Believe it or not, the secret to becoming a great illustrator goes far beyond your drawing skills. There’s a lot more to consider when it comes to the illustration process, and even the most seasoned freelance illustration professionals must actively refine and develop their craft.
Whether you're new to illustration or want to build your freelance illustration career, you might be wondering how to improve your skills besides consistent practice. Today, five freelance illustrators share their tried and true habits for producing high-quality illustrations and ensuring a smooth, efficient creative process.
1. Always think about the underlying message
At a very basic level, illustration is communication—conveying something. I’ve always said that illustration is like art with a job—it has to have a purpose. It can’t just exist out of nothing, otherwise, I think you’re in fine art territory. When I sit down to do an illustration, that’s always my goal—how can I best communicate whatever it is I’m trying to get across? With that as the structure, it sets up exactly what you have to do, and that’s a lot of the legwork right there. The rest of it is just fulfilling the order.
"Illustration is like art with a job—it has to have a purpose. It can’t just exist out of nothing."
Art by Jerrod Maruyama
2. Break down your process into small steps
When I started out as an illustrator, I was lost. The thought of creating something without a roadmap overwhelmed me, and I would often illustrate elements that didn’t mesh well together. My work was lacking, and what I was creating really didn’t scratch the creative itch I had. It’s ok to be a little overwhelmed when starting an illustration project. What I’ve learned is that if you break down your illustration process into simple steps, it makes the process much more digestible.
Art by Tatiana O'Toole (Bischak)
3. Never stop experimenting
I’ve always felt that being an illustrator with a very unique illustration style isn’t the apex of the discipline at all. Instead, I feel that the comfort, freedom, and skill associated with being able to change, update, and constantly evolve your approach to any project is far more valuable. I guess the trick is dedicating time to practice and to experiment with different styles and approaches as often as possible in order to reach a high level of comfort with a handful of aesthetics.
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4. Keep a running list of ideas
With any illustration work, I start out using what I call my idea incubator: Whenever I see something fresh and inspirational in my daily life that I want to remember, I write the word down and keep the list of words safe with me as inventory for ideas. I’ll usually pick words out from this list and combine several ideas when I first start an illustration.
Art by montsouris
5. Embrace imperfection
One of the hardest things for me to learn has been to trust in my intuition. I can spend hours arranging and rearranging layouts, obsessively and fruitlessly trying to achieve the perfect visual solution. I’ve learned how to let go of trying to draw in an exact certain way and embrace the kind of drawing that just naturally comes out. In fact, over time, I’ve learned how to lean into it and even throttle it up on demand.
Knowing that the only other option is wasting half a day getting lost in the weeds, I have to trust that what I made in my first few sketches is probably going to be better (and certainly not worse) than anything else I do in excess
Art by Tom Froese
Practice these habits to build your freelance illustration career
We hope these tips help you on your journey to becoming a freelance illustration professional! Remember, it’s a learning process—keep at it, stay consistent practicing these habits, and you’ll soon start to see steady improvements in your illustration work. You've got this.
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