Online Degrees in Illustration: Program Options

Learn about online degree programs with illustration courses. Get an overview of the program types, requirements and course descriptions available for this field.

Essential Information

There are very few online degree programs in illustration, but there are many online degree programs in graphic design that include courses in illustration. These programs are generally available entirely through online study and are offered at the associate's, bachelor's and master's degree levels. A relatively new computer with a high-speed Internet connection is a must for these technology-intensive programs. Some courses may require special graphics software, such as the Adobe Creative Suite.

Associate's and bachelor's degree students must complete general education courses such as English composition, mathematics and social studies, as well as industry specific courses in typography and illustration. Graduates leave the programs with a portfolio of their work.

Master's degree programs generally focus on a specific field such as medical illustration or electronic game design. Applicants must have a bachelor's degree in a relevant area and a portfolio of their work. The study plan depends upon the student's career goals, with courses aimed at developing advanced skills. Master's programs usually require a thesis.

Associate's Degree in Graphic Design

Graphic designers create works of art for many industries. Often they illustrate, accompany or enhance articles in periodicals and books. Or they may create a poster or advertisement. Logo design, signage, product design and text layout are all tasks which require the skills of a graphic designer. An associate's degree program introduces basic concepts such as color, composition and perspective. Students gain experience in graphic techniques, including sketching, drawing, painting and computer-image manipulation. They also start to build a portfolio of work to be used when applying for job positions requiring the use of illustration or design.

Program Information and Requirements

Applicants should have a high school diploma or its equivalent, and may be asked to submit sample artwork for evaluation. Accepted students must typically complete between 65-70 credits, with at least 45 of those in art and design classes.

Distance-learning courses in graphic design are generally conducted completely online. Students need a computer with good multimedia capabilities and access to the Internet in order to participate in lectures, view demonstrations, return assignments, take exams and communicate with both teachers and peers.

Course Topics

Graphic design and illustration programs cover didactic material as well as art techniques--but a significant amount of time is dedicated to practice and projects. Students apply what they are learning in class to their art and incorporate new methods into their repertoire of technical skills. Sample courses include:


Student learn the foundations of perspective, types of projection used when presenting 3D objects on a 2D surface and standard graphic techniques that represent depth. The same knowledge is also useful for students working in 3D media, such as sculpture or computerized modeling applications.


Watercolor can be a tricky medium for artists. This course presents painter's and illustrator's techniques for using watercolor and gouache and offers examples for portraying specific textures and subjects, including figures, still-lifes and landscapes.

Life Drawing

Artists must understand the structure and anatomy of the human body in order to portray it convincingly. Students are encouraged to attend local studio drawing classes, although some teachers allow them to work from photographs. Throughout the semester, lessons focus on different body parts and discuss the different requirements for medical, photographic and journalistic representation styles.

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Bachelor's Degree in Graphic Design

Employers seeking art directors, multimedia artists and animators often require candidates to have at least a bachelor's degree in graphic design. Online bachelor's degree programs offer students instruction in more modalities of art, exposure to different design tools and increased opportunities to improve the breadth and quality of their portfolios.

Bachelor's degree programs, which feature significant coursework in illustration, include Bachelor of Art (B.A.) or Bachelor of Fine Art (BFA) options concentrating on graphic design, illustration, animation, visual effects or art education. Programs in fashion, photography, multimedia, industrial design and website design may also include a variety of illustration courses.

Program Information and Requirements

Full-time distance-education students could reasonably expect to finish 120 or more semester-credits in four years. Most coursework is completely online, but juniors and seniors may wish to complete internships with artists, designers or publishers located near their homes.

Many art and design computer applications are available for various operating systems, but different schools, courses and teachers may work with applications that run only on a single type of computer. Other equipment, such as a microphone, webcam, scanner, lighting or high-resolution camera also varies by school.

Course Topics

For assorted classes, students may need traditional art supplies such as paper, canvas, pencils, pens, charcoal, paints, palettes and easels--some of which may be supplied by the school. Students working digitally save completed assignments as computer files, which can be transmitted to the instructor for comment and grades. Non-digital media must be captured electronically, requiring hardware and software capable of converting artwork into high-resolution image files. Courses at the baccalaureate level can include:

Digital Illustration

This course offers a survey of available computer software for illustration, design and layout, website design and animation. Students try out a variety of applications, learning which are most effective for creating various effects.

Color Theory

Students learn the nature of color, the principles of color space and how different media affect the application and appearance of color. Concepts include process colors and separations, the effects of limited palettes and the differences between computer monitor colors and their printed counterparts.


Layout, proportion and composition of an illustration are vital to its effectiveness. Students gain a classical as well as a contemporary perspective, and are asked to analyze the composition of historical works of art. Exercises are designed so that students may learn to apply specific rules of composition into their own projects.

Master's Degree in Graphic Design

Certain graphic design positions may require advanced training. A design teacher might need a teaching certificate or a master's degree. Biomedical illustrators generally need advanced training in anatomy and the sciences to advance in their field. Degrees in electronic game design offer courses in 2D and 3D design, visual effects, textures and environments, character design and animation. Designers may need a master's degree to pursue careers as administrators or managers in the arts.

Program Information and Requirements

Online master's degree programs in graphic design or illustration are 2-year programs, and are available fully online. Applicants should have a bachelor's degree, preferably in the fine arts, and a portfolio showing proficiency in a variety of art modalities and styles.

Course Topics

At the master's degree level, students generally focus on a particular subject. Specialties include biomedical illustration, fashion art and animation. Many master-level students devote a portion of their coursework toward the completion of a thesis paper or project, which is typically graded by a faculty panel and may be presented to the public. Classes may allow for further specialization than those found in undergraduate programs and include:

Advanced Illustration

Students explore the effects of different environments, lighting and texture in their compositions, and they use them to emphasize the emotional content of their work. Advanced study of the human body can help illustrators depict realistic poses and anatomically correct animation.

The Graphic Novel

Creation of a graphic novel requires the effective synthesis of story, dialog and artwork. Students learn and apply the vocabulary of sequential art forms to their own projects.

Children's Book Illustration

The illustration of children's books requires an artist to maintain a consistent style. This course compares and contrasts many books, relating the artwork to the book's subjects and age of the intended audience. Students experiment with medium, character and setting to develop their own illustrations.

Career Information

Graduates with an associate's degree can pursue entry-level jobs in publishing, advertising, journalism, fashion design or graphic design. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs for craft and fine artists, including illustrators, would grow 2% from 2014 to 2024--a rate slower than the average for all national jobs.

Competition for illustrator positions is predicted to be keen, and applicants may find themselves competing with graduates of bachelor's degree programs. The BLS notes that strength and variety of an illustrator's portfolio is likely to weigh more heavily in hiring decisions than educational background (

The advent of desktop publication has created many niche opportunities for illustrators and designers to prepare electronic journals, newsletters, print advertising and a wealth of freelance print services like business cards, specialized calendars, promotional items and limited-edition books or graphic novels. Artists interested in running their own businesses should consider taking classes in economics, entrepreneurship and marketing.

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for fine artists, including illustrators, was $46,460 as of 2015. There is considerable variability in compensation for artists, especially if they are self-employed. Earnings may vary widely depending upon each artist's experience, reputation and area of expertise.

Career paths for graduates of a master's degree program in graphic design include teacher, biomedical illustrator, freelance illustrator, animator and art director. Some illustrators may receive royalties from the use of their works by publishers or stock art agencies. Experienced illustrators, administrators familiar with the design process and artists with a public following or good reputation in the trade may be able to command higher-than-average salaries.

Students interested in illustration can find online degree programs in graphic design at the associate's, bachelor's and master's degree levels, which include courses in illustration, color theory and more. Graduates of these programs are qualified for a wide range of jobs in the fine arts, including illustrators, animators, and design teachers.

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