Illustration Career Options and Education Requirements

Illustration is generally offered through a bachelor's or master's degree program in fine arts. Continue reading for an overview of the training, as well as career and salary info for some career options for graduates.

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Illustrators channel their artistic talents in a number of different ways. They can take a more traditional path and create pieces for publications and clients, or they can compound their skills with additional study to become medical illustrators or multimedia artists.

Essential Information

Illustration is a field of study available at both the bachelor's and master's levels. It focuses on studio art as well as art history. Illustration students typically build a portfolio during their program, which is used as their primary tool to get hired. Two career options for this degree are general illustration and medical illustration.

General illustrators create drawings and designs for posters, advertisements, books, and newspapers. Medical illustrators draw medical and surgical renderings, often for textbooks or medical journals. There is an increasing emphasis on animation in medical illustration. While there are few degree requirements to become a general illustrator, becoming a medical illustrator may require an additional master's degree in medical arts.

General Illustrator Medical Illustrator
Required Education High school diploma or equivalent Bachelor's degree in fine arts
Pre-med track classes
Recommended Education Bachelor's or master's degree in fine arts Master's degree in medical arts
Other Requirements Portfolio Medical arts portfolio
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) 2% for all fine artists, including illustrators* 6% for all multimedia artists and animators*
Median Annual Salary (2015) $45,080 for all fine artists, including illustrators* $62,000 for a medical illustrator or animator**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **AMI.org

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Career Options

General Illustrators

Illustrators can work as manual illustrators or digital illustrators. They might create storyboards, animations, comic strips, or images for video games. They may also work on commercials, films, and web content.

Illustrators can work for a variety of employers, including publishing companies, magazines, or advertising agencies. Many are self-employed and look for freelance work. Illustrators who can work in multimedia and digital formats may have the best work prospects, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS.

Medical and Science Illustrators

Some illustrators specialize as medical or scientific illustrators. These illustrators must have a full understanding of surgical and medical procedures, the mechanics of living organisms, and anatomy. They typically work with doctors and researchers to create illustrations for medical journals, scientific exhibits, medical advertising, or textbooks.

A large market also exists for medical and scientific illustrations developed for the Web and aimed at the public. The BLS states that the field is relatively small and highly specialized, which will create demand for talented and competent workers.

Education Requirements

Prospective illustrators must be creative and have a broad range of art skills. Most illustrators pursue a postsecondary degree, usually at the bachelor's or master's degree level.

Most bachelor's degree programs require applicants to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Art colleges may ask for a portfolio that demonstrates the skill of the applicants. Undergrad and graduate curricula may include illustration, painting, digital art, and drawing.

Medical illustrators are usually required to take pre-med classes along with art coursework as undergraduates. Most medical illustrators also earn a master's degree that specifically focuses on medical illustration, anatomy, and surgical illustration. According to the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI), some medical illustrators may also pursue a Ph.D. degree for work in academic settings.

Work Experience and Portfolio

Illustrators develop a portfolio that they can use when seeking employment. In addition to portfolio work developed in school, internship programs may help illustrators build up their portfolios.

Salary Information and Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that in May 2015, the median annual salary for fine artists - including painters, sculptors, and illustrators - was $45,080. They also predict that jobs in this career field will increase by 2% from 2014-2024. Illustration jobs on computers are expected to see particularly high growth.

According to AMI, the median annual salary for a medical illustrator is $62,000 as of 2013. AMI also references the BLS job outlook for multimedia artists and animators, which includes medical illustrators, as growing 6% from 2014-2024.

No matter what specific path an illustrator chooses to pursue, they will need a good aesthetic eye and strong artistic talent. The field often requires some self-advocating like many other careers in the arts and humanities.

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