Becoming a Professional Illustrator: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of an illustrator career? Get real job duties, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming an illustrator is right for you.
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Becoming a Professional Illustrator: Pros and Cons

As a professional illustrator, you'll create pictures and scenes to tell stories with your art. You can learn some of the ups and downs to becoming a professional illustrator by reading below.

Pros of Becoming an Illustrator
Higher-than-average mean wages ($51,120 as of 2014)*
Minimal preparation requirements (jobs available with high school diploma and training)*
Self-employment opportunities allow you to set your own work hours*
Work available in multiple industries (motion picture, government, sports and medical industries)*

Cons of Becoming an Illustrator
Slower-than-average growth (4% increase in employment from 2012-2022)*
Sporadic work schedules (tight deadlines and overtime in busy periods)*
Long-term on-the-job training may be necessary*
May have to hold another job to compensate for slow periods of work*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Employed to work on publications, like magazines and books, illustrators create pictorial representations of ideas, characters, stories or settings. Your artwork might be used in print and electronic media for entertainment or scientific purposes. Many professional illustrators work by hand and upload images to a computer. Other illustrators use tablets and other technology to create artwork onto a computer.

Your work duties can change a little bit depending on the industry you're working in. For example, as a medical illustrator, you would be required to create models, animations and drawings of procedures and anatomy. Character illustrators may create the look and feel of characters for video games.

Salary Information

In May 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the wages for fine artists, like illustrators, ranged from $18,260-$92,400. This resulted in average hourly wages of around $24 for illustrators. The median wage was around $43,000. The states that paid illustrators the highest salary on average included New York, Connecticut, California, Arizona and Washington.

Education Requirements

If you possess the necessary skills to draw well, then you don't technically need a formal education. However, many people use formal education, such as a certificate, associate's, bachelor's or master's degree, to enhance their skills and build their portfolios. Careers in medical or scientific illustration require a bachelor's or master's degree combining human anatomy and illustration techniques. Skills important to illustrators include:

  • Creativity
  • Manual dexterity
  • Customer service skills

What Are Employers Looking For?

Employers are interested in illustrators with proven skills that can meet specific deadlines. Illustrators with a formal education in the field may be preferred. Below are some real job postings that were open during April 2012:

  • A retail store in New Jersey is seeking an illustrator with free-hand drawing experience. The employer requires a highly organized individual with a portfolio demonstrating whimsical and classical drawings. This employer prefers a bachelor's degree.
  • In Georgia, a video game company wants a professional illustrator with experience in character design. Applicants must possess experience in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.
  • A California freelance position is available in an educational materials company for professional illustrators that can meet deadlines. Prospective employees must have at least two years of professional experience.

How to Stand Out as a Professional Illustrator

Your illustration style is what can set you apart from other illustrators. There are many styles of art ranging from classical to impressionism. You can adapt one of these styles as your own or try to combine various illustration techniques to form your own style. Your portfolio is the biggest tool available to help you stand out from other illustrators. Portfolios are important in highlighting your talents in specific areas, such as publication, editorial, advertising and corporate markets. Additionally, though formal education isn't a requirement for some positions, completing a degree program in illustration can enhance your skills in cartooning, children's illustration, animation and publication.

Alternative Occupational Paths


If you're interested in preserving and displaying art instead of creating it, consider a career as a curator. Curators oversee the management of museums. In addition to your administrative tasks, you might also research and find new pieces of art for your gallery. As part of your job, you'll promote your gallery to attract visitors and hold fundraising opportunities. To become a curator, you must complete a master's or a doctoral degree program. In May 2011, the BLS reported that curators averaged around $54,000, and the field is projected to grow 16% from 2010-2020.

Art Director

If you want to oversee a team of artists instead of creating art, you can look into being an art director. In this occupation, you have the chance to manage a creative team of illustrators, designers and other artists. You often work in fields, such as advertising, television, film or video games. You're normally involved in all aspects of a project like budgeting, marketing and design. Though the field is projected to grow only 9% from 2010-2020, you could earn around $96,000, as of May 2011, with a bachelor's degree and 1-5 years of experience.

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