Techniques and Tips

The Illustrators Market: A Professionals Insights Into the Illustration Industry

The Illustrators Market: A Professionals Insights Into the Illustration Industry

Since 1975, Artist’s Graphic Designer’s Market has been a must-have reference guide for emerging artists who want to establish a successful career in fine art, illustration, cartooning or graphic design. Beyond up-to-date contact and submission information for more than 1,100 art markets, AGDM includes informative articles and interviews with successful artists and art buyers. Read on for a 2011 AGDM article by Chris Gall, an illustrator and author from Tucson, Arizona. Also, be sure to check out, the new online version of AGDM—you can try it for free with the 7-day risk-free trial.

The Illustrator’s Market
A Professional’s Insights Into the Illustration Industry

by Chris Gall

Once limited to the role of accompanying text to aid in the sale of products, commercial illustration’s function has expanded to include providing editorial commentary, defining business identities, and accompanying text as an equally important partner in expressing ideas. Illustration has grown from being simply supportive to being a statement unto itself.

The decline of printed matter paired with the rise of the digital age and the proliferation of stock collections has put the illustration world in flux. Only a few years ago a large company’s annual report might have offered the opportunity for hundreds of illustrations. Today, that same report might exist only in digital form (and may include only stock photography). Similarly, fewer magazines and newspapers mean fewer print ads-and fewer opportunities again for illustration. Nevertheless, the profession endures, as does the need to effectively and creatively communicate ideas in the marketplace.

How does illustration differ from so-called fine art? Though the two worlds often overlap, for our purposes we can draw a line of distinction. While fine art usually exists as the sole expressive creation of an individual, perhaps with the hope of future sale, illustration is typically commissioned by others for commercial purposes. And therein lies the collaborative nature of the industry. An illustrator must be a good listener, problem solver, communicator, and artist. All of this is for the ultimate success of the client.


Illustration today can be found in magazines as complements to articles, in advertisements and associated materials like brochures and direct mail, on posters and billboards, and more. Here are the most encountered categories of illustration:

These are illustrations that accompany articles in magazines or newspapers. These assignments can be highly coveted because, despite lower pay, they usually offer much more creative freedom for the artist. These types of illustration also have the benefit of being seen, especially if the publication is of national distribution, and that’s a pretty handy way to promote yourself and your work. The art director at the publication typically assigns these editorial jobs.

This is a broad category encompassing ads in print, collateral materials, packaging, and any other media that helps sell a product. This category can be considered a “nuts and bolts” area for illustrators. Budgets are highest in advertising, but creative expression can often be the lowest, as the industry is understandably driven by marketing concerns. Advertising assignments are typically commissioned by an outside ad agency or a design firm. However, more than ever, cost-conscious companies are bringing many of these functions in house.

Children’s Books
This category of illustration is usually a career unto itself. A book illustrator may be hired specifically to create art for a book that has already been written (as in picture books) or may contribute to a textbook. With picture books, the author and illustrator usually share in royalties and advances. Educational books, on the other hand, are often “works-for-hire,” where the illustrator is paid for his or her work, but forfeits the copyright to the publishing house.

Basically, any type of illustration once seen in print can conceivably have a role on the Internet. The industry has been slow to embrace illustration as a valuable part of web design, but the atmosphere is changing as photo-based website solutions lose their appeal. Illustrators aiming their work for the digital market should ideally have a good command of digitally created art. As in the advertising category, this kind of assignment may be hired by an agency, design firm, or even by an individual looking to start a business.


Fifty years ago there was little variation in illustration style. Convention and predictability ruled the day. Within the individual styles of today’s illustrators, one can find the roots of virtually every major art movement. The mediums in use reflect this diversity as well-oil, watercolor, pencil, digital, and even three-dimensional constructions- there seem to be no limitations. So how does one choose a style? Why would an illustrator even need one?

A style, simply put, is a consistency of medium, composition, and attitude. It is the “look” of your art that (hopefully) separates it from all others and identifies you as a unique artist. Art directors like consistency of style because they (and their clients) want to be able to predict what they will be getting from you. A portfolio comprised of a hodge-podge of styles and mediums will not be memorable to the eyes of a designer looking for the right illustrator for the job.

The consistent development of style is perhaps the most challenging aspect of your career as an artist. And it is a very personal one. Study the history of art you like. Emulate your heroes. Incorporate stylistic elements from a variety of sources. Over time, your true artistic self will emerge as something new and unique to you.

Styles can also be traps. An illustration style popular for very young children’s books may be inappropriate for a package of wrenches. Similarly, an illustrator who specializes in caricatures of famous celebrities may never be hired to illustrate a rain forest. So, to some degree, your choice of style may depend on the market you are targeting. It is a rare illustrator indeed who has a style that crosses over a great variety of markets.

Can an illustrator have more than one style? It does happen, but most artists have enough trouble establishing themselves with one identifiable style, let alone two. Also, marketing becomes a concern if you are trying to reach a variety of different markets simultaneously. However, if your style just doesn’t seem to be taking off, it might be time to try something new.

As tempting as it might be to think of your life as an artist and all the devil-may-care eccentricities implied in that lifestyle, the reality is you are a professional, working with other professionals, and you will have expectations placed upon you. The road to success is paved with reliability.

The fact is, as a freelancing illustrator, you are in business for yourself. At the end of the day you will have only yourself to answer to. The illustration business is deadline-based. Repeat that to yourself ten more times. Procrastination and blown deadlines will not endear you to many of your clients.

Many an artist has flitted away his time while the clock ticks away, only to be forced into an “all-nighter” in order to meet a deadline. This pattern, repeated, will lead to a burned out life in short order. Budget your time. Know how long it will take you to complete the illustration in front of you. Build in time for approvals and know your limits before committing to a particularly rushed schedule.

The life of a freelancer can be very isolating. Though many artists find studio space they can share with others, this can be an unnecessary expense. The tax benefits of a home office are very attractive as is the efficiency of being able to roll out of bed and go to work in your jammies while others are driving 45 minutes to work in the rain. Nevertheless, social contact is an important element of any successful career, and you will have to work extra hard to include it in your life.

Finally, as a small-business owner, your fiscal responsibilities are your own. Keeping an accurate ledger of billing and invoices is mandatory. Know what is a deductible business expense and what isn’t. Your financial conduct should be every bit as disciplined as your daily artistic work habits. Your income depends on it.

So now that you’re thinking more like a CEO, and less like an artist, it’s time to think about promoting your business, and that usually costs money. You ultimately have to reach the people who will hire you, but how to do it cost-effectively?

At the very least, clients have to be able to find you, and thanks to the wonderful world of the Internet, it has never been easier. You’ll need a website. Thankfully, website design is no longer a specialty that you have to pay for. There are many good computer programs on the market that are easy to use to help you design your own. Don’t get too flashy and overdesigned-simpler is usually better. Your main goal, of course, is to showcase your portfolio so that clients will know what they are hiring you for. Don’t make them work too hard to get it.

There are now a multitude of “portfolio” sites on the Internet, which will showcase your work for you in a place, ostensibly, where potential clients will go when choosing illustrators. Some are certainly more effective than others, so do your homework and choose wisely if you go this route. Most cost money, but usually not a lot.

Only a few years back, “sourcebooks” were the place where art directors went when they were shopping for an illustrator. These giant, heavy tomes were expensive to buy space in, and many have largely gone digital as well, offering similar portfolio display sites online. Some still exist in print, but in much slimmer form.

Direct Mail

Direct mail is a time-tested way of targeting potential clients. It can be quite expensive to print, address, and stamp several thousand promo mailers and then get them in the hands of the right people. However, a few selective mailers printed from your very own color printer, sent to the art directors of a few selective magazines, for example, and you just might land the fish you were looking for.

Social Media
Social media, and all that it encompasses (blogs, Facebook, etc.) are great ways to let the world know about yourself and your work. How effective all this chatter can be in terms of actually landing jobs remains to be seen. However, the value of keeping up your name awareness in a highly competitive industry can’t be underemphasized.

Artist’s Representatives

Though their number has significantly dwindled in recent years, art reps still represent a significant percentage of successful illustrators. In exchange for the jobs they land for you, you’ll pay them anywhere from 20-30 percent of the gross billing. In theory, an art rep has connections you don’t have, or lives in a town that you don’t (like New York City). This can be all very beneficial if they in fact do get you work that you can’t get for yourself. One certain benefit of a good rep is their power to negotiate. Often artists have a hard time asking for the money they feel they deserve. Or perhaps the artist doesn’t even know what a particular job is worth. There can be thousands of dollars difference between a small spot in a magazine and a small logo used by a national soda company. A good rep will know what jobs are worth, and they won’t be shy about asking for it. Since competition is high for such representation, expect to have to audition via a portfolio review.

Though the industry has certainly seen brighter days, thankfully, the world still needs and appreciates art. The entrepreneurial illustrator is constantly seeking out new markets for his or her work. As long as the commercial world endeavors to sell products, there will remain a need for creative means of communication. And, fortunately, illustrators exist to solve those problems. Go to it!

Chris Gall created this cover illustration for the book Gypsy Davey by Chris Lynch.

Watch the video: Start a Consulting Business: 10 Insights to Help You Be Successful (November 2020).