Becoming a Book Illustrator: Job Description & Salary Info

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Learn about a book illustrator's job description, salary and education requirements. Get straight talk about the pros and cons of a career as a book illustrator.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Book Illustrator

An illustrator may draw images by hand or use a computer, or combine the two skill sets, to supplement print data in a large range of texts. Read on to learn about the pros and cons of a career as a book illustrator.

Pros of a Career as a Book Illustrator
Potentially good salary (the majority of illustrators earned between $24,000 and $72,000 per year)**
Self-employed illustrators may be selective about which projects they take on*
A high school diploma may be sufficient for some jobs*
For computer-based illustrators, demand may increase due to websites and electronic magazines*

Cons of a Career as a Book Illustrator
Slower than average growth is expected in the field (four percent between 2012 and 2022)*
Looming deadlines and the need to search for projects can be stressful for self-employed book illustrators*
The unpredictability of income may require one to have a second job*
Illustrators may see hiring drop as print media declines*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **

Essential Career Information

Job Description

An illustrator draws, by hand or with the use of a computer, images that accompany text in a variety of books. In this way, the artist helps to communicate the message of the text. An illustrator may work for a company as a staff member, but it's more common for a book illustrator to work on a freelance basis. Some artists may choose to specialize in areas such as medical illustration, technical illustration, sketch art or cartoon art.

Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not report salary information specifically for illustrators, since they fall under the category of fine artists, which includes painters and sculptors as well. However, reported that as of July 2015, the majority of illustrators made between $24,000 and $72,000 per year. They also reported that most technical illustrators made between $31,000 and $66,000 annually, and the majority of medical illustrators earned between $42,000 and $69,000. The BLS did report that fine artists were expected to see slower-than-average employment growth of about four percent in the 2012-2022 decade. The BLS also mentioned that those illustrators with computer skills were expected to fare better in the job market due to the increase in websites and electronic magazines.

Career Requirements

The BLS notes that there are no special educational requirements for fine artists. These professionals typically need a high school diploma. There are post-secondary schools that offer certificates in illustration, which may help you gain employment. Furthermore, you may earn a bachelor's or a master's degree in fine art, which will help you to build a portfolio to show potential employers.

For those illustrators who choose to specialize, further education may be necessary. For example, most medical illustrators attend an accredited graduate degree program that takes about two years to complete. In these programs, they take basic science, anatomy, physiology and embryology courses as well as traditional drawing and computer animation courses.

Career Skills

An illustrator must have some skill in drawing or design and be able to work within the restrictions that deadlines impose. With the prevalence of technology, illustrators must have skill, or at least experience with computer programs like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. An illustrator must also be motivated and able to work independently of others. These individuals must also be able to interpret the text and create drawings and graphics that convey the information the text presents.

What Are Employers Looking For?

A survey of available book illustration job postings in May 2012 revealed that employers often seek freelance book illustrators. They prefer that candidates have experience and some formal education in illustration or design. The following is a survey of job openings available in May 2012:

  • A Virginia children's book publisher seeks a freelance illustrator with skill in computer programs in the Adobe product family and illustration. The candidate may be a student or recent graduate with a portfolio of illustration and graphic design projects. This individual will be expected to work with others and meet strict deadlines.
  • A California company seeks a freelance illustrator to illustrate educational materials and product packaging. This employer requires that applicants sketch a blue line and translate sketches into vector artwork. Ideal candidates will be self-starters with a sense of ownership and the ability to adapt to change. This person will work with others to make sure that illustration projects fit the original idea. The employer will test an applicant's skills as part of the hiring process. This person must have two years of experience and a digital portfolio.
  • A Washington, D.C., company seeks an illustrator to create information graphics and diagrams for a book proposal. The company would like to see diagrams and sketches in charcoal, pencil or pen and ink; they're looking for images that are not cartoon-ish. This individual must be able to work with deadlines, submit an online portfolio and professional reference as part of the application package.

Alternative Career Options


If you don't want to work as an illustrator but are interested in a creative career, you may consider a career as a photographer. These individuals work in studios, for companies or are self-employed as freelancers. The BLS notes that a high school diploma is sufficient for this career, but many schools offer degrees and certificates in photography that may help you to jumpstart your career. In a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography program, you'll study the use of lighting and the history of photography as well as create a professional portfolio. You'll have the opportunity to complete a professional internship as well.

The field of photography was expected to grow about as fast as average, with 13% growth between 2010 and 2020. In May 2011, there were 54,410 professional photographers working in the United States. These individuals had a median annual wage between $17,000 and $66,000 annually.

Graphic Designer

If you're great with computers and are interested in a career in graphic design, you'll need to continue your education and earn a bachelor's degree. You'll take courses in 2-D and 3-D design, design for graphics and advertising. You'll also take studio courses where you'll learn about the use of color and graphics for the web. Additionally, you'll create projects to include in a professional portfolio. This career was projected to grow 13% between 2010 and 2020, with another 37,300 jobs expected to be added to the field. There were 191,550 graphic designers working in the U.S. in May 2011, and the majority of those individuals earned between $26,000 and $77,000 annually.

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