How to Become an Illustrator: Career Roadmap

Learn how to become an illustrator. Research the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career as an illustrator.

Do I Want to Be an Illustrator?

Illustrators create the images used in publications, such as comic books, graphic novels, children's stories, books and magazines. In order to design these images, illustrators may use drawing techniques and software programs in their work. This profession can be very competitive, with more illustrators looking for work assignments than there are available jobs.

Job Requirements

These artists have no educational requirements for employment; however, enrolling in a related degree program may help students cultivate their artistic talent and teach them how to use illustrator software programs. The table below includes the requirements to become an illustrator:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Postsecondary education is not required but can be helpful; medical illustrators need postgraduate training*
Experience Illustrators often have many years of experience in creating images and may need a portfolio of their work to obtain employment*
Key Skills Illustrators must be creative and have the ability to market and sell their work*
Computer Skills Illustrators should be familiar with several software programs, including Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **Monster.com job posts (October 2012).

Step 1: Obtain the Necessary Education

Illustrators with high school diplomas may qualify for some entry-level positions; however, some employers prefer illustrators to possess associate's or bachelor's degrees. These degree programs are designed to enhance illustrators' natural talents while providing a technical education. Illustrators can obtain core skills like drawing, painting and computer-aided design in undergraduate degree programs in graphic design or illustration. Some of the courses students might take in an illustration program include history of illustration, moving pictures and letterforms.

Anyone considering a career in medical illustration may need a graduate degree to go along with premedical undergraduate courses. Medical illustration master's programs typically take two years to complete and consist of courses like surgical sketching, medical illustration techniques and human anatomy.

Success Tips:

  • Choose a medium. Illustrators who work by hand may be employed in creative or artistic fields, while digital illustrators who work with computers and illustration software may find employment in the entertainment or marketing industries. Figuring out which area to focus on allows an aspiring illustrator to learn the finer points of that particular industry.
  • Start preparing early for a medical illustration career. The Association of Medical Illustrators reported that only four graduate programs are approved for medical illustration, so students may find programs to be very competitive due to the limited number of spots. Students can begin their preparation at the undergraduate level by taking biology, medical and art electives.

Step 2: Create a Professional Portfolio

Professional portfolios consist of completed works that show off artistic strengths. Educational programs typically instruct students in portfolio development, helping them choose the most impressive works to showcase. Portfolios may feature examples of all the major illustration styles or mediums, including painting, drawing and computer work. Employers tend to look at professional portfolios closely to ensure they hire the most talented illustrators.

Step 3: Attain Work Experience

According to multiple job posts from October 2012, illustrators often needed three or more years of experience. For this reason, bachelor's degree programs often incorporate internship opportunities, which allow students to start getting experience early on and bolster employability upon graduation. Illustrators may find also find relevant experience with media companies, software developers and advertising agencies.

Success Tips:

  • Look for freelance work during school. Students can start looking for freelance work as soon as they get into college. Not only could freelance jobs provide extra income, but illustrators can use their projects to strengthen their portfolios and add the time spent to their work experience.
  • Find ways to showcase previous projects. In addition to maintaining a portfolio, displaying illustrations and artistic works online or at local galleries may provide professional exposure. Illustrators with websites may advertise their work in order to attain freelance assignments while seeking full-time work.

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