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The fundamental skills of an illustrator are imagination and the ability to draw, using pencil, ink, paint or digital media. Campus-based and online illustration schools can help you transform a basic grasp of those skills into the type of well-rounded skillset that can start you on the path to a professional illustration career.
But what is illustration, exactly? What does it take to qualify for an illustration career? How much do illustrators make? We'll address these questions on this page, as well as provide some data points to give you a more complete picture of illustration as a profession. Read on below for more info on how to become an illustrator.
What is illustration?
Illustrators work in a variety of media and with a range of subject matter, but the basic responsibilities of the position tend to be fairly similar from job to job. Here's a quick rundown of the duties that illustrators can expect to perform on an ordinary day:
- Communicating with clients, art directors or other artists to determine a project's direction
- Creating sketches, templates or storyboards to begin to develop visual ideas
- Using principles of color theory, composition, perspective and other artistic concepts
- Evaluating and revising drawings until they achieve their communicative goal
The majority of professional illustrators work as freelance or independent artists -- 66 percent, according to recent figures by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- but they may also find work at public sector agencies or in the entertainment and advertising industries.
How to Become an Illustrator
College education may not be a stated requirement for illustration jobs, but the years of studio drawing practice, workshops and theory classes can add a lot of value to your drawing style. Here's a quick list of steps that many professional illustrators follow as they get ready to head out into the workforce:
- Finish high school or earn an equivalency degree
- Pursue college-level education in illustration, usually through a fine arts degree
- Develop a portfolio of work that effectively demonstrates your skills
- Apply for jobs and make yourself available for freelance work
The curriculum you'll study at illustration schools may vary, since each individual institution designs its fine art programs in its own way, but here's a list of subjects commonly studied by aspiring illustrators:
- Life drawing
- Principles of design
- Visual culture
- Light and color
- Digital illustration
- Visual communication
- Business of fine art
Illustration degree and certificate programs
Illustration degree and certificate programs are available at nearly every academic level, from non-degree awards up to graduate school. Here's some quick detail about programs at each level:
- Undergraduate certificate. Illustration certificate programs are often available at community colleges as well as dedicated art schools. They can be completed in less than a year in some cases, and they tend to cover the basics of several concepts rather than exploring very deeply.
- Associate degree. Completing an associates degree in illustration typically takes around two years of full-time study. These programs train students in visual theory while also providing enough dedicated studio practice to help them build a strong portfolio.
- Bachelor's degree. Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degrees in illustration are common at art and design schools. These degrees are usually completed in four years of full-time study, but they may also be offered in accelerated or part-time formats.
Highly advanced illustrators can also pursue a Master of Arts (M.A.) or a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degree in illustration. Graduate degrees like these often include internship sections and require students to submit a master's thesis project before graduation.
Online illustration schools
Not every fine arts discipline translates well to the virtual classroom, but online illustration schools offer essentially the same education as those that hold classes on campus. Especially if you want to focus your illustration career on digital media, earning your degree online can be a great way to get valuable training and build your portfolio without turning your schedule upside-down for a traditional degree program.
It's important to mention, though, that online illustration schools are by no means an easy path to a career in the arts. The level of motivation and self-supervision that it takes to succeed in an online degree program may not come easy to everyone, but these degrees can be a great choice if you're hard-working, passionate and up to the task.
Most illustrators don't need official certification in order to ply their trade, but there is one type of illustration job where a professional credential can be very helpful. If you have a particular talent for drawing photorealistic human anatomy and want to become a medical illustrator, board certification from the Association of Medical Illustrators can help you get a foothold in the field.
Career advancement options for illustrators
The main avenue for career advancement in illustration is the development of an artistic and professional reputation that generates offers for higher-paying and more prestigious work. Artists working in an industry such as advertising can also seek out positions that allow them to showcase their talents to new management.
Another way to advance in the illustration business is to move into an art director role. Illustrators with plenty of job experience and some understanding of the administrative side of the profession are most likely to land directorial position.
Skills and Abilities for Illustrators
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) lists a range of skills and abilities that can be especially valuable to anyone pursuing an illustration career. Here's a sample of some of the top traits for professional illustrators:
- Fluency of ideas is the ability to generate a large number of different concepts during the brainstorming portion of a project
- Critical thinking makes it possible to understand the ways in which the nuances of your work might be received by clients and the public
- Originality can help you come up with creative, unusual or clever ways to communicate your visual ideas
- Visual color discrimination allows you to detect subtle differences between different colors and determine how to effectively use a color palette
- Reading comprehension can be particularly helpful to freelance illustrators, who often get project instructions in writing
Illustrator Salary and Career Outlook
It might seem like a straightforward question -- How much do illustrators make? -- but the truth is that a wide range of factors can influence an illustrator's salary. Different parts of the country report different average salary figures, for example, and the industry where you find work will often have its own set of rules for determining average annual pay.
That said, the national averages for things like salary and projected job growth can provide a ballpark figure for what you can expect when you hit the job market. Take a look at this average data for illustrators across the U.S., provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Fine Artists, Including Painters, Sculptors, and Illustrators||11,230||$57,520||8.6%|
Professional Resources for Illustrators
Whether you're a student, a job seeker or an established illustrator, joining a professional organization can help you stay on the leading edge of the field and open up opportunities that may not have been available otherwise. Here's a list of a few of the top organizations for illustrators in the U.S.:
- The Society of Illustrators (SI) offers three membership levels for illustrators: student, early-career and professional. Members get discounts on lectures, workshops, publications and more, as well as invitations to exclusive Society events.
- AIGA, the professional association for design has been advocating for illustrators and other artists for more than 100 years. Membership in AIGA earns you access to online tutorials and workshops, an online career center and other perks.
- The Graphic Artists Guild offers membership benefits such as subscriptions to its regional and national newsletters and an official space among its online member profiles. Professionals, students and part-timers each have separate membership options.