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Top 5 Career Paths in Illustration

Updated: Jan 13

The world of illustration is incredibly diverse, but there are certain areas of the market that aspiring illustrators are always most interested in.

Here we’re going to take a quick overview of 5 of the most popular market sectors for freelance illustration, looking at the defining characteristics and pros and cons of each one. And as disclaimer, it's also worth remembering that a many illustrators work across a range of these sectors throughout their careers rather than specialising in just one, and both paths are equally valid.

Right, let’s get started…

1. Editorial Illustration

An editorial illustrator works in magazines and newspapers, both in print and online. The world of editorial is fast paced, with short deadlines and quick turnaround times, which can range from a couple of days to just a few hours. In terms of freelance illustration, these are ‘smaller’ jobs in both duration and pay.

As a result, this sector is often where those just starting out get their first opportunities, as it’s comparatively low risk for commissioners to take a chance on new talent. As an editorial illustrator, an Art Director will brief you, and your final work will be subject to the approval of the Editor.

Editorial can be a great area to work in as it can allow you to tackle a wide range of subjects, which is great for a varied portfolio. It can provide a steady income if you illustrate a regular column, which can develop into a longer term working partnership.

2. Children’s Book Illustration

The work of a children’s book illustrator covers everything from board books for toddlers, to gritty Young Adult fiction, and everything in between. Children’s book illustrators are often authors too, so if you want to get into this area of the industry, it’s a great idea to start developing your own characters and stories, so you’re ready to pitch your own concepts if the opportunity arises.

Illustrating a children’s book is a longer-term project and the initial period from commission to publication is generally between one and two years. As an illustrator, you will work closely as a team with a Commissioning Editor, the author, and a designer, so it truly is a collaborative effort. It is common practice to be paid some combination of a flat fee and an advance, plus a share of royalties. The advance is usually paid in 3 instalments, the first on signing the contract, the second on submission of the final illustrations and the third on publication.

As a freelancer this means that you will have to juggle children’s book commissions alongside shorter term jobs with more immediate payment. However, there is still a real prestige to writing/illustrating a book, plus it’s amazing to be able to go into a store and see a book on the shelf with your name on it.

3. Fashion Illustration

Fashion illustration commissions are mainly found in editorial and advertising, and in recent years there has been a massive trend towards live fashion portraiture at events for high-end beauty and fashion brands. However, this is a niche market sector, so for most fashion illustrators, ‘pure’ fashion illustration represents only a small amount of their commissions.

Fashion illustration is in demand in many other contexts such as greetings cards, gifts and stationery, and health and beauty editorial. As a fashion illustrator, it is especially important to have a distinctive creative voice and be able to effectively translate the essence and energy of a fashion designer’s collection, or alternatively visualise an aspirational character in line with your client’s target demographic.

It’s also important to have a genuine ‘passion for fashion’ in order to stay on top of the latest trends at both catwalk and high street level, and ensure your images stay fresh, contemporary and relevant.

4. Comics Illustration

Illustrating for comics is not as clearly defined as some of the other avenues of freelance illustration. From the colourist who applies colour to the artwork to the inker whose job it is to ensure the artwork is clearly presented and legible, there are many different roles within the industry. However, on the whole, it is the penciller who is often considered the ‘core’ artist on a book and upon whom the majority of the creative decision-making lies. The penciller is required to accurately transform the script from words to images and successfully visualise the narrative, and therefore works in close collaboration with both the writer and the Art Editor.

Work is usually on a ‘for hire’ basis, meaning the artist is brought in to produce the artwork at an agreed page rate (creator owned titles, self-publishing and online comics are other options but as this is an overview we’re discussing work for hire here.) The page rate can vary greatly depending upon many factors such as the publisher, the popularity of the title, and artists fan base. However, most companies have a starting basic page rate that new, and even established, artists will be expected to work for.

Comic book work is one of the most demanding illustration jobs out there, in terms of the volume of work required, in the time allowed, for the money available. However, it is also one of the most rewarding in terms of allowing the illustrator to take ownership of the work and become fully invested.

5. Advertising Illustration

Working as an illustrator within the advertising industry is easily the most lucrative of the career options available as a freelancer. However, it is also one of the most pressured and demanding pathways too. The role of the illustrator can vary, from storyboards in television advertising, to delivering the final artwork for a print-based advert such as a magazine or a billboard.

In this role, you are working as part of a highly creative team, delivering to clients who expect the very best results, reflecting their substantial financial investment. It’s a high-pressure environment and turnarounds are fast, but you can guarantee you will be working alongside some of the best creative minds out there.

As a result, it is very unlikely that a freelancer is able to enter this world with little experience. The advertising agency, who are working on a commission from the client, want to know you can deliver on time and to a standard that is in line with the industry. For this reason, in the majority of cases it is illustrators who are repped by an agent who tend to get work in this sector. There also tends to be less creative freedom as the artwork needs to be signed off at multiple levels across both the advertising agency and the commissioning company.

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