Become a Professional Illustrator

If your goal is to become a professional illustrator, particularly of children's books, you’ll need to map out a plan of action. That map should include the following:

  • Find out what types of children’s books are selling these days.
  • Research what editors are looking for.
  • Begin building your portfolio.
  • Figure out how to tailor your submissions to different publishers, based on their style.

One of the most important questions you need to ask yourself before embarking on this career is: “How good am I? Is my work really good enough?” The most objective and honest critics – and the best ones to ask – are children. After all, they’re the ones who would eventually be your audience, right?

Tips for Freelance Illustrators

The following tips are important for anyone who is considering becoming a freelance professional illustrator:

  • Market continually, even when you don’t need the work. This will help ensure that you have a steady work (and income) flow.
  • Produce quality work. When mistakes are made, work hard to correct problems in order to maintain a good working relationship with clients and customers.
  • Embrace variety. If you narrow your focus too much (namely, if you have only one or two clients), you risk hurting your business should you lose even one of those clients.
  • Learn to accept criticism. Constructive criticism will help you avoid mistakes in the future. Be open to learning from your experiences – even the negative ones.

Do Your Homework

Top professional illustrators didn’t become successful overnight. They did their homework and were persistent with their efforts. Illustrator jobs are out there; you just need to know where to look.

If you love to draw and are willing to discipline yourself to learn the skills you need to have, you’ll have a good chance of finding work as an illustrator.

Books aren’t the only medium you’ll have access to as an illustrator. Some illustrators start out drawing pictures for greeting cards, calendars, stationery, and even textiles.

These days, you also need to become familiar with a variety of software programs, such as Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat (all of which are Adobe). Layout programs such as InDesign (the successor to Adobe’s PageMaker) are great tools for book cover illustrators, and can sometimes be used to help designers work through initial drafts of larger pieces of artwork.

Finding Tips for Illustrators

Tips for illustrators can be found in a variety of places on the Web. These include online tutorials for different programs (such as,, Probably the most important thing you can do as an aspiring illustrator, though, is to immerse yourself in the world of children’s books. Visit your local public library and talk to the children’s librarian. Find out which books are the ones children are always checking out. Then look carefully at the drawings in those books to figure out how they work together with the text.

Another suggestion: Look up past winners of the Caldecott Medal – the annual award given to top illustrators of children’s books. You can check them out online here.

Resources for Illustrators

An excellent place to look for inspiration is Susan E. Meyer’s book: A Treasury of the Great Children’s Book Illustrators, published in 1987 by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.

Thirteen children’s book illustrators are featured in this book, complete with full-page color plates of illustrations for each artist. The illustrators featured there include: Sir John Tenniel, Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Rackham, and Howard Pyle.

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