Career Guide


Emily Hanson  · Jan 25th 2023

Do you find yourself always doodling on notes, books and any paper you can find around you?


Illustrators create purposeful artwork designed to communicate meaning for a viewer. Often used in conjunction with text, illustrations are everywhere, from advertisements to children’s books and websites. They bring meaning, colour, and user accessibility to visual communications.

Artists and illustrators

What is an illustrator?

As an illustrator, your role is to provide further meaning and interest to visual media. Your work will usually accompany written information, and it’s your job to further explore the purpose of the communication to help viewers and readers access it through your drawings. The purpose of your illustrations will depend on the type of media you are illustrating. If your illustration sits alongside text in a children’s picture book, for example, it needs to visually explore what the text is saying for pre-readers, so that they can follow a story that is being read aloud to them. In contrast, illustrations supporting an advertisement are designed to entice and persuade a viewer to respond to the advert’s call to action.

Your work could combine various forms of art materials. While illustrators traditionally use pen and paper, modern technology has meant many illustrations are now generated via tablet and laptop software using digital pens.

Illustrators often work in a freelance capacity. They will usually work in commercial illustration, working on different projects with various different clients in their niched area of work. Some illustrators also work for larger companies with regular illustration needs, such as being a newspaper illustrator. Illustrators usually specialise in particular types of illustration, such as fashion illustration jobs, being a technical illustrator, advertising illustration, being a children’s illustrator, or offering a particular illustration style, such as comic style or editorial.


Your responsibilities in illustrator jobs will vary depending on the project, and whether you are employed or work freelance.

Much of your training and development in illustration will happen in a relevant course.

Common duties include:

  • Planning meetings to discuss the scope of a project, such as audience, length of project, and overall themes - these are usually called illustration briefs.
  • Sharing illustration ideas and creating rough sketches for further work based on the brief given by your client or company.
  • Carrying out research around the topic of illustration to better understanding the graphics you need to create, such as learning about a particular product or topic.
  • Learning about a brands usual guidelines or typical styles and applying these to your work, if you are open to adjusting your usual style methods.
  • Utilising computer aided design (CAD) software to create digital version of images - this is especially true for large editorial projects.
  • Creating initial drafts for editors to assess and adjust.
  • Learning new styles of illustration to use for different clients or projects within employment.
  • If you work in book illustration, submitting your work to publishers to bid for illustration work for a particular publication.
  • Work within a wider editorial or publication team to ensure your illustrations fit the overall vision of the project.

If you work on a freelance basis, you will also need to:

  • Pitch your work to editorial publications and companies, explaining why their projects would benefit from your illustration work.
  • Oversee your business finances, usually in liaison with an accountant.
  • Market your business via print publication, social media channels and word of mouth.
  • Attend illustration networking events to build your reputation and access client relationships.
  • Quote potential clients for how much your work will cost.
  • Organise administrative tasks such as filing tax returns, keeping up with email communications and more.
  • Keep your clients up to date with your progress, asking for further information if the brief is too limited.


An illustrator salary will vary depending on whether you are employed or self employed (freelance). What you earn will also depend on the area you specialise in, how competitive it is and how lucrative it is. If you are freelance, you will also need to factor in costs of running your business, such as marketing fees and accountancy fees, as well as any agency commissions if you obtain work through an illustration agent.

The average wage for an employed illustrator is around £29,000 a year[1]. However, in reality, most illustrators work in freelance illustration jobs. As all freelance illustrator jobs are varied, it is hard to predict an overall annual salary for an illustrator. The Association of Illustrators (AOI) offers a membership tool to support illustrators to price their work. Projected fees are based around where your illustration is likely to be published, how frequently, and whether the client gains licence of the work (has full ownership and can reproduce it as they please).

Apprenticeship illustration


While you do not need a degree to work as an illustrator, it can be helpful. In a competitive field where multiple illustrators are bidding for work, having a degree background can help you stand out. A degree in the field will also be a good grounding to teach you the key skills you will need in the job. Some example degrees include:

To apply for a degree you will usually need a combination of A Levels, with an art based subject. You will also need a portfolio of your previous work to demonstrate your abilities in the discipline. Alternatively, you could study at level 3 at college level to build up your skill set.

While a course of study can be helpful, the key to successfully applying for illustration jobs is a good portfolio. You can build this up independently, sketching out ideas and samples based on your interests. It’s a good idea to practice multiple methods of illustration to find out what suits you best, as well as gauging what particular form of publication you would like to illustrate for.

Training and development

Much of your training and development in illustration will happen in a relevant course. You will also build up your skills and abilities as you spend time working. As you work with different companies or clients, your style and abilities will adapt and grow. You will also develop your skills and techniques via consistent practice based on your interests.

Illustration is a competitive field, so getting some experience illustrating under your belt is crucial to securing work

Many illustrators attend training offered by illustration bodies such as the AOI. You could pick up new skills, business strengths and more via conferences, seminars and workshops.


The necessary skills for an illustrator combine technical ability with business skills.

These include:

  • Ability to use various illustrative techniques to meet client briefs.
  • Ability to adapt technical styles or processes based on the needs of a client.
  • Creativity - your job will be to take verbal and written briefs and transform these into an imaginative, exciting piece of work for a client.
  • Excellent time keeping skills, as you’ll likely be managing multiple commissions at any given time.
  • Good business skills - you’ll need to manage your finances, tax, and overall administrative tasks.
  • Marketing skills - you will need to promote your work through various channels including social media, print, and by attending networking events and trade shows.
  • Technical literacy - most clients will expect your work to be viewable digitally, so you will need to understand the key processes behind bringing your work for paper to screen.
  • Awareness of CAD software such as Adobe Illustrator to support computer based illustration work.
  • A working knowledge the sector you work in, or usually pitch to, including their common pain points and usual business needs.
  • Ability to research new topics that you haven’t illustrated before, such as new product or an area of work that is new to you.

Illustration jobs

Work Experience

Illustration is a competitive field, so getting some experience illustrating under your belt is crucial to securing work. You may be able to contact publishing or editorial agencies that would allow budding illustrators to shadow their employees. If you are studying towards an illustration degree or course, it’s a good idea to utilise your course contacts to leverage some time observing a professional illustrator. Shadowing your course tutors or asking about their career path could be a good start to this, too.

You may be able to find an illustrator internship with an established company. This usually involves working without or with limited pay, so you will need to assess if this is something you feel comfortable doing.

As an illustrator, your role is to provide further meaning and interest to visual media.

Alternatively, you could start as many illustrators do and build up your portfolio independently. Learning about what you enjoy and what style suits your interests best is key to becoming a professional illustrator. You could look into the styles used by your dream client and mirror these in your work, creating mock briefs and showing how you would meet them.

Career Prospects

Working in illustration can be a varied career path. As you develop your style and build up a good reputation within your industry, you could focus on pursuing higher paying clients or moving towards working in particular sectors. You could, for example, start by working on smaller projects, building up your expertise and portfolio to prepare you for bidding for children’s book illustration work. Equally you could work towards working flexibly or remotely, applying for more long term remote illustrator jobs.

Many illustrators combine their commission work with teaching. You could work as an illustration teacher at college or university level, with the right amount of experience and ability.


  • [1]Illustrator average salary in United Kingdom, 2022 — Retrieved 5 October 2022.

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