Dreams of Drawing: How to Become an Illustrator in 2014

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Living the illustrator life is harder than it seems. Professors, agents and professionals weigh in on the path to artistic achievement.

For any kid who went through a Crayola phase or doodled her way through high school, illustration seems like an ideal line of work. As with any dream career, however, the perks often overshadow the challenges. For every artist with a full list of client projects, there are quite a few more struggling to turn breakout Behance popularity into mainstream recognition. The industry is saturated, the competition is fierce, and the internet—the proverbial blessing and curse—has turned everyone (or is it no one?) into illustration superstars with hoards of followers.

That’s not to say prospective illustrators should give up their goal of becoming the next Chris Ware. It does mean, though, that to make it in an industry crawling with passionate creatives, you need to be smart about your professional path. This begs more than a few questions: Should you go to school for illustration? Do you need an agent? Can you make a decent living as an illustrator? How do you stand out from the crowd?

To answer these common inquiries, Print went straight to the source, asking design school professors, illustration agency representatives and illustrators ranging in experience from industry newbies to seasoned pros to share their thoughts. Their feedback provides insights for students and budding illustrators, but it also offers tidbits for creatives at any stage of the career life cycle. Here are 13 perspectives on how to successfully live the drawing life.


It’s something everyone contemplates: Do I need to continue my education in order to land the career I want? The academic trajectory of some professions is more obvious than with others. Good luck getting that brain surgeon gig without going to med school—but if you want to star in the next blockbuster megahit, paying tuition is unlikely to increase your chances. The decision to attend art school or participate in an illustration program falls into the “less intuitive” category.

By the numbers, most illustrators who make it have some sort of professional training. Chrystal Falcioni, founder and director of illustration agency Magnet Reps, says that with respect to artists she represents, there’s a 3-to-1 ratio in favor of completing illustration programs. Of the people who didn’t attend, all but one illustrator participated in an art program of some kind. “This says quite a bit about art school and a significant amount about illustration programs, but it also leaves the possibility that someone could still do it without going to school,” Falcioni says. “Pick a program that will teach you illustration and what to expect—one that will prepare you to work and operate as a professional illustrator.”

James Gulliver Hancock

James Gulliver Hancock, aka “The Building Guy,” has a serious addiction to drawing. According to his website, “he feels sick when he’s not drawing” and “panics that he may not be able to draw everything in the world … at least once.”

While most illustrators and industry experts agree it’s possible to make it without higher education, the overwhelming majority say their art school experiences were invaluable in terms of work ethic, perspective and consistency. “I think I’m a much more capable thinker and doer because of my university education,” says illustrator James Gulliver Hancock, who many recognize as “the building guy” for his illustrative book All the Buildings in New York. “I know people who are incredible creatives with no training, but for me, it was an integral part of growing as a creative. I think you really need a combination of formal education, professional practice in some sort of studio and then a shared personal studio environment experience to learn everything you need to run your own business.”

Nathan Fox, a School of Visual Arts professor and chair of the MFA Visual Narrative department that combines creative writing with art and expression, says he uses his class as an opportunity to prepare students for the realities of this career path by bringing in professional illustrators. “Educating the students about the illustration business and freelance is very important,” says Fox, who has illustrated comics such as Harley Quinn #31, Batman Black and White: Sidekick–Gotham Knights #45 and Dark Reign: Zodiac #1. “That’s a huge part of this program—the business of pounding of the pavement and what this really means. A bit more of that focus should be placed on taxes and copywriting and debt and survival and how to deal with self-promotion. This job isn’t for everyone. It can be easy for one person and not for another. That’s why it’s paramount to bring artists into the classroom.” After all, illustration is rooted in real-world experience, and education shouldn’t be limited to the classroom.

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