My First-hand Perspective on How to Become an Illustrator

twine thumbnail how to become an illustrator

Before we get into the basic guideline of how to become an illustrator, let me give you a little backstory on myself:

Hi! My name’s Hayden. I’m a freelance illustrator from Hampshire, United Kingdom, and have been freelancing as an illustrator for over 5 years.

I know first-hand how hard it is to get into the industry, as well as what knowledge was key in me succeeding as an illustrator; whether that’s building my portfolio, increasing my client base, or working with deadlines.

Whether you’re a budding illustrator, or keen to become one, you’re gonna want to know more about this fascinating creative discipline.

So, without ado, here’s every little bit of my knowledge – top tactics to succeed, the best and worst bits about the job, and of course, how to deal with clients.

Let’s go!

Why do you want to become an illustrator?

It’s an important question to ask yourself before diving head-first into the self-employed artist route. Let me give you my own reasoning:

I’ve been passionate about art since a very early age. Before I knew it, I was picking up a pencil, and drawing my entire infant school (which was printed onto mugs and given out to members of staff, FYI…). You could say that I was sort of born to be creative.

I then went on to study art and design at college – during the latter part of these years, I had to make a choice. It was either the Fine Art or Illustration route. I loved these two disciplines, so it was a hard choice.

The deciding vote occurred when 2 older students exhibited their illustration work – to say I was impressed was a total understatement. I finally got a taste of what illustration had to offer, and what I could do if I pursued this same path.

Falmouth University, in Cornwall, was where my illustration dreams really took place. I learned from brilliant tutors, worked on my illustration style, and built out my portfolio to something incredibly impressive (if I do say so myself).

Years later, here I am, and I’ve never been more excited about being an illustrator.

Every day, I’m creating new things and exploring the world of illustration, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. The passion and desire from an early age has made me determined to be the best illustrator I can be.

It’s also made me realize that with work, ANYONE can make a name for themselves, be their own boss, and keep producing work that makes them happy.

So, before asking yourself how to become an illustrator – first ask yourself, why?

Work on your portfolio

For artists, everything starts with your portfolio.

Your illustration work (online and offline), should entice clients to hire you. If you work hard on your portfolio – featuring tons of diverse and interesting projects that truly represent the range of your skillset – you’ll get noticed. In the current climate, artistic freelancers are starting to become a dime a dozen: the last thing you want to do is show up with a lack-luster portfolio.

What you want is a portfolio that clients just can’t refuse – something that drops jaws, turn heads, and stops traffic (well, maybe not that last one).

Your portfolio is your ultimate weapon to get hired, and essentially your first step to becoming a fully-fledged illustrator. Refine your style and make it your own, build your portfolio which you’re proud to show to the world. Do all this, and you will be rewarded.

Let’s be honest – you might not have a world-class portfolio to begin with, or even any portfolio at all. That’s okay, don’t panic! It’s never too late to start collating your work together – if you’re as artistic as me, you’ll have tons of material lying around, just waiting to be displayed.

Get out there

Even though the portfolio is a huge factor in whether you’ll get hired, believe it or not, it’s not the only factor. As the old saying rings true – “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know“.

You can have an amazing illustrative portfolio, but if you don’t reach out to others and stick to your corner, no one will know who you are. Networking, shaking (sometimes metaphorical) hands, joining communities, are all vital steps in strengthening your networking lifeline. As children, we’re often encouraged to get out there and make friends – this is me, being your metaphorical parent, doing that now.

Here are the easiest ways to network:

  • Social Media – I mean, this is the biggest one. If you don’t already use the titan of portfolios that is Instagram, you should be. Do it now. Seriously.
  • Networking events – sign up to as many communities as possible, and check out their events. You’d be surprised at how many like-minded people there are out there, and it’s a great confidence booster to be surrounded by your own pack!
  • Conferences – these can often be few and far between, and also strike fear into the hearts of those less business established. It’s okay, don’t worry – everyone had to start somehwere. Do your research and find out which conferences would benefit your practice most.

Top tip: get connected with Art Directors. No, seriously. These are the people that commission, sometimes on great scales too, so make it your priority to get to know these people.

Another thing you should start considering is a website.

Your website should be just as eye-catching as your portfolio, as it can help bring in any stragglers who land on your page through handy-SEO. It can also be a great booster for clients, as any freelance illustrator with a decent website will probably be deemed more dependable than someone off-the-grid.

A well-designed and well-coded website portfolio is a must. As a disclaimer, I would advise a clean-looking website, with plenty of whitespaces to break up your work. Remove any gimmicks or overly-advertised things – remember, this is supposed to be an extension of your portfolio, not an eCommerce platform – and feature good content that introduces others to you.

Making a (sustainable) living

Initially, any projects I received came entirely through my connections with others – hence why networking is so vital.

Through more and more of these connections, along with any commercial projects that I kept a tab on, eventually, things started happening. Of course, illustration was part-time while I found my feet – but as soon as you receive enough income to cover your personal and business expenses, things start to get exciting.

I got to work with independent magazines (such as The Clerkenwell Post and Psyched 4 Sport magazine), helping me make even more valuable connections and clients. Then, I bagged a commission with UKScouts which were so successful that it caused my client base to bloom. Sometimes, it can really only take one good project.

Additional income has been made in the form of selling psychical products, i.e art prints, canvas art, and greetings cards (which as an illustrator I can create myself – which is great). The eCommerce market is a total steal for any illustrator looking to find themselves, so I would 100% recommend looking at your options for selling your wares.

Anyway – this isn’t about me and all my achievements, this is a chance to share insights into what a career in illustration really has to offer. I’ve certainly not made it yet, as there’s always room for improvement, but to say I started off as a little kid with a dream is super encouraging.

The best parts about being an Illustrator

Sounds cliche, something I can never get enough of about being an illustrator is getting paid to do something I love.

I mean, I’ll be honest: with freelancing, I often work unsocial hours to finish a job and have to multi-task 101 other challenges coming my way.

But, it’s totally worth it. I’m passionate about the world of illustration, and in order to succeed as your own illustrator, you need to have that passion as well.

The thing is, I don’t consider what I do as work. This is why I often over-work, and get called a “workaholic” – I can’t help it, I get lost in the world of creation! Being my own boss and working when I like is a luxury that I am thankful for every day. Top that off with the ability to be creative, and get paid for it, well it sounds like a dream come true.

The biggest challenges of being an Illustrator

Unfortunately, clients probably fall into this category. I understand that’s a pretty vague statement, so let me clarify:

For freelancers of any discipline, commissions can be quite sporadic. This isn’t the same for everyone, as there are certain illustrators out there that are constantly in demand (or appear that way), but for most of us, we have to deal with the dry months.

Going for long periods without any work can lead you to drown in self-doubt. This is then made even harder, if you don’t have the right mindset for example, or are running on next to no savings.

It’s not easy when this happens, and that’s why I believe starting out as a freelance illustrator should be coupled with a part-time or full-time job. Having that paycheque every month certainly takes the pressure off whether you’re going to get food on the table.

And don’t feel guilty about it either! You’re no “less of a freelancer” just because you need that financial support system. Over 10.5 million freelancers define themselves as part-time, and have needed to acquire a different method of working in order to support their dreams. So, you’re in good company! If you work hard you can gradually give these roles up anyway, or cut your hours to focus on being an illustrator full-time.

Having self-belief and a positive mindset when times get tough is crucial for anyone wanting to become an illustrator.

Life-changing resources

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a ton of self-help books and podcasts surrounding you at all times.

What can I say – I’m addicted to learning and improving on what the Earth gave me! My current favorite past-time is to listen to a podcast while I’m running, getting my daily dose of exercise, and enlightening my mind with new information: two birds, one stone.

I don’t learn from the creativity industry alone, I listen, read and learn from a variety of different sources. This, I believe, is one of the key components of being a well-rounded, open-minded creative. Being an illustrator will often mean you wear many hats: you’re an accountant one day, an administrator the next, website designer the other day, you name it – you have to do it!

So why not broaden your horizon and learn something new? Here are my Top 5 Recommendations:

How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  • You may think that I don’t have any friends for revealing this self-help book, but it’s such a valuable read. To be a freelance illustrator you have to market yourself on a daily basis and make connections. This book offers advice on not only how to deal with people, but also how to influence them so they work with you (such a crucial skill), and like you. This book comes highly recommended.
Pat Flynn, from Smart Passive Income
  • This guy is a legend. I was introduced to Pat by my older brother roughly 6 years ago, and I have been an avid fan ever since. He’s down to earth, relatable, and gives the best content on business, marketing and passive income. He has a brilliant podcast, and offers world class tips to improve your business. 
Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter by James Gurney
  • Recommended to me whilst at University, this book gives a detailed look on how colour works. Even though you may think it’s only for realist painters, I believe it can be helpful for anyone in the creative industry. An excellent read, and I have it on my desk so I can reach it easily! Find the book here.
It’s Nice That
  • A website, blog, and resource that has been running for a number of years. This multi-faceted media form gives the latest news, inspiration and content within the world of art, design and illustration. I’m a big fan of their work, and love the content that they publish.
Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton
  • I believe design plays a really important part in being an illustrator, as you’re not always creating illustrations. This book gives amazing insight and tips to improve your typography skills, which I study when I receive a new typographic illustration commission. You can also view the whole book for free here.

Conclusion

To conclude – this was my take on how to become an illustrator.

As you can see, it’s full of twists and turns, and plenty of work, but it’s also a goldmine of excitement and creativity. If you only take one thing away from this blog post – is the importance of a positive mindset. You are the only person that can achieve the things you want – get out there and smash it!


Ready to get hired? At Twine, we have dozens of top-quality jobs being posted each and every day. From design to marketing, development to copywriting – there’s a job ready for your skills. Join the marketplace of creative talent here.

Haydn Symons

Haydn Symons is a freelance illustrator, bringing together traditional and digital elements to form illustrations. Haydn has built a portfolio and illustration style that is vibrant, friendly, and unique.
Having worked with clients such as UKScouts, The Clerkenwell Post, and even the University of Northampton, Haydn is a well-established artist in the field.