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What does an illustrator do?

Updated: Jan 1

...what exactly?

‘What does an Illustrator do?’ I am frequently asked this question when I tell people my profession. The short answer is ‘an artist who creates visual images to accompany words or a concept’. I usually work to a brief. However, the kinds of jobs that involve illustration are extremely varied. There are countless niche areas and outlined below are just some of the different types. I have also included a small glossary of frequently used terms.


Career choice

I previously taught Art to secondary school students, and I’ve written this post as much for those young people who want to know how to turn their passion into a career choice, as for anyone else who wants to know what an Illustrator does. These jobs are very real options, available to those who have good drawing skills, and an eye for detail.


Kinds of jobs you get to do as an illustrator:

o Book illustration (visual imagery drawn or painted, to accompany a book’s written content)

o Children’s Book Illustration (descriptive drawings which tell the book’s story; character illustration is an important part of this)

o Advertising illustration (to sell a product)

o Illustration for animation (images which can be brought to life through animated techniques)

o Editorial illustration (imagery to accompany text in magazines/ reportage, leaflets, signs, brochures, etc)

o Fashion illustration (visualisations of a garment)

o Graphic novel illustration (stylised storytelling) Examples of one artist's style can be found on Dave McKean's official website https://www.davemckean.com/


o Maps and diagram illustration

o Surface Pattern Design (motif illustration, to use in repeat patterns, intended to cover surfaces, such as fabric, paper products, homeware etc)

oGreetings illustration (artwork is designed to use on cards, invitations, wrapping papers and other appropriate paper stationery)




o Technical Illustrator (technical drawings of how things work, or are put together, drawn often as a detailed diagram or 3D visualisation. As these are more precise and accurate illustrations, computer programmes are usually involved, such as Adobe standard programmes (e.g. Photoshop or Illustrator) or AutoCAD.)

o Creator of Art prints (artworks to decorate your home; sometimes bespoke artworks made via personal commissions)


How are illustrations made?

Most illustrations begin as roughs, which are sketched-out ideas. An illustrator will play with layout and initial ideas, shapes and arrangements. If you are working to a brief, (the task asked of you) then you will be trying to achieve the best solution for your client through your drawing or visual representation. Reference material is often sourced, either from photos or initial sketches from real life.


The finished artwork is then worked up using the artist’s chosen materials. This could be in a traditional medium (physical pencils, paints, pastels, collage etc), or using digital techniques on the computer (drawing and painting programmes with vector graphics or raster formats). These create digitally editable artworks. For my own illustrations I use a combination of both, with a mixed-media approach to designs. I scan the hand-drawn work into the computer and re-arrange it on screen, altering layer opacities in Adobe Photoshop and playing with colours and composition. Adobe Illustrator is also very useful, for turning line drawings into digital lines (or ‘vectors’), and for easy to fill shapes using precise colours. Finally, a print-proof can be obtained to check your artwork will appear as you expect.


I believe that illustrations work best when they add aesthetic value to a narrative, as well as being informative. I hope that I have introduced my specialism to some new and talented potential illustrators, who wish to come into the profession and bring it alive with their imagination and creativity. There is room for us all! For a look at the range of work I do please visit https://www.whitebryonydesigns


Glossary of terms Illustrators might use:

· Layout -arrangement of objects in an image

· Roughs -first ideas, roughly sketched out

· Sketches -initial drawings, not necessarily neat. Usually showing a work in progress.

· Finished artwork -final stage, ready to send to a printer or the client

· Proof print -a printed version we’d use to check things are correct

· Reference -research of helpful imagery to work from

· Scanning in -importing imagery electronically to the computer to use in artwork

· Aesthetic -something visually appealing

· Visualisation -an image to help you understand how something can look (for example a visualisation of a new garden being landscaped, a new building yet to be built, or an illustration of a Roman fort, how it would have looked)

· Mixed media -a mixture of materials, surfaces, textures

· Collage -overlapping layers of selected materials, or cut and re-arranged selected imagery

· Motif -a decorative design which can be repeated to form a pattern

· Vignette -a small illustration or portrait, which fades into the background, without a definite border.

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