Who is an Illustrator and what do they do?

You’ve heard the title Illustrator, but is it just a fancy name for a Painter? Don’t they just paint stuff? Well, not just.

Who is an illustrator? An illustrator is an artist that works with a client to create two-dimensional images that showcase a concept, summarizes an idea, or compliments a body of text with the aim of solving a communication problem. The illustration is a visual representation of an idea, opinion, concept, or replacement for text whose purpose is often to draw an emotion from the audience and leave a lasting impression.

What do they do?

Illustrators work with clients to bring their ideas to life by creating artworks that solve their communication needs. You’ll find illustrators in the publishing, fashion, advertising, manufacturing, and entertainment industries.

There are many types of illustrators. The most common specializations are;

  • Editorial illustrator
  • Product illustrator
  • Children’s book illustrator
  • Storyboard illustrator
  • Architectural illustrator
  • Medical illustrator

An illustrator will choose a field to specialize in depending on their skills, style of drawing, and interest. Most illustrators work as freelancers, getting commissions from clients, and working on their briefs. They create either digital or traditional illustrations. Digital illustrations are created through the use of computer software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, often using a stylus and graphic tablet. Traditional illustration on the other hand refers to artworks created on old media like paper and canvas using paint, pencil, charcoal, etc.

Think Picasso, if he had a client’s needs to fulfill not just his own self-expression and wandering mind to cater to.  Let’s dive into the different types of illustrators, shall we?

Editorial illustrator

An editorial illustrator creates artwork for magazines, newspapers, and journals that accompany and complement the written articles. Editorial illustrations were the only types of images published before photography, and still remain popular to this day even when everyone has a camera in their pocket. Why? Illustrations serve a different purpose from photographs.

Illustrations can be custom made for a specific idea and to fit the context. For instance, the Daily Nation needs an image showing rampant corruption in the Health Ministry. A photographer will have to work with what they find in the field like a protest at the ministry offices, whereas an illustrator could just draw the minister rolling in cash like a pig in the mud. That will draw more attention, stir up some controversy, and leave a lasting impression in the audience’s minds. And photography also excels in its realism and techniques. But the two exist not as rivals but equally respected visual tools In the industry.

editorial cartoon illustration on newspaper
editorial cartoon illustration on newspaper

The editorial illustrator often works with the art director and editor to come up with fitting illustrations for the publication in line with the mood of the narrative and brand image. Cartoonists are a staple in almost every newspaper and differ from other editorial illustrators as they bring more humor, satire through caricatures and exaggerated concepts. There are many editorial opportunities for illustrators who show an ability to conceptualize ideas and have a creative established and adaptable style. And meet deadlines. There are also opportunities in exposure and networking through illustration competitions.

Fashion illustrator

Fashion illustrators create drawings and paintings of attire and accessories to serve as concepts before the fashion designer gets their sewing kit out. These sketches save the designer some time and material so they could iron out the form and details and solve problems while it’s still on paper. Will it look good in green or plain white? Draw it up. The illustration also helps the fashion designer have a visual reference as they work on the garment or accessory so they don’t deviate too far from the planned design. Fashion illustrations could also be created blogs, magazines, sales and promotions.

fashion illustrator drawing
fashion illustrator drawing

The illustrations are visually appealing, accurate in form and quite colourful. They are especially impressive in coloured pencil or watercolours but can still be beautifully done in digital media. 3D animators are also getting in the game as a digital runway in early 2020, an innovation to overcome the constraints on public exhibitions brought by the pandemic by Congolese fashion designer Anifa Mvuemba, went viral online and set quite a high bar.

Some fashion houses have full-time in-house illustrators while most contract work from freelancers. And with an increasing number of people ditching the 9 to 5 to start their own clothing lines, opportunities are growing for the fashion illustrator.

Product illustrator

A product illustrator works with a client to create a concept drawing or painting to showcase what the final product could look like. It could be a new invention E.g behold the incredible folding cup that fits into your pocket! A product illustrator could also work with a brand or agency to create artwork that will go into a product’s packaging like the inked rolling hills with vineyards you see on every wine bottle. Those in advertising will create artwork for brochures, posters, books, and cd covers, etc.

app background illustration
app background illustration

Product illustrators also work on digital products like websites and apps. These differ from editorial illustrations by educating the user on a function of the platform or illustrating a process like a how-to guide. Product illustrations create a human experience and make the platform or application less daunting and robotic. If you own a smartphone, you’ve had apps get updates then take you through a tour of their new features, often with illustrations. That could have easily been a 1500 word text, and it would be cheaper but they know you’re not gonna read that. Maybe they should try adding illustrations to the terms and conditions. Then again you might understand how much personal info the app is getting from you and not use the service. Product illustrations are really effective that way.

Children’s book illustrator

Possibly the most well-known group of illustrators and the reason kids tolerate the alphabet and don’t throw a tantrum every time they see that long string of text in eye-scorching comic sans. Children’s book illustrators, as you probably already know create drawings and paintings that accompany children’s stories. They’re often whimsical, cartoon-like, and very colorful. They often take up more real-estate on the book than the text itself. It’s not just drawing loud colorful pictures, they have to have a fair understanding of the psychology of kids and the different ways they learn. The illustrator has to keep these kids engaged (if you’ve dealt with kids you know their wafer-thin attention spans), create an emotional mood with each scene, and visually separate the nice princess from the evil sister princess. And not too evil so they don’t cry and tear the book to bits before they get to the part where the bad sister joins the good side after kissing the frog and finding her slipper. Is that how it goes, I can’t remember.

children's book illustration
children’s book illustration

Generally illustrators who do story books, comics and graphic novels have to have their style down to a tee as they have to produce a consistent series of images and characters that look like they exist in the same world from the first page to the last. It takes a great deal of work, but it’s definitely a career that’s fulfilling, and many illustrators in this field go on to publish their own books. Cause why not?

Storyboard illustrator

A storyboard illustrator works in animation, video games, tv commercials, and film projects as an artist that draws out the scenes in chronological order, showing visual perspective, focus, and the characters and the poses they’re in. These drawing are made in the early stages of the film’s production, usually, after the script is written. They work with the art director, producer, or advertiser to bring their rough ideas to life as sketches that guide the location scouting, the stage design, and the visual development of the film. The storyboard artist in animation is often the writer as well.

Storyboard illustration
Storyboard illustration

They probably have to do more changes to their work than any other illustrator due to the multitude of voices and opinions involved in the production of the film. The work will also span many weeks. I think it’s probably extremely satisfactory to see storyboards come to life in the film just as planned. Check out the storyboarding for the movie Mad Max: Fury Road on youtube and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Medical illustrator

Medical illustrators do detailed drawings of the human body and other animals, showing cross-sections of body parts in detail. The colors are often brilliant to distinguish parts in ways that would be difficult if you were viewing a real autopsy. Who wants to see a hanging corpse in the doctor’s office on a routine checkup anyway. Am I right? So next time you see a medical illustration of a reproductive organ, zoom in and check if the illustrator is credited, find them on Instagram or the yellow-pages, and thank them for saving you from seeing real-life photos of crabs.

And this list could go on and on. There’s technical illustrators, food illustrators, botanical illustrators, and so many other specializations. Probably a new one popped up while you were reading this.

A freelance illustrator doesn’t just draw and send a pic, they have to be full entrepreneuers. They are in essence running a personal business and have to do everything that comes with it like;

  • Marketing themselves to get work.
  • Sourcing for materials, paying hefty software subscriptions, and buying and maintaining expensive equipment.
  • Negotiating terms like pay and deadlines.
  • Running customer care and dealing with unsatisfied clients
  • And still finding at least 8 hours a day to draw and keep a smile while doing it, cause sad artist, sad drawing.

Illustration can be a great and fulfilling career, one that contributes immensely to society, keeping brands in touch with their audiences, simplifying complex concepts, giving kids a smile, and educating the masses. If you want to be an illustrator I wish you good luck and a happy successful career. Get drawing.