Training in illustration

Owing to current deadlines, I regret that I am unable to answer your questions until further notice ~ Thank you


Q - What sort of qualifications did you get?


A - I went through the art school route. I took A-levels, then did an Art Foundation course for a year, where I explored a whole range of subjects – sculpture, photography, graphics, painting, printmaking etc. I then went on to do a Diploma in Graphic Design, where I concentrated on Illustration for three years.



Q - Did you enjoy it?


AI discovered my identity as an illustrator while I was on the course, but there wasn’t a strong enough framework for me. We had a lot of tutors fresh out of the Royal College of Art: they were all interesting individuals and good artists, but some of them didn’t have a clue about teaching and we used to see quite a lot of them in the pub! It was good fun socially, but I found it rather frustrating educationally and wanted more structure. Looking back, I don’t think we were well taught. We were given ‘briefs’ to work on and would then have group ‘crits’, where the tutors would basically give us quite a subjective reaction to our illustrations. I don’t think I learned a lot, but I did absorb an appetite for illustrating and had a lot of time to develop techniques. I used to find it hard to work in the Art School’s studios: very often someone would be chucking a frisbee around, so I used to work from home, where I could concentrate better.



Q - Do publishers want to know which qualifications you have when you go to see them with your portfolio?


A - I can honestly say that I have never been asked what sort of qualification I have before being commissioned for an illustration job. Publishers go on your folio and /or website, which need to demonstrate that you would be able to do a good job for them, so qualifications don’t have to be a prerequisite.



Q - I’ve just stumbled across your website and have been glued to my computer screen for the last hour, reading through all your advice and looking at your lovely drawings! I’m at a sticky point in time… as a child I used to draw and paint constantly and this carried on late into my teens. I was quite good at it, even from a young age. Unfortunately, I had a bit of a horrid art teacher and despite my best efforts, I became a bit demoralised and didn’t pursue my love of art and drawing past the A-level stage (instead opting for languages at Exeter Uni). These days, the only time I indulge back into my little artistic realm is when friends ask me for help with little “creative” tasks, such as wedding invites, the odd painting etc… I’ve been dubbed the “creative” one but this doesn’t translate into my professional life at all for now and I’ve been feeling the itch to get out there and get inspired! I’ve been having a good browse online for the last few months and have found that a lot of design institutes run qualifications online these days. These help you learn about illustration and build portfolios by setting tasks and deadlines, which go on to be assessed. These are recognised as sturdy qualifications but I’m wondering if they’re more tragic than fantastic and really worth the cost? In your experience, do you think the best way to get experience of materials, techniques and personal style is by dedicating time in an Art School or can this be achieved from the comfort of home with helpful suggestions read from a computer and some good old fashioned research and dedication?I’m currently working for a large, international publishing company in Oxford who specialise in scientific and medical titles and thought about shadowing some of the creative designers and perhaps pick up a few technical tips whilst I’m here.


I suppose my question is “is it ever too late to pursue a life in illustration?” and would the above be a good start to get me drawing and painting again? I have this feeling that once I start again, I won’t stop and I can see my parents rolling their eyes at me already! Thank you for taking the time to read my email.


A - Thanks for your e-mail query, I’m glad you like my illustrations and have found the FAQs interesting. In answer to your question, it sounds as though this is really important to you, certainly important enough to find out how far you want to take it – and you’ll never know if you don’t try! Is it ever too late – in my experience people who need illustrators commercially are looking for the right illustration style, together with a folio/ website with a professional body of work, so I don’t think the age of the illustrator is a decisive factor if the other elements are right. When I was working on a book with Frances Lincoln, they had Pauline Baynes illustrating a book for them at the time, who had illustrated the original Narnia covers back in the 1950s, she was very elderly by the time she worked with Frances Lincoln, so I guess there’s no age limit! As to how to go about getting some training – I don’t know anything about the online courses you mention, how much they cost, or how good they are – I think I’d be a bit cautious, as they might not give you much value for your money, so really check it out! I think an art school training would be preferable in every way if possible, because of the real human contact. You might be able to find a part-time course to do alongside your paid work if necessary. In the meantime you could always set yourself some projects with deadlines, you’ve obviously come up with things in the past for friends, like the wedding invites. If you are interested in children’s books, find a text to illustrate, breaking it down into enough spreads for a 32 page book (that includes all pages and is the standard picture book length), you could try some other kinds of texts too – poetry, book covers – then there’s product packaging. By doing things like that and going to evening classes in life drawing (or whatever you fancy) you can build up your folio, keeping all your rough drawings and sketch books, as well as the finished pieces. You’d then have a body of work to submit if you decided to apply to art school. It might be worth having a look at some of the end of year illustration shows in the major art schools. The course in Cambridge where I trained used to allow potential students to take a look around the studios mid term too, so you had a chance to chat with the students and find out about the course.


It would certainly be worth picking the brains of the designers you are working with while you are there – I’m sure everyone’s story will be different, but it’ll help give you a clearer picture.



Q - I hope you don’t mind me contacting you, I found your details after researching children’s book illustrators. I am trying to work out where to start to be a children’s book illustrator and I wondered if you could possibly offer any advice? I can draw but don’t have an official qualification, the nearest I have is a degree in interior design but I had to draw for that! I just draw as a hobby and paint for family and friends when they commission me at the moment, but I would love to try to turn a hobby into a more fulfilling enterprise. Any advice would be really appreciated.


A - The different FAQs headings cover my experience of what’s involved in being an illustrator. If you have another question which isn’t answered in the Q & As already, let me know and I’ll try my best to answer – if I can.



Q - Thank you for your reply, I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. I had been on your website but not seen the FAQ section. The only question I want ask in addition to the wealth of info in the FAQ section is; what is the first thing I should do to start off building a career in illustration, a course, build a portfolio or do lots of research? Please feel free to use my question/s on your website, if it wasn’t for helpful people like you we wouldn’t get anywhere! Thank you for that really useful advice, I’ve already started googling…..


A - It’s a big question. You could do all three of those that you list, but maybe in the opposite order: do lots of research, build a portfolio and find a course. I think the first thing probably is to ask yourself what you would really enjoy illustrating if you were an illustrator – would it be: children’s/ teen book jackets/ book jackets for adult novels/ packaging etc…… as they are all different markets? Research existing imagery for those markets. You could follow that up by giving yourself an experimental project – take a text, or product, depending on what you’d decided to focus on, get some rough ideas down in a sketch book, develop your roughs and possibly take them on to the next stage – finished images. If you start building that up as a body of work you’ll discover a lot about which aspects of it you enjoy – try applying yourself to developing images for different markets. If you find you want to take it further, you’ll then have something in your portfolio to approach a college with.



Q - I have always wanted to be a Designer/Illustrator and always been very good at it. However I recently got rejected from all of the Universities that I applied for this year. What would be your advice on what I should do now? Is there any other way of being successful in the industry without a degree? Or is very important for me to keep trying to get onto a good Illustration degree course?


A - Thank you for your enquiry. I am an illustrator, not a designer so I can’t speak about the design industry. In my experience, people within the publishing industry who commission illustration will be looking for a strong and relevant portfolio of work as a basis to commission illustration, so whether you have a degree or not would probably not be their first concern. However having said that, getting training would be a good way of building a portfolio if you can get onto a course at some point, but it is not the only way of breaking into the industry – if your work is strong and relevant enough.



Q - I been drawing all my life since before 1st grade and im 24 now and still drawing. I been in art contest through my school time up to high school. I recently just been accepted to an art instructions school with a $457 dollar scholarship its not much but i won a art contest to get it and I have heard that I can get paid just like anyone else doing illustration for children’s books and I wanted to know if you could help me out with this.


A - Thank you for your email and congratulations on your scholarship and acceptance into the art instructions school! I’m not sure what it is you wanted to know exactly, but there is a lot of help for people starting out in illustration in the other pages of these FAQs if you have a read through the different sections it might help you answer some of your questions.


It is possible to make a career and a living out of being a children’s book illustrator, that’s what I and many others do. It’s hard work, but as you obviously love drawing you might enjoy doing it as a career. My best advice would be to see whether you can specialise in illustration at college, then you’ll learn more about what being a children’s book illustrator involves.




Q - Hi i ran across your site, and found it to be so helpful. I just had a few quick question as I know you have lots to answer to probably.


I am currently attending college to get my Associates in Graphic Design and then my next 2 years will allow me to move on and get my Bachelors in Animation. So because the way the college program is setup I can have two degrees. My question is what degree would I need to be an Illustrator? Are these okay?


Second question is: If I choose to be a freelance Illustrator would it be wise to still be a waitress on the side? Or should i move where Illustrator jobs are high at (like how California and Texas are known to have lots of animation jobs for example).


A - Sounds like an interesting career in the making.


Your first question:

In my experience over many years, no one has asked me (except in passing) what my qualifications are, they have always been more interested in whether my work is of a high standard, appropriate for the particular commission and whether I am professionally competent. I believe that studying the two fields you mention would certainly not hinder your future career as an illustrator. You should be able to apply the skills you’d learn – particularly in animation – to illustration commissions and the graphic design qualification would give you a great appreciation of the challenges and constraints any designers you may work with as an illustrator may have. You could also possibly get work as a designer / animator while building up your portfolio as an illustrator.


Your second question:

It’s probably very wise to have another source of income while building up a career in illustration, as income can be patchy as you establish yourself, so waitress, graphic designer, animator – get whatever you can, the more relevant (and better paid) the better. Most illustrators work freelance, often from home – somewhere in the world (for example I work from my studio at my home in Cambridge UK, but do a lot of work for clients in the US), so it shouldn’t really matter where you are geographically, as long as you have a computer and good access to the internet to be able to communicate with your clients. I have never been an animator myself, but from what I know of that industry, you would probably be more likely to work as part of a team, for a company, in which case moving to an area where there are animation studios would be very important/ essential.


I would also pick the brains of your tutors for advice – always good to have more than one opinion.




Q - I was wondering would it be wise to go to an art school for illustration to become an Graphic novel editor? I do love art and am currently in a art school . I would like to pursue a career pertaining to art, so can a illustrator get a job as a editor for graphic novels or are there other requirements?



A - Not sure whether you are saying you want to be an illustrator or an editor of graphic novels – an illustrator is something that it would be wise to prepare for at art school, but an editor is a different job. Are you thinking of being an illustrator, an art editor, art director, editor (of text)? It would be good if you could clarify the job you want to end up doing, then look further into what that would involve. I haven’t been involved with graphic novels, so you may need to ask elsewhere I’m afraid.




Q - I am currently doing an Art Foundation at the college near me and I’m very interested in going into the career prospect of Illustration. The problem is though, we have to decide what to do after our course and I can’t decide between going to University to study Illustration or to get a job in the Illustrative Industry. I’ve researched Universities and picked my top 5 but I’m struggling with finding an appropriate job/apprenticeship (I may be looking in the wrong places).


I’ve asked around but I keep receiving conflicting advice, people saying university is the best option and then others turning round telling me getting a job is better and quite frankly it confuses me and sends me round in circles. Plus my tutors/careers advisers basically say that the decision is down to me (which is understandable)


I was just curious on your opinion of university, do you think it helped you gain that extra experience for your work you do today? I wouldn’t mind working as a free-lancer, but would University help me improve the skills necessary to attract the attention of the commissioners and public? I guess my biggest concern about university is the debt issue.


I understand that this should be my own personal opinion and I’m rude for nagging you like this, but I was just hoping that the advice of someone who obviously is aware of what they’ve done and what they’re doing could push me to make a decision.



A - Thanks for your question. Most illustrators work freelance, so there don’t tend to be many existing positions to apply for,  you have to create your own business. I would suggest that training is a good route to go as a next step. I didn’t go to university incidentally, I went to a college and took a diploma, then started freelancing. You might like to take a look at my FAQ pages to find out a bit more about how the industry works. In particular have a look at this page Training in Illustration first, as you might find your question answered here. Read through Getting Work Experience too, then if you still have a question, come back to me and I’ll try to answer if I can.