What Are Illustrators & What Do They Do? 🖼️

  • Design & Creative
Contra Tips
· 8 min read

Learn what illustrators are, their roles and responsibilities, and how to become one. Also, discover the skills you need to become a successful Independent.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” and in the illustration world, this adage comes alive with vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and compelling narratives. Professionals in this niche weave tales without uttering a syllable, guiding us through stories, emotions, and ideas with only their artwork.

In this guide, we’ll explain what illustrators are, what they do, and how to become one. We’ll also take a look at the differences between illustrators and graphic designers.



What are illustrators? 🖌️

Illustrators are creative Independents who bring ideas, stories, and concepts to life through visual storytelling. They use artistic skills to create captivating visuals that enhance and complement written content, making it more engaging and memorable.

These professionals work across various mediums, including books, magazines, advertisements, and websites. Their illustrations can range from intricate hand-drawn designs to digital artworks, depending on their preferred tools and techniques.

What do illustrators do? 🧐

Illustrators have a multifaceted role that extends beyond simply drawing pictures. Here are their key responsibilities:

  • Conceptualization: Before putting pen to paper, illustrators collaborate with authors, editors, or clients to understand the core message or concept and translate it into visual representation. This involves brainstorming and sketching ideas.
  • Visual storytelling: Illustrators are storytellers with images. They craft visuals that convey narratives, emotions, and ideas, adding depth and resonance to stories, articles, or marketing campaigns.
  • Medium mastery: Illustrators are skilled in various mediums, such as watercolors, digital tools, or pen and ink. They choose the medium that best suits the project’s requirements.
  • Digital art creation: Many illustrators use digital platforms like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or Procreate to create or enhance their artwork, offering versatility and precision.
  • Research: To depict concepts accurately, illustrators often research the subject matter thoroughly. This could involve studying historical costumes, animal anatomy, or architectural details.
  • Feedback incorporation and revisions: They’re open to feedback and revisions, working closely with clients or art directors to ensure the final illustration aligns with the vision.
  • Self-promotion: Freelance illustrators often need to promote their work and maintain an online portfolio. Building a personal brand and networking are important aspects of the job.

What are the different types of illustrators? 🎨 

Illustration is a diverse field with various specializations. Here are seven types of illustrators, each with its unique focus:

Children's book illustrators 📚

These artists specialize in creating enchanting visuals for children's books. They craft whimsical characters and vibrant scenes that captivate young readers, often using bright colors and playful styles.

Medical illustrators 🩺

Precision is key for medical illustrators. They produce detailed, scientifically accurate illustrations for textbooks, articles, and educational materials, helping explain complex medical concepts to students and patients. 

Fashion illustrators 👗

Fashion illustrators bring couture to life. They sketch clothing designs, emphasizing fabric texture, drapery, and fashion trends. Their work is commonly seen in fashion magazines and clothing catalogs.

Editorial illustrators ✍️

Working for newspapers, magazines, and online publications, editorial illustrators create visual commentary or enhance articles. They use imagery to convey ideas, opinions, and emotions.

Technical illustrators 🧑‍💻

Technical illustrators excel at simplifying difficult concepts. They produce clear, detailed diagrams and schematics in manuals, textbooks, and product documentation.

Concept artists 📽️

Concept artists are essential in the entertainment and gaming industries. They visualize characters, creatures, and environments, helping shape the visual direction of movies, video games, and animation.

Scientific illustrators 🔭

Scientific illustrators combine art and science, accurately depicting plants, animals, and geological formations. Their work is used in textbooks, research papers, and museums to educate and inform.

What skills do illustrators need to be successful? 📝

Illustrators bridge the gap between imagination and reality through their work, adding depth and dimension to narratives. Here are a few essential skills they need to excel in their careers:

  • Artistic proficiency: Illustrators must have strong drawing and artistic skills. This includes a deep understanding of anatomy, perspective, composition, and the ability to work with various mediums.
  • Creative imagination: Imagination is the illustrator's playground. Being able to conjure unique and imaginative concepts is crucial for creating engaging visuals.
  • Adaptability: In today's digital age, illustrators can draw digitally, and many do. Proficiency with digital tools like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and Procreate helps them design with ease.
  • Attention to detail: Precision and attention to detail are paramount. Whether capturing the intricacies of a character’s expression or the fine details of a technical illustration, small details can make a big difference.
  • Communication: Illustrators often collaborate with authors, clients, or art directors. They should be able to communicate effectively to understand projects and the client’s vision.
  • Business acumen: Understanding the business side — including marketing, client relations, and basic finance — is essential especially for Independents to carve a successful niche in the competitive market.

How to become an illustrator: 6 easy steps 🪜

Stepping into illustration demands more than just artistic flair –– it requires dedication, continuous learning, and strategic planning. For budding illustrators or those curious about the field, here's a roadmap to help you navigate your way from novice to pro:

1. Hone your skills ✨

Begin by working on your artistic skills. Practice drawing regularly, experiment with different styles and techniques, and refine your craft. Take art classes or workshops to learn new skills and improve existing ones.

2. Choose your niche 🔍

Decide your preferred illustration niche. It could be children's books, editorials, fashion, or any other area that excites you. Specializing can help you stand out in a competitive field.

3. Build an illustration portfolio 🗃️

An illustration portfolio is your calling card. Create a collection of your best work that showcases your style and versatility. Include various pieces that demonstrate your range and abilities.

4. Gain education and training 📚

Consider formal education in art or illustration if it aligns with your goals. While not mandatory, it can provide valuable skills and networking opportunities. Alternatively, self-learning through online courses and resources is also a viable route.

5. Network and self-promote 🕸️

Networking is essential. Attend art events, join online communities, and engage with fellow artists and potential clients. Establish a strong online presence by sharing your work on social media and creating a professional website.

6. Grab work opportunities 💻

Start seeking freelance gigs, internships, or entry-level positions in your chosen field. Gain experience, build your reputation, and gradually take on more complex projects as your skills and portfolio grow.

Tips for up-and-coming illustrators 🤩

Now that you know how to become an illustrator, let’s explore the journey to becoming a successful illustrator. Here are four practical tips to help you thrive:

  • Never stop learning: The creative world is constantly evolving. Stay curious and keep learning new techniques and trends. Enroll in courses, attend workshops, and experiment with different styles to expand your skill set.
  • Seek feedback: Remember, constructive criticism is gold. Seek feedback from peers and mentors, as it can help you grow as an artist. Use it as a tool for improvement rather than taking it personally.
  • Meet deadlines religiously: Sending projects to clients on time is crucial in the professional world. Develop excellent time management skills to ensure you consistently deliver high-quality work.
  • Stay true to your style: While being adaptable is important, don't lose sight of your unique style. Your distinct artistic voice is what sets you apart from others. Embrace it, nurture it, and let it shine through your work.

Illustrators vs. graphic designers: The key differences 🔑 

It’s easy to confuse illustrations and graphic designing, considering both involve creativity, art, and craft. But both professions differ, and so do the roles of illustrators and graphic designers.

Illustrators are visual storytellers who bring concepts to life through imagery. They excel in creating illustrations, characters, and visuals that enhance narratives. They’re ideal for businesses seeking captivating, story-driven content.

Graphic designers, on the other hand, specialize in powering up a brand. They craft the overall look and feel of brands, ensuring consistency across various materials. They design logos, brochures, and advertisements, making them a perfect choice for businesses aiming to establish a strong and cohesive brand identity.

Begin your journey with Contra 🥰

Illustrators are unique storytellers weaving tales through visuals. If you're an illustrator ready to share your stories on a broader canvas, Contra awaits you. Join our platform, curate your portfolio, and promote your Independent services without the burden of commissions. And for businesses in search of compelling visuals that resonate, look no further. Dive into Contra's diverse pool of talented illustrators, graphic designers, web designers, and more today, and discover the perfect artist to bring your vision to life.

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