How Do You Become an Illustrator?

By Alina Bradford

Kida from Disney’s Atlantis by Erik Vonlehmann.

When many people think of illustration they think of drawings. Who can forget watching Disney illustrators drawing samples of Mickey Mouse during Sunday night’s The Wonderful World of Disney? But, many illustrations in books and in cartoons are actually paintings that can be just as detailed as fine works of art. 

If you aspire to be an illustrator, you may want to put down that pencil or Wacom pad and practice making painted illustrations. 

Where to Start 

The best place to start growing your skill as an illustrator is the children’s section at the library. More than half the books you will pick up will be illustrated with paintings. 

Try to figure out what kind of paint was used in the illustrations. You may be surprised at the variety of mediums you find. The bulk of children’s book illustrators use watercolors as their medium of choice. This seems obvious because of the medium’s tendency to be soft and pastel. Other, bolder picture books may be illustrated with oil or acrylic, maybe even caulk pastel. 

While thumbing through the pages, take note of the strokes that are used. Ask yourself what makes the illustrations in one book different from another. Do you find that some books have a style you would like to mimic or make your own? 

More Research 

Now, go to the adult side of the library and research books about famous illustrators and illustrations. Try to find insight into the illustrator’s process and reasoning. There is no better way to learn about painting illustrations than learning more about their creators…and practice, of course. 

The Next Step 

Next, give yourself an assignment. Think up a story and illustrate it. If you can’t come up with a story, pick a page out of a book or magazine, read it, then make up an illustration for it. 

Decide what medium you want to use, and then sketch out your first scene. This sketch can be as loose or as tight as you want. Remember those pictures in the children’s books? Not all of them incorporated photographic realism. Many are very impressionistic in feel. Go with what moves you and what goes best with the story. 

Part of being a great illustrator is knowing what kind of style goes with a story. This takes lots of practice, so you will need to do this assignment over and over before you are ready to start taking assignments from clients.

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