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Want to be an illustrator? Read this first

Illustration is a romantic career path but design student Nicole Avery is wondering what she’s really in for. Here, she reflects on what might lie ahead.

nicole avery illustrator idealogState of the industry

It is no secret that illustration is an extremely competitive industry, so much so that there are warning signs attached to every article I have read about entering the industry. It is also widely discussed that current trends are against the industry with a steady decline in print material and a movement towards photography and stock illustration. This may suggest the industry is in poor shape but despite the very apparent pessimism, this rut offers a rather fantastic opportunity called innovation and reinvention. Isn’t that something to get excited about?

There is a lot to be said about traditional techniques and my illustrative style would generally put me in the pencil-pushing bucket where all of the pessimists get to hang out, but I do believe no matter the style there are few things that old hand and wannabe illustrators alike need to embrace: the digital world, new techniques and the increasingly disposable nature of stylistic trends.

Digital revolution

Publishing is embracing the digital age and books are now one of the few items that people still have a sentimental connection to but even these come in a digital format now.  The news is now more likely to be read online, as are your favourite magazines or newsletters.

Yes, this means there are far fewer opportunities to illustrate for printed media but that surely does not mean that as a whole your work opportunities are fewer, you just need to embrace that change and find ways to adapt your style. Digital styling is currently favouring flat, minimal design resulting in simple vector illustrations, logos, icons etc, so if this trend does not suit your illustration style it could be a good thing! Beautiful illustrations coupled with beautifully designed websites, e-books, e-mags etc are going to stand out from the crowd.

Stock imagery is here to stay

Ok, so this trend is not going anywhere soon and if anything is only going to become a whole lot more popular. With the immediate access and ever increasing quality of stock imagery why wouldn’t a potential client go for the ‘right now’ option over the bespoke one that requires a bigger budget, longer lead times and the need to brief? It’s not what any designer (no matter how much they use it) or illustrator probably wants to acknowledge but it does meet the needs of our ‘right now’ lifestyle.

What are we to do about this? Get better! Stock is just that and to become a brand you need to stand apart from and be better than stock standard.


The rise in online freelance websites pits illustrators from all over the world against each other to compete for the same job. This is a really great opportunity for those who are skilled and working from countries with lower level economies as they can charge significantly lower rates in comparison to most other countries. So low in fact that it would be impossible for a freelancer in, say, Sydney or New York to make a living charging the same rates.

What can be done about this? The outsourcing sites are always going to exist; ideally there could be a universal hourly rate but I don’t have much faith in that solving the issue either. We can also hope that more people in corporations see the value in commissioning local illustrators. How can that happen? Build your brand; give your clients the best work, service and experience, one that is worth paying you the big bucks for.

Survival skills

And here I was thinking all you needed was some natural skill and a few tools of the trade…. Far from it.

Yes, natural skill is going to get you some of the way but you need to be able to diversify, especially as someone who is not yet established. You need to be able to finish all of your own art, know how to make it print ready, digital ready and marketable.

You need to be well versed in all of the suites. Even if you tend to be biased towards one, experimenting in all the others may lead to great discoveries and progression in your own style. A great quality portfolio is also a necessity.

Good worth ethic should be listed as a skill in any job I think, along with good customer/client service. No matter how good your finished work is, if you are hard to work with, don’t deliver on time and are just a general pain in the ass you are not going to get any work. People will advise against hiring you rather than recommending you, and when starting out in any client/customer industry that recommendation could make or break you.

Finally, you need ambition, again a universal ingredient for success. This industry seems a hard one to crack so becoming a highly sought after illustrator is not going to happen by posting a few sketches on Instagram unless you are in fact already semi-famous. Nearly every blog, interview or report I have read on this topic has highlighted what a challenge it is to get a break. Illustration agencies are trending as a platform for new artists so I am now bracing myself for the hunt for a great agent…

In conclusion

A few takeaways:

  • Ambition is the key, giving up is not an option
  • The industry is driven by trends, both stylistically and technically
  • There is huge scope for reinvention 
  • With the speed at which the digital landscape changes, keeping your digital skills sharp is vital
  • Integrity is one quality all of the top illustrators can be proud of; all of my favourite illustrators stay genuine regardless of the techniques or mediums used to produce their work.

I have a long way to go before I can claim the title of successful illustrator, but hopefully one day I will find myself looking back at this from my cute home/illustration studio with a coffee and be proud that I have made it.

Nicole Avery is a Sydney-based Illustrator, graphic design student and creative consultant for Foxtel. See behance.net/NikkiAvery

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