How to become an illustrator

Becoming an illustrator starts with first making a competitive portfolio.

Once you've achieved a portfolio, then you're ready to start getting clients.

How do you get illustration clients?

Short answer: When you're just starting you need to do the hard work of cold emailing potential illustration clients. But once you've built up a base of happy clients, you can ask for referrals from them. This will help you maintain a consistent flow of new leads, without having to put in the same amount of effort as when you were starting.

Once you start getting the hang of how to get clients as a freelance illustrator the next step is to learn how to license artwork.

In this article, I'm going to show you the simple process of learning how to get clients as a freelance illustrator.

Also read my freelance illustration pricing guide.

Follow these tips for learning how to get clients as a freelance illustrator

Step 1: Introduce yourself to potential clients every single week over email

I recommend 20 email introductions every week.

If you introduce yourself to 20 new illustration clients per week, EVERY week for the next 3 months, you WILL be making $1k-2k in freelance illustration income by the end of three months.

You'll be making even more by the end of 12 months.

Here's why.

When you're just starting, getting illustration clients is a numbers game.

If you want to be busy as an illustrator you need to introduce yourself to potential illustration clients.

And the more introductions you make, the more you'll be hired.

So if you want to start building up your client list, you need to be out there introducing yourself to new potential clients every single week.

Make 20 email introductions your weekly goal.

Why 20?

First, it’s simple to accomplish.

If you know how to introduce yourself and your illustration portfolio the right way, it's really not all that time-consuming.

You can send out 20 personalized introductions in as little as 2 hours… simple.

Second, it's pretty lucrative.

In the beginning, if you send out 20 introductions per week, you are sending out around 1,000 introductions per year.

Assuming an average of 1 out of 10 introductions result in a paying client and you earn an average of $1,000 per client (both reasonable estimates), then 1,000 introductions per year would bring in a nice, tidy $100,000 in revenue.

20 x 50 x .10 x $1,000 = $100,000

Of course, the real world is never quite that simple, however, making 20 introductions per week will give you the perfect mix of real-world attainability and earning potential.

Step 2: Ignore everything else

Every day you have a million different options on how to get illustration clients:

  • Find more traffic to your site
  • Get a million social media followers
  • Pay for ads in illustration directories

COMMON MISTAKE: You do a little bit of everything…“I know – I’ll start an Instagram account – then post on my Instagram page a couple of times a week – and try to promote myself on Tuesdays…”

You can't pay your bills with more followers on Instagram.

So many illustrators get caught up in vanity metrics on social media.

Pretty soon, we wake up and realize we spent WAY too much time worrying about how posts perform on social media without making any real progress in actually earning money.


Your time is especially valuable in these early stages of your illustration business.

You need to work on the most direct path for getting illustration clients.

In fact, it’s better if you get rid of all the noise around you and just start with the essentials of getting illustration clients.

This way when someone suggests something to you, you have a smart answer:

“Hey, you should post your illustrations on Instagram every day!”.

Then you can intelligently tell them…

“You know I think that would be great later, but right now I’m focusing on directly reaching out to 20 potential clients every week.”

So let’s identify the clutter and noise, and eliminate it.


The most direct path for getting illustration clients is to thoughtfully introduce yourself to 20 potential illustration clients every week.

That’s it!

No magical tactic or fairy dust.

This simple framework will prevent you from becoming derailed from your current mission – to use thoughtful introductions to get new clients.

You’ll also notice with this approach you aren’t waiting around to get discovered.

You’re going directly to your future illustration clients.

  • You’re not posting your work to a million job forums
  • You’re not blindly sending hundreds of postcards with your art to random art directors
  • You're not paying for ads
  • You’re not trying to get featured on the news
  • You're not focused on likes and follows on Instagram

It’s easy to get distracted by things like social media.

It's easy to blindly send out hundreds of postcards.

It's easy to pay for an ad in some illustration directories.

But it’s hard to take time to thoughtfully introduce yourself to 20 potential illustration clients every week.

Ignore this as you learn how to get clients as a freelance illustrator

When you're just getting started learning how to get clients as a freelance illustrator, try not to get distracted from these things:

  • attending conventions or networking events
  • sending hundreds of postcards to art directors
  • paying for ads in illustration directories
  • posting on social media
  • making business cards

There is a time and a place for all this.

Just not at the start of your illustration business.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have these things later or that these things won’t ever help your illustration business. It just means you don’t need them right now.

All we’re concerning ourselves with right now is getting more illustration clients.

The most effective way to get more clients is with direct outreach and further growing our list of clients with referrals and word-of-mouth.

ADVANCED TIP: How to get clients as a freelance illustrator

After about a year of growing my freelance illustration business, I felt like I was on a roller coaster

Working on illustration projects with no specific income goal.

I had a few “main” editorial illustration clients who paid me a low amount but was reliable, monthly work.

As you know, my main strategy was to consistently send 20 weekly email introductions to potential illustration clients.

But past that, I didn't have a long-term strategy.

Some weeks I'd meet my 20 email introductions goal.

Some weeks I'd be too busy working on illustration projects or just too lazy to send any introductions.

But when my savings would start to creep dangerously low, it would push me to start introducing myself to potential illustration clients more aggressively.

Some weeks I would send out 40-60 introduction emails to make up for the prior weeks I didn't send any.

Then I'd start making more money with illustration projects.

But I realized I couldn't keep sending this many introductions forever and ever.

So long story short… my income from illustration projects would swing up and down.

I wasn't super worried about it. I was freelancing part-time and I was also starting to sell my art online too.

But at a certain point, I realized I was so close to making freelance illustration full-time income.

And if I wanted to do that, I needed a more consistent, reliable way to bring in new illustration clients in the long term.

So I geeked out, did a bunch of research, and asked other illustrators how they managed to keep a consistent flow of illustration work coming in.

I didn't like what I was hearing.

I kept hearing, “word-of-mouth”.

I don't know about you, but whenever I hear someone recommend “word-of-mouth”, I get so frustrated.

What is that!?

How do you get “word-of-mouth”?

So I dug down deeper and what I discovered next would soon double and triple my illustration income.

It was so simple.

You probably aren't going to believe me when I tell you.

All it took was two emails.

Step #1: Ask for referrals

You see, by the end of my first year of being a freelance illustrator, I had about 30-40 illustration clients.

So I individually sent each one of them an email asking for 2-3 referrals.

Not one, but 2-3.

When you're asking for referrals, you're asking your client to open their professional network to you.

It's a big favor to ask.

But if they were happy with your work, they shouldn't have any problem with it.

Step #2: Introduce yourself to the referrals

Simply take the emails given to you from your client and introduce yourself to them.

TIP: Include your client's name in the subject line of the email.

This guarantees your email will get opened and responded to!

In two months, I received around 60-80 new leads from referrals.

Some of my clients sent me one referral and one even sent me 7!

I started hitting $4-5k per month CONSISTENTLY.

Since I started asking for referrals after an illustration project, I've never NEEDED to introduce myself to a stranger again.

I no longer struggled to make consistent income from freelance illustration.

Here's what I learned…

If you can build a system that brings leads to YOU every month, you can secure your income level for years to come.

The keyword here is “build”.

This doesn't happen overnight.

It doesn't happen in a few weeks.

If you want to make a living from freelance illustration within the next 12 months, you have to start introducing yourself to potential illustration clients.

That's the ONLY way.

But at a certain point, it becomes difficult to maintain your introduction email deadline of 20 emails a week.

All while simultaneously fulfilling a few thousand dollars worth of illustration projects each month.

But when you're getting started, introducing yourself to 20 potential illustration clients every month will ALWAYS be the ace of spades in your back pocket.

It's not necessarily hard work.

It's just a matter of putting in some relatively light work, day in and day out, for months at a time.

Easy in theory.

Hard in practice.

I'm passionate about this topic.

How do I find new illustration clients?

The best way to find new illustration clients is to ask your current clients for referrals. They may know people who are looking for an illustrator. You can also introduce yourself to the referrals your clients provide.

What's the best way to approach potential clients?

Some illustrators prefer to cold call or email potential clients, while others like to go to art and design events to meet people in person. Whichever method you choose, be sure to have a strong portfolio and pricing information ready to show potential clients.

How do I get my work done in front of new people?

There are a few ways to get your work in front of new people. You can submit it to online directories and portfolios, enter competitions, or give talks or workshops. You can also reach out to bloggers and journalists who cover the topics you illustrate and see if they're interested in featuring your work.

What's the best way to follow up with potential clients?

After you've made initial contact with a potential client, it's important to follow up. You can send them an email to check in and see if they have any questions about your work. If they're interested in working with you, be sure to send them a contract and get started on the project as soon as possible.

What should I do if a client isn't interested?

If a potential client isn't interested in working with you, don't take it personally. Thank them for their time and move on to the next lead. There are plenty of other clients out there who will be interested in your work.