7 Interesting illustration careers

Illustration careers refers to diverse job roles in the art field, offering a wide range of opportunities for creative expression and specialization.

In this article, we're going to explore the many avenues you can take in illustration careers.

From traditional roles like editorial illustrator and concept artists to more specialized gigs, there's a whole spectrum of opportunities waiting for you.

And let's not forget those unique illustration careers that blend art with fields like medicine and law.

Why It's Important to Know Your Illustration Career Options

Initially, when I was figuring out how to become an illustrator, I thought illustration careers were limited to children's publishing and specific roles in the animation industry.

Understanding the diversity in illustration careers is crucial, especially if you're just getting started.


Because when you're an illustrator, you're essentially running your own business. Your earning potential isn't just tied to a salary; it depends on how many clients you take on and the rates you set.

So, knowing your options can help you carve out a career path that not only satisfies your creative soul but also pays the bills.

Being an Illustrator

When I started as an illustrator I was a student in the Character Animation program at CalArts.

While a student I started working as a freelance storyboard artist. Mostly working with agencies an commercial production companies in Los Angeles and New York on commercials.

Then I started working in editorial illustration with my travel and wildlife sketches.

Many of my friends from college have gone on to work is so many different unique areas of illustration.

However, before we dive into the nitty-gritty details of specific jobs and industries, let's take a moment to understand what being an illustrator really means.

In this section, we'll explore the fundamental aspects of illustration careers, from the core responsibilities and skills to the diverse fields you can venture into.

We'll also weigh the pros and cons of freelancing versus traditional employment.

What is an Illustrator and What Do They Do?

An illustrator is a visual artist who brings ideas, stories, and concepts to life through their art.

Whether it's creating images for books, designing characters for video games, or crafting detailed medical diagrams, the work of an illustrator is all around us.

But it's not just about drawing or painting; it's about communicating. Illustrators use their skills to convey messages, evoke emotions, and solve problems.

Illustrators the behind-the-scenes magicians who make the visual world more engaging and understandable.

The job of an illustrator varies depending on the project. You might be working closely with authors, art directors, or clients to ensure your illustrations meet specific needs.

Or you could be your own boss, choosing projects that align with your interests.

Either way, the goal of illustration is the same: to create art that resonates with its intended audience.

Versatility: The Range of Fields and Industries Where Illustrators Can Work

The beauty of illustration careers is the sheer variety of fields you can enter.

You're not limited to one industry or type of work.

From advertising and publishing to fashion and film, the demand for skilled illustrators is widespread.

Ever thought about illustrating children's books? There's a market for that.

What about concept art for video games? Yep, that's a big one too.

And let's not forget the educational and scientific sectors, where illustrators create detailed diagrams and educational materials.

This versatility means you can tailor your career to fit your interests and skills.

Love drawing animals? Maybe natural history illustration is your calling.

Have a knack for technical details? Technical illustration could be your niche.

The point is, in the world of illustration careers, there's likely a place that feels just like home for your specific talents.

Freelance vs. Employment: The Pros and Cons of Working Independently or as Part of a Team

One of the biggest decisions you'll make in your illustration career is whether to work freelance or seek employment with a company.

Both have their merits.

Right off the bat, freelancing is the most common way to work as an illustrator. It's my preferred way because I can work on illustrations anywhere in the world if I'm traveling, I can take on as much or as little work as I feel like, and there is no roof to my earnings.

Freelancing offers the freedom to choose your projects and set your schedule. You're your own boss, and that means you can work in your pajamas if you want to.

But remember, with great freedom comes great responsibility. You'll need to manage your own business, which includes not just creating art but also handling client relations, invoicing, and marketing.

On the flip side, being employed by a company provides a level of stability and benefits that freelancing doesn't. You'll have a steady income, health insurance, and often, a team to collaborate with. But you might have less control over the types of projects you work on, and your creative freedom could be limited by the company's needs or style guidelines.

Also, if you work for a company, you'll technically be a “work-for-hire” which means all your ideas are copyrighted by your employer.

I recommend reading my article on illustration contracts to learn about the legal jargon you should know as an illustrator.

In the end, the choice between freelancing and employment in illustration careers is a personal one. It depends on your career goals, your lifestyle, and how you like to work.

The Traditional Roles in Illustration

Now that we've covered the basics of what it means to be an illustrator, let's go into some of the traditional roles in the field.

In this section, we'll look at three classic illustration careers: Editorial Ilustrator, Children's Book Illustrator, and Concept Artist.

We'll explore what each job entails and the kind of projects you might work on.

Editorial Illustrator

If you've ever been captivated by the illustrations in your favorite magazines or online articles, editorial illustration is for you!

Editorial Illustration is the art of creating images that accompany articles, essays, op-eds, and other forms of written content. These illustrations serve to enhance the text, providing visual context or emotional depth. But it's not just about making an article look pretty; it's about adding another layer of understanding for the reader.

In the context of illustration careers, Editorial Illustrators hold a unique position that blends artistry with journalism.

I enjoy working as an editorial illustrator because the illustration are small, fast, and often pay well.

Children's Book Illustrator

Children's book illustrators have the delightful job of creating the visual elements that accompany a story, often working closely with authors and publishers.

The role involves more than just drawing; it's about capturing the essence of the story and its characters in a way that resonates with young readers.

Children's book illustration is a competitive but rewarding field. With the rise of self-publishing and digital platforms, there are more avenues than ever for illustrators to showcase their work.

There is an increased amount of children's book opportunities by working with self-published authors, but they don't pay as well as working with a traditional publisher.

I've also noticed it's near impossible to negotiate any kind of licensing agreements with self-published authors.

Concept Artist

Concept artists are the visionaries who create the initial designs that set the tone for larger projects.

Whether it's a video game, a movie, or an advertising campaign, the concept artist sketches the preliminary ideas that the rest of the team will build upon.

This role involves a lot of collaboration, as concept artists often work closely with directors, animators, and other artists to refine their designs.

The role of a concept artist is crucial in industries like gaming, film, and advertising. As these industries continue to grow, the need for talented concept artists does too. It's a job that offers a lot of creative freedom, as you're often one of the first people to put pen to paper in the development of a new project.

Like I said, this is a really competitive role, especially in the animation industry. As just a few artists can tackle the pre-production art for a film in a few months. Meaning the positions don't last as long as a role such as an animator or storyboard artist.

Which brings me to roles in the animation industry…

Specialized Roles in the Animation Industry

Alright, now that we've explored some of the traditional roles in illustration careers, let's shift gears and focus on specialized roles within the animation industry.

In this section, we'll dive into the jobs of Character Designer and Storyboard Artist.

These roles are crucial in bringing animated projects to life, from movies and TV shows to video games.

Character Designer

Character Designers are the creative minds behind the characters in animated films, TV shows, and video games.

They're responsible for designing the visual appearance of each character, from their clothing and accessories to their facial expressions and body language. But it's not just about how a character looks; it's also about how they move and interact with their environment.

Character Designers work closely with animators and directors to ensure that each character fits seamlessly into the world they inhabit.

In the animation and video game industries, the role of a Character Designer is invaluable.

Characters are often the heart and soul of any animated project, and their design can significantly impact its success.

Storyboard Artist

Storyboard Artists are the individuals who create visual narratives that guide the production of animated projects.

They sketch out a series of scenes, known as storyboards, that serve as a blueprint for the animators, directors, and other team members. These storyboards outline the sequence of events, camera angles, and character movements, providing a clear vision of how the final project will look and feel.

Storyboard Artists play a critical role in the pre-visualization stage of animation and film projects. Their work helps the team understand the director's vision and plan out the production process more efficiently. It's like having a roadmap for the entire project, ensuring that everyone is on the same page from the get-go.

Niche Illustration Careers

So far, we've explored some of the more traditional and specialized roles in illustration careers.

But what if you're looking for something a bit more unique?

Something that blends your artistic skills with other fields like science or law?

Medical Illustrator

Medical Illustrators are a unique breed of artists who specialize in creating accurate and detailed illustrations for the medical and scientific communities.

This could range from illustrating complex surgical procedures for medical textbooks to creating 3D models of anatomical structures. It's a career that requires not only creative sensibilities but also a real understanding of biology, anatomy, and medical terminology.

What sets medical illustration apart from other illustration careers is the seamless blend of art and science.

You're not just drawing; you're also conveying complex medical information in a way that's easy to understand.

This makes the work of a Medical Illustrator invaluable in educational settings, research, and even patient care.

Courtroom Illustrator

Courtroom Illustrators are the artists who capture the scenes and key moments in court proceedings.

They sketch the likenesses of judges, attorneys, witnesses, and defendants, providing a visual record of the trial. This is especially important in high-profile cases where cameras are not allowed in the courtroom.

In the legal system, the work of a Courtroom Illustrator serves as an important public record. Their illustrations can be used by news organizations to inform the public about what's happening in a trial.

It's a role that carries a lot of responsibility, as the accuracy and fairness of the illustrations can impact public perception of the legal process.

Comic Artist

Comic Artists are the storytellers of the illustration world.

They use a combination of illustrations and text to create comic strips, comic books, or graphic novels. The job involves everything from conceptualizing characters and plots to laying out each panel. It's a form of storytelling that allows for a lot of creative freedom, whether you're working on a superhero saga or a slice-of-life comic.

Comic art offers a wide range of storytelling avenues. You can work independently, publishing your comics online or through self-publishing platforms.

Alternatively, you could work for a comic book publisher or even collaborate with writers to bring their stories to life.

Preparing for a Career in Illustration

In this section, we'll talk about the steps you can take to prepare for a career in illustration.

From the education you might need to the skills you should hone and the portfolio you'll want to build, we've got it all covered.

Education: What Kind of Training or Degrees Are Beneficial?

When it comes to education, there's no one-size-fits-all answer for illustration careers.

Some illustrators have formal training in the form of a Bachelor's or even a Master's degree in Fine Arts, Graphic Design, or a related field. These programs often provide a strong foundation in art theory, techniques, and software tools.

However, a degree isn't the only path.

Many successful illustrators are self-taught, learning through online courses, workshops, and good old-fashioned practice.

The key takeaway here is that while formal education can be beneficial, it's not the end-all-be-all. What matters most is your skill level, your dedication to the craft, and your ability to continuously learn and adapt.

Skillsets: The Technical and Soft Skills That Are Crucial in This Field

In illustration careers, you'll need a mix of technical and soft skills to succeed. On the technical side, proficiency in drawing is a given, but you'll also want to be comfortable with digital art software like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop.

Depending on your niche, you might also need specialized skills, like 3D modeling or animation software.

Soft skills are just as important.

Communication is key, especially if you're working with clients or as part of a team. Time management is another crucial skill, particularly for freelancers who have to juggle multiple projects.

And let's not forget creativity—the ability to think outside the box and come up with unique solutions is invaluable in this field.

The Importance of Building a Strong Portfolio

Your portfolio is your calling card in the world of illustration careers.

It's the tangible proof of your skills and creativity, showcasing your best work to potential clients or employers. It should be well-organized, up-to-date, and tailored to the kind of work you're seeking.

A strong portfolio not only displays your technical skills but also your versatility and style.

It should include a variety of projects that demonstrate your range as an illustrator.

Basically, when a potential illustration client looks at your portfolio they should know exactly what style of illustration they'll get when they hire you.

Consistency in style is probably the most important factor in your portfolio.

Ask yourself…

If 10 of the pieces in your illustration portfolio were dumped in a pile of art done by other artists, could a complete stranger separate your art from the rest?

And remember, quality trumps quantity. It's better to have a smaller portfolio of exceptional work than a large one filled with mediocre pieces.

Final Thoughts

If you're considering a career in illustration, I have one piece of advice for you: Go for it!

The world of illustration is as diverse as it is rewarding, offering a plethora of opportunities.

Sure, it'll require hard work, dedication, and a willingness to keep learning, but the payoff can be immensely fulfilling.

Remember, your unique style and perspective are your greatest assets.

Unlike many other technically creative fields like animation and graphic design, people will be coming to you for YOUR style. Which, if you've done the work, will be completely free of competition.

And most importantly, don't stop drawing, learning, and growing.

The field of illustration is ever-evolving, and there's always room for fresh, new talent.