are either paid a daily rate for an agreed number of days to complete a commission or you are paid a set fee for a project. You negotiate the rate of pay with your client. It will depend on the project and on your experience.

Also of interest

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